I raised three sons as a single mom on welfare when they were very young, and then again when they were teens. When my three children were one, three, and four years old, I realized that I had to divorce my husband due to his lies and aggression. Following in my mother’s foot- steps, I was committed to staying home with my children to provide them full-time love and security despite economic hardship. A close friend, a mother with two children, had discovered welfare when her husband left his job and moved out of state, telling his co-workers that he was tired of paying child support. From this friend, Carol, I learned that welfare workers would “treat me like crap” so I should take notes in front of them, and call or send letters to caseworker’s bosses with a copy to the CEOs and politicians they report to. This system protected me from most illegal cuts or terminations of my monthly check—as well as emotional desperation.
Several years later, this system became the foundation of the Welfare Warriors’ MOMS Line called “Three Step Plan of Self-Defense” in which we teach parents to (1) call the boss daily, (2) call the politician over the boss, and (3) request a hearing with a one-sentence letter sent to the state with a copy sent to the boss. While I realize that caseworkers are workers, their routine track record of bias against victims of poverty makes it essential that we create systems to protect ourselves.
My friend Carol also taught me that welfare is simply a child support check from Big Brother instead of a deadbeat dad, money all single moms are entitled to. Eventually, she and I started a welfare rights group in Milwaukee among professionals working in anti-poverty jobs. We also started up a state anti-poverty group in NOW (National Organization for Women). The main goals of both groups were to increase welfare checks, force workers to follow state laws, and win respect in the com- munity for welfare moms. When I joined with other Milwaukee moms to start up Welfare Warriors, we moms had very different goals:
- create media to educate the community about the truth of the lives of single moms on welfare to win respect and dignity for welfare moms,
- fight for the right to government money to enable us to stay home to raise our own children or attend college, and
- fight for the right to supplement our low-paid income with welfare cash support.
During the “golden days” of welfare, I was able to attend college, and took my two youngest children to school with me when the state denied us child care. Carol and I both pursued college degrees when our kids were school age so we could support them alone. (Now federal welfare law—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—[TANF] prohibits moms from attending college. It is not considered a “work” activity.) I was able to earn a bachelor’s degree, and found work at a legal aid clinic for six years. This later ended due to my need to stay home once again with my children, this time to keep them safe from the streets. I had also filed a sex discrimination complaint against the legal aid office. Both Carol’s job and mine, in anti- poverty agencies, still kept us living below the poverty level.
My children were teenagers and running wild in the streets when I left my job to dedicate myself to protecting and controlling them. Welfare at that time required mothers with children over six years of age to complete daily “job search” classes. The Reagan administration had just destroyed all work incentives: the $30 plus one third of our work income was no longer allowed to remain clear of the deductions to the welfare check resulting from earned income. Instead, all but $90 of earned income reduced the welfare check. Reagan also destroyed marriage incentives, now requiring a new husband to support a former husband’s children. In the job search class, I would sneak to the blackboard and use it as an opportunity to teach moms why part-time and/or low-paid employment was a waste of time since all income earned reduced the welfare check dollar for dollar, leaving mothers with a welfare income despite being employed. At those “classes,” I met one mother with two children who would become an important writer and member of Welfare Warriors.
Dozens of women, both black and white, called me, excited with the prospect of telling the truth about our families . . .
After about three years, the horrible battle with my kids was somewhat under control. I looked for work but was unable to find work as an activist. So I went to Mexico City for a Woman-to-Woman conference in 1985. No one was doing political organizing in Milwaukee at the time, but dozens of women’s groups were organizing in Mexico! I was really inspired by a group of activist homemakers I met in Cuernavaca. They called themselves “The Marias”, and wrote a newspaper called Maria, Liberation of the People, and held workshops for mothers. Returning home, I realized we had no poor mothers’ publication in our state or nationally. I decided to post six index cards around Milwaukee where moms in poverty gathered. Those cards asked mothers to join together to create “a newspaper by, for, and about AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) moms and our kids.” Dozens of women, both black and white, called me, excited with the prospect of telling the truth about our families, and putting an end to the welfare stigma. Most were stay-at-home moms. Others were part-time workers or students.
In early 1986, we began meeting monthly in our homes. It took six months to agree on two names: Welfare Warriors for the group and Welfare Mothers Voice for our quarterly newspaper. Although we came together as journalists, five months later, when two politicians running for governor promised to reduce or terminate our children’s welfare support, we decided to take to the streets, the courts, the legislatures, and the media. We became an activist group as well as publishing a newspaper. By 1990, we added one more activity to our mission: our MaGoD (Mothers and Grandmothers of the Disappeared Children) project, which advocates for family reunification and systemic changes in the Child Protective Services system.
Battling the Welfare Stigma
Two convictions that united Welfare Warriors were a belief in the right to be paid for mother- work, and an understanding of the need for children to receive one-on-one care in their early years, and when sick or troubled. However, our group faced a lot of stigma. Even one member argued that we should never speak publicly about a mother’s right to do full-time motherwork, a word our group invented to get across the message that motherwork is work. She was an ex-military woman, and stayed at home providing full-time care for her eight- year-old son with Down syndrome, and her young teenager. She argued that black women had always worked out of the home, and never had the white privilege of staying home with their own children. Our photographer, a black mother of six children, said that that is exactly why black women are demanding it right now. A biracial mom of four stated that she thanks God every day for welfare because her ex-husband left her striped with belt welts, peeing on herself too many nights to count. Her only escape was her welfare check, and her traumatized children needed her at home.
Some moms believed that all we needed to do was educate people about the truth of single moms’ lives to win dignity, and higher grants for our families. If people just understood, they would agree to our right to receive welfare cash to supplement work and school income, or stay home to raise our children. However, all the women immediately embraced the concept that government child support was a right, not charity. Those who expected quick success left within a year or two after realizing the complexity of the war on the poor.
A biracial mom of four stated that she thanks God every day for welfare because her ex-husband left her striped with belt welts . . .
As part of our effort to respond to the demonization of welfare mothers, an African- American mom joined us and suggested we picket the Oprah Winfrey Show after Oprah had publicly expressed her contempt for women who received welfare. On her show, she told a woman in her audience, “But you sit there with your feet up collecting that welfare check.” Rather than picket, we got on the show, which proved to be a serious mistake. The producer invited us to talk about welfare “reform.” Oprah violated her agreement to speak about the problems of welfare reform, and used the hour to ravage our spokesperson, while working up her audience to attack her for staying at home with her children. Unbeknownst to us, Oprah promoted our appearance for twenty-four hours across the United States with this advertisement: “They call themselves Welfare Warriors and they refuse to work! See Oprah at 4.” Her producers had received our mission in writing: the right to work, go to school, and stay at home (with welfare support), but they did what television does so well, they misrepresented our group. We were perhaps naïve because our spokesperson had appeared on the Phil Donahue show. He asked her fair questions, and kindly stated, “Oh. You consider welfare child support? I never thought of welfare that way.” He even allowed her to hold up our publication.
On a radio show, one man politely told me, . . . “Welfare destroys families because it allows women to get money to leave the fathers of their children when they hit them or cheat on them.”
In contrast to Phil Donahue’s fair-minded approach, our group was often met with hostility from men. On a radio show, one man politely told me why men of all racial backgrounds oppose welfare. “Welfare destroys families because it allows women to get money to leave the fathers of their children when they hit them or cheat on them. Families need to stay together, work out their problems.”
Welfare Policy in the United States versus Other Countries
It was just this sort of contempt for mothers on welfare that, in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration, along with Newt Gingrich and his ilk, were tapping into in their effort to win elections. They declared that women on welfare should only receive “pay for performance.” Mandatory work for no pay became federal policy under the new TANF. This meant children entered subsidized childcare rather than being cared for by a parent. And moms have to do thirty hours of “work activities” (no college allowed) each week: job search and unpaid workfare for any company that wants a free worker. The moms call it the “New Millennium Slavery.” In Milwaukee, prior to TANF becoming federal law under Clinton, mothers were already required to do unpaid work for public agencies like Head Start and the Army Base, as well as private companies, to receive a subpoverty welfare check. After Clinton’s welfare reform passed, we organized a protest meeting at the Head Start program. The CEO informed us that Milwaukee’s Head Start was using ninety-six moms on welfare, each working twenty hours a week for no pay. What incentive did Head Start have to hire anyone?
Mandatory work for no pay became federal policy under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families . . .The moms call it the “New Millennium Slavery.”
Learning about the conditions of welfare moms in other countries motivated us to add to our mission. Working with mothers in Canada as well as the United Kingdom, we learned that all children on both of these continents receive an automatic monthly government check from birth until adulthood (not welfare). (The countries also have good welfare systems.) That knowledge led to a change in our economic mission: We began to advocate for a government economic system that offers support for motherwork similar to the U.S. widow’s pension, and to the European children’s pensions.
In 2008, we partnered with Single Mothers’ Forum in Tokyo, led by a single mother who organized a welfare moms group, and wrote for a feminist publication. The founder, along with a PhD student studying welfare in the United States, came to Milwaukee to learn about the new repressive federal welfare system, TANF. The group wanted to learn how to stop Japan from imposing lifetime time limits on welfare moms and unpaid workfare, as is done in the United States. Ultimately, they were successful in ending time limits and increasing financial support for welfare moms in Japan. Motherwork was not as degraded in Japan as it is in the United States. Even poor mothers were allowed to spend some years at home with their children. We also joined with an Arab welfare group in Nazareth for joint protests. They eventually were victorious in terminating the “Wisconsin Plan” in Israel, modeled exactly after the U.S. TANF welfare.
In 1999, Irish activist Margaretta D’Arcy in Galway began to call for an acknowledgment of women’s unwaged work. She said “Let’s start the new millennium by striking and demanding pay for the unwaged women’s work, which has been ignored in all past millenniums.” Welfare Warriors helped spread the word in the United States. The group Wages for Housework/Every Mother’s a Working Mother in Los Angeles and Philadelphia helped spread the word across the world to their partners in London, India, South America, and Africa.
We Need All the Support We Can Get
Moving forward, we urge labor movement members to consider tithing time to support the welfare rights movement and Americans’ right to cash welfare support for our families. Cash welfare is essential for many mothers and children’s survival and for justice in the workforce. Millions of forced unwaged workers will always cheapen the labor force. The bottom line is that motherworkers need money, a dirty word in the United States.
In 2008, we partnered with Single Mothers’ Forum in Tokyo, . . . who . . . came to Milwaukee to learn about the new repressive federal welfare system,TANF.
In Milwaukee, the Catholic Workers’ movement lent us a building to house single moms who have unjustly lost their children to Child Welfare. And their members tithe time to help the moms by doing court watch and lawyer management. These combined efforts help protect mothers and children. The state separates children from their homes and families because of a mother’s mental illness, low IQ, having been battered, and being homeless. Low-waged part-time work also makes them a target. All the stereotypes about poor people do pervade the minds of Americans. Single mothers are on the frontlines of these wars on the poor.
Welfare Warriors is excited to be launching federal class action lawsuits in the coming months against the state and its privatized Child Protective Services agencies for separating poor children unjustly from safe, loving homes. This is the first time that Welfare Warriors will be expanding our activist work to finally include lawsuits to bring about change in both policies and practices. It required us to secure sufficient funds and willing lawyers, a decade-long campaign that is finally coming to pass. More than ever, we need supporters to join us in tithing time and money to this cause.
Photocredit: Welfare Warriors, 2015.
Pat Gowens is founder of Welfare Warriors and editor of its international journal Mother Warriors Voice. For thirty-two years, her group has created “mamas media,” organized actions for economic justice, inspired the creation of other moms’ groups organizing to end the war on the poor, and advocated for the reunification of families wrongfully separated by Child Protective Services. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org / 414-342-6662 / Facebook: welfare warriors.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in labor studies from the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about women organizing in the workplace.