Eating Welfare: A Youth Organizing Documentary


When Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York City in 1996, welfare reform quickly became the centerpiece of his administration. He bolstered a program called "workfare," which forced welfare recipients to pick up trash in city parks and on sidewalks in order to receive welfare benefits. Since Giuliani expanded workfare, "the city has been cleaner, the mayor more popular, and the typical resident more satisfied with city services," according to an article in the Washington Post. But those on workfare tell a different story, and "Eating Welfare" documents it, straight from the communities it affects the most. CAAAV, a youth group that organizes Asian communities in New York City, tackled the issue of welfare reform when it became a hot topic in Guiliani's first term. In 2000, after a nearly a year of shooting 8mm video and editing in-house, they released "Eating Welfare." "When we took up the issue of welfare reform, it was like, what are we going to do with all this information?" said Thoul Tong, 22, Lead Cameraman for the film. "We needed to let people know what is going on with welfare reform. We said, 'let's do something,' and we came up with this documentary project."


It took courage for CAAAV activists to show their own dilapidated apartment buildings and neighborhoods and to give the welfare issue context, and that's part of the reason "Eating Welfare" is so effective: it puts faces and names on welfare recipients.



According to Tong, 95 percent of the Southeast Asian Community in the Bronx are welfare dependent and subject to the workfare program. The mothers of many of the CAAAV activists are non-English speaking refugees, and are forced to work 20 hours a week cleaning parks, rather than spend that time taking care of their children or working from home.
It took courage for CAAAV activists to show their own dilapidated apartment buildings and neighborhoods and to give the welfare issue context, and that's part of the reason "Eating Welfare" is so effective: it puts faces and names on welfare recipients. Furthermore, it breaks down stereotypes of welfare recipients as lazy, alcoholic, or addicted to drugs. The families shown in the film are simply part of the working poor.

Because there is no real skills training in park maintenance, workfare participants will never escape the cycle of dependency. As "Eating Welfare" documents, members of the Southeast Asian Community faced bureaucratic problems when they tried to dealt with city government. Because there were no translators at the welfare office, the youth were forced to leave school and translate for their parents. Meanwhile their truancy from school cost them $60 a day. Angered by these contradictory city policies, they become activists out of necessity.
So they organized. They did research. They surveyed Southeast Asian tenement residents about how workfare affects their lives. And they made a documentary. Using in-depth interviews with youths involved in the movement, they explain their firsthand experiences with workfare. The filmmakers' intended audience was local youths in the Bronx and the Southeast Asian community, as well as potential donors and the broader community. So far "Eating Welfare" has been shown at New York University in Manhattan, in the Bronx, and has had several screenings in the Bay Area over the last year.

"We wanted this to be an inspirational documentary, where it's uplifting to know you can fight something like that," said Tong. "We spent so much time [on the film] because we knew it was going to make a big impact on organizing," he continued.

Tong recently showed the film at the National Youth Organizing Exchange in Oakland. As many times as he's seen it, the film still has an impact. "The emotional part of the documentary usually brings tears to my eyes." Tong said. "The kind of organizing we do, it makes you realize it's not a one-day thing, it's not even a monthly thing, it's a lifelong struggle. And that's where you get inspiration from."

Copies of the film "Eating Welfare" can be ordered by calling CAAAV:Organizing Asian Communities at (718) 220-7391.

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