Pat Gowens is an activist with the Milwaukee-based welfare rights organisation, Welfare Warriors. Alison Thorne spoke to Pat about the impact of Welfare Reform and resistance mounted by Welfare Warriors.
How did Clinton’s 1996 “welfare reform” impact on welfare recipients?
Welfare Reform has caused the loss of millions of dollars to poor communities, resulting in increased violence, crime and homelessness. The system also creates an atmosphere of contempt or pity for single mums. Cases of discrimination against them in housing and employment are on the rise. Single mums suffer massive violations of privacy. Plus there has been an increase in both prosecutions and prison sentences for welfare fraud.
Single mums in crisis are forced to take any job, anywhere, for any pay. Two-thirds of women removed from welfare earn below poverty wages. Women have been forced to quit post-secondary education. Sixteen thousand mothers were forced to quit college in the Milwaukee area alone.
Welfare Reform has also increased the cost to taxpayers for far fewer families receiving benefits. In Wisconsin we spent $548 million for 100,000 families before welfare reform. By 1999, we were spending $710 million for only 7,000 families. Money now goes into the pockets of the big businesses that administer welfare — new buildings, highly paid bosses and profits. In the first two years, Milwaukee’s five private welfare corporations made $65 million profit.
Can you give me some concrete examples of the hardship caused?
In Milwaukee our infant mortality rate has increased by 37% since 1997 when our TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program started. The deaths are caused by welfare reform’s survival-of-the-fittest ‘work first’ obsession which forces single mums to leave sick children alone, or with strangers, or even in a car.
Wages for all low-income workers have also dropped by as much as $1.50 an hour as a result of millions of mothers being forced to take any job, anywhere, for any pay. Big business now depends on welfare reform for cheap labour.
Have you had any dealings with Maximus? How do they treat people on welfare?
Maximus is one of five private corporations which administer our cash welfare program. The Wisconsin Fiscal Audit Bureau found that Maximus in effect stole nearly half a million dollars travelling to other states to secure welfare contracts and on parties etc. Corporate media repeatedly referred to their little indiscretion as “improper spending.” Yet Maximus got this money by causing great hardship — depriving families in crisis by denying them benefits, terminating payments and sanctioning them.
Maximus actively discriminates against its employees, who are mostly white women and people of colour. It is currently being sued in about 20 different sex and race discrimination lawsuits. When Maximus first got its contract, it created Max Staff, a temporary agency housed alongside its welfare agency. Mothers in crisis were simply denied any support and instead referred to its temp agency. Yet welfare reform was supposed to provide permanent jobs. One of our members discovered that Maximus was paying her and all the women $1.05 less per hour than the men doing the same work at the same temporary job. We helped her sue, we protested at the site and we alerted all the other workers to the scam. She was fired, but eventually won the lawsuit. Max Staff was finally closed down. But Maximus is still thriving.
Maximus hires security guards who treat mums like criminals. When our advocate went to the agency to represent a mum at a hearing, she handed our newspaper to a woman who was waiting. The security guard grabbed the advocate, ordered her out of the building, and threatened to call in the police. When we protest outside the premises, the guards threaten us with arrest if a foot, a sign or a baby steps on the grass outside their building.
Maximus illegally sanctions, terminates and denies assistance to women in crisis every day. They often do so verbally, giving no written notice. Although most of this is illegal, single mums in poverty have no legal recourse. Private lawyers will not sue the government — too time consuming and costly. Publicly funded lawyers are afraid of losing their funds, so they also fail to sue.
What strategies have you used to campaign for improvements for people on welfare? What success have you had?
We use alternative media to make our message heard in the face of aggressive stereotypes and propaganda that pervades all corporate media. We write songs — mostly to known tunes — to make our voices heard and to enjoy ourselves in the process. We hold marches, protests and do street theatre. We create new language to describe the reality of our oppression as unwaged workers. Unwaged workers include “motherworkers,” carers for the sick, disabled, aged and dying, many artists, community activists and political organisers.
A word we created, “motherwork,” is being used in the U.S., Canada and Ireland. Our slogan “Motherwork is Work” is available on T-shirts, pins and bumper stickers. On March 8 last year, as part of the Global Women’s Strike, we initiated a campaign targeting big business. We held a Photo Bus tour: at each stop we protested. Then we created a colour photo poster with each business pictured and beneath the photo we listed the wages of the CEO and the wages and benefits of the workers forced into poverty by working for the company. We are distributing the posters around the country to explain how big business benefits from welfare reform.
Who are the Welfare Warriors?
We are single mothers who came together in 1986 to create a voice for mothers in poverty struggling to survive in a system which is not working for us. We publish Mother Warriors’ Voice — an international publication to mobilise victims of poverty to stop the war on the poor. The Voice reports on movements for social justice worldwide, validates the experiences of mothers in poverty and mobilises our communities. Subscriptions are $20 for individuals and $30 for organisations (overseas). Low income people pay what they can. Cheques or money orders should be sent to Welfare Warriors, 2711 W. Michigan, Milwaukee, WI 53208, USA. The Welfare Warriors also have a web site www.welfarewarriors.org/