Welfare Outrage Goes Global

Over the next year, hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients will forever lose their cash benefits under the federal welfare-reform act of 1996. And like countless recipients before them who have been similarly cut off, many will suffer hunger, malnutrition, and even homelessness. The plight of former welfare recipients cut from the rolls -- and of some who've left voluntarily -- is something that welfare-rights activists have been pushing to expose since 1996's draconian law was put into place. Despite activists' best efforts, however, the US Congress is expected to reauthorize the law next year. Now, activists have heightened their crusade by turning to the court of international public opinion.

Invoking human-rights standards laid out by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- specifically, the so-called economic rights (livable wages, food, housing, health care, and education) guaranteed by Articles 23, 25, and 26 -- activists across the nation have launched an aggressive grassroots drive to end poverty in America: the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC). Forty or so groups, from public-housing residents facing demolition in Chicago to welfare recipients cut off from assistance in Philadelphia to workfare workers organizing in San Francisco, are participating in the campaign. They're united behind one idea: as Diane Dujon, a veteran welfare-rights activist, puts it, "In the richest country in the year 2000, no one should be living hungry, homeless, and under stress of not knowing how to feed their children and still pay their rent."

Last year, the PPEHRC filed a petition with the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body similar to the UN. Formed in 1948, the OAS includes the United States and Canada, as well as every country in Central and South America. Unlike several other countries, the US government hasn't signed the treaties that give the OAS enforcement authority, so regardless of what the OAS thinks of the petition, it will be unable to force the US to change. But although the OAS has no legal authority over the United States, it is a moral authority -- and, as such, it has the power to embarrass the US internationally. By submitting the petition, PPEHRC is using a tactic that's been employed by other activist groups fighting against capital punishment, for civil rights, and for more-humane prison conditions.

The 1996 reform legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton during his re-election campaign, puts a five-year lifetime limit on welfare cash assistance, although recipients are still eligible for food stamps. Once recipients use up their allotted five years, they can never get cash assistance again -- regardless of their life circumstances.

The need to reform welfare reform became apparent soon after the federal legislation was enacted. Though studies show that as many as 75 percent of former recipients are now employed, they also reveal that the majority suffer significant hardship. In a national survey of people who left the welfare rolls voluntarily, the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, found that full-time median earnings were only $1150 per month before taxes, that between one-third and one-half of those surveyed had trouble providing food for their families, and that seven percent had moved in with relatives as a way to ease living expenses.

Many former recipients, in short, are one step away from needing welfare again. But given the legislation's restriction on benefits, some of these people are now facing life on the streets. This is confirmed by human-service providers, most of whom link the skyrocketing demand for homeless shelters and food pantries to welfare reform.

PPEHRC was organized just one year after the reform law passed. In 1997, the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), under the PPEHRC banner, set off on a 10-day march from the Liberty Bell to the UN headquarters in New York. Activists, many of them current and former welfare recipients, visited urban housing projects and destitute rural regions in an attempt to recruit members, as well as to gather stories illustrating how welfare reform violates people's economic human rights.

Since then, PPEHRC, spearheaded by the Philadelphia activists, has launched a 1998 bus tour of 35 cities, to document story after story of people who've run out of food, lost utilities, and been evicted because they lacked sufficient income. This past April, members journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the UN Commission on Human Rights. They declared that US welfare reform, as one member explains, "has effectively repealed the safety net" that had been in place in the US since 1935.

And finally, last October, PPEHRC filed the OAS petition, which seeks to hold the federal government accountable for economic human-rights abuses that, it alleges, "are caused by poverty and welfare reform." The petition charges that American policy has steadily eroded poor people's economic rights -- food, housing, and an adequate standard of living, among others -- despite the booming economy and staggering wealth this country has seen in recent years. The 1996 legislation is viewed as especially offensive because it both institutes what activists call an "arbitrary" five-year limit on cash assistance and threatens food and health-care benefits.

"We're saying the reform law isn't just denying people their economic rights, but is taking those rights away," says Cecilia Perry, a PPEHRC attorney who specializes in welfare legislation.

"We're not saying this [the petition] isn't a challenge," she continues, "but we think the evidence is so clear, the commission will morally sanction the US." The thousands of cases that PPEHRC has collected bolster its argument. The evidence of economic human-rights violations includes stories such as one relayed by Pam (not her real name), of the Project Hope shelter and food pantry in Dorchester, Mass. Pam's close friend, a single mother of three, was forced off welfare in December 1998. After months of fruitless job searching, the friend received the final blow: an eviction notice. Distraught and broke, she handed over her children to the Department of Social Services. "She was feeling like she couldn't go on," Pam recalls, "and she just gave up."

When one New Hampshire woman quit her full-time post at a homeless shelter to care for her 17-year-old son, who suffers from "severe neurological problems," she was denied cash assistance. The woman came close to needing shelter services herself.

And then there was the time a New York City medical van happened upon two children buckled over with severe hunger pains. Their mother, who had lost her welfare benefits, had been feeding them the only things she could afford: potato chips and Coca-Cola.

By framing these tragic results as violations of basic economic rights, PPEHRC aims to heighten awareness -- both abroad and at home -- of the problems facing low-income people.

The PPEHRC petition is a drastic, perhaps even desperate, measure. The campaign grew out of years of frustration among welfare-rights activists, who have had to watch politicians chip away at the government's safety net -- at cash assistance, food stamps, and housing subsidies -- while their own lobbying efforts founder.

In 1996, for example, KWRU organized a demonstration in support of 60 Philadelphia families who had been cut from the welfare rolls and subsequently lost their housing. Activists pitched tents on an abandoned lot and camped for days -- until the city's mayor, Ed Rendell, had two portable toilets delivered. Unfazed by the rebuff, activists then marched 10 days to Harrisburg, where they hunkered down before Governor Tom Ridge's mansion. Not only did Ridge refuse to send out a spokesperson to address the crowd, but four weeks later, he ordered state police to strip activists of their blankets on a bitterly cold October morning.

That was the moment Philadelphia activists realized, as KWRU president Cheri Honkala recalls, that "we had to go outside of Pennsylvania ... and do something larger."

They might as well not have bothered with their next step, however. Right after the US Congress passed the 1996 law, KWRU members joined thousands of activists from up and down the East Coast in converging before the White House to appeal to Clinton -- and at least two were arrested for disorderly conduct.

"There has never been a response [from US politicians]," says Willie Baptist, a KWRU activist who heads the PPEHRC outreach effort. "We exhausted every level, so we were forced to go to a higher world power."

The way that poor Americans are organizing around welfare is nothing short of historic. Low-income people have always taken part in this country's social movements, but this time they are the movement's innovators, building a campaign based on sheer necessity. "Poor people are hurting," Baptist explains, "and claiming the right to act on their own."

Yet PPEHRC has remained virtually unknown to the general US population. This stems, in part, from the fact that poor people tend to be people in crisis -- battling evictions, lacking food, seeking child care -- who often don't have the luxury of focusing on global issues, let alone resources enabling them to do so. The movement is still small and has a hard time spreading the word about its activities. But PPEHRC's obscurity also stems from an indifferent, if not hostile, cultural climate. These days, politicians and the public often regard poverty as a matter of personal responsibility.

Yet PPEHRC is pressing ahead despite such obstacles. The OAS petition marks the first time anyone has officially charged the US with economic-rights abuses -- a fact that Richard Wilson, who directs the international-law clinic at American University, describes as "terrific" and "exciting." "The petition," he says, "shows that what we call welfare reform is hardly reform; it's abolition."

The reason no one has challenged the US on economic rights before, Wilson notes, has to do with the "the rhetorical war over which rights are fundamental in this country." There are, in fact, two groups of basic human rights outlined in both the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its OAS counterpart: political and civil rights (such as voting, free speech, and privacy), and economic and social rights. Though UN and OAS members are supposed to ensure all rights, governments have emphasized different ones in practice. The United States, for example, has long championed political and civil liberties, going so far as to guarantee them in the Constitution. Simultaneously, though, it's resisted signing international treaties that recognize and protect economic rights. (Incidentally, the countries placing economic and social rights first tend to have socialist and communist forms of government.)

In America, in other words, all citizens are entitled to stand on a street corner and proselytize -- even as they wither from hunger.

Just what impact the petition will have remains to be seen. The United States government has, in the past, disregarded the findings of the Washington, DC-based OAS commission. Individual lawsuits, many of them in death-penalty cases, have been heard by the commission before. But as Wilson, who has worked on some of these cases, explains, "The US has this persistent pattern of ignoring the OAS." And, of course, OAS findings aren't legally binding in this country.

None of this bodes well for the petition. Even if PPEHRC manages to convince the OAS that the US must uphold international human-rights standards -- an argument based on the fact that the US signed the OAS charter covering all human rights -- PPEHRC anticipates a string of delays and procedural hurdles on the way to a petition hearing. It's tough, after all, going up against the world's wealthiest, most dominant power.

The looming obstacles, though, don't take away from the petition's value as a political organizing tool in this country, where general attitudes toward reforming welfare reform are far from favorable. While US politicians at every level routinely trumpet the successes of welfare reform -- the dramatic drop in caseloads, the high numbers of former recipients employed -- the public, lulled by a prosperous economy, has practically divorced itself from the debate around such vital social issues as poverty.

"The climate has made domestic activism ineffective," says Catherine Albisa, a PPEHRC attorney who heads the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic at the City University of New York. "This [the petition] is meant to support domestic activism, but also give it a boost."

If the OAS finds that the petition has merit, that could tarnish the United States' world image, and welfare-rights activists would be armed with a potent weapon to publicize their cause.

It might seem naive to envision a nation without poverty, or, for that matter, one that doesn't consider some population segment -- in this case, welfare recipients -- to be expendable. But then, welfare-rights activists are quick to point out that, after years and years of struggle, social movements such as abolition, feminism, and the civil-rights campaign forever altered aspects of this country that seemed inalterable.

Until their time arrives, welfare-rights activists may find promise in the latest auspicious signs -- the four boxes of mail delivered to PPEHRC every day, the 100,000 daily hits received by its official Web site, and the thousands of people expected to turn out for a march in Philadelphia when the Republican National Convention meets in July. Massachusetts activists can also take comfort in recent strides made at the legislative level, including a 10 percent increase in welfare benefits that was written into the House and Senate budgets and a provision that allows 10 hours of education to count toward the 20-hour work requirement.

Even if it seems that the PPEHRC effort may ultimately be futile, activists remain committed to what they regard as a "moral" fight that centers on the notion of taking care of society's most vulnerable members.

And if they can succeed in mobilizing the country's low-income population, they could even win. As Dottie Stevens says: "There are a lot more of us poor than the rich."

This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

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