I worked in an anti-poverty program in the early 1970’s and so read with great interest Storming Caesars Palace by Annalise Orleck. This book, often told in the participant’s own words, is a gripping account of a group of low-income Black women who got their start fighting for the rights of welfare mothers in Las Vegas.
This is also a meticulously researched tribute to Ruby Duncan, a key leader in the struggle. Together, these women took on the Welfare Department and won amazing victories.
Misogyny and bigotry. In the 1960s and ’70s Nevada had some of the nation’s most oppressive and draconian welfare measures, with benefits no better than those in the Jim Crow South. Sexism and racism were endemic to the system. Black people in Las Vegas were forced to live in the Westside ghetto with little access to clean water or electricity. Poor women were subjected to unannounced home visits by case workers looking for evidence of a man on the premises. Mothers who did not have enough money for food or clothing for their children were threatened with loss of custody. Heartless case workers even advised some recipients to become prostitutes to make money.
The worst part was that welfare benefits could be cut off for any number of real or imagined infractions. Families were constantly surveilled, and authorities harassed the community looking for cheaters.
Born fighters. Ruby Duncan and her cohorts — including Rosie Seals, Mary Wesley, Essie Henderson, Emma Stampley and Alversa Beals — knew they could do better than the state. One battle these mother’s waged was for adequate food for their children. Nevada was the last state to accept federal funds for food stamps, preferring to starve kids instead. These women fought and won food stamps, increased benefits and clothing allowances for children.
Duncan understood that poverty and employment were linked. She always addressed issues from a woman’s — and a mother’s — perspective. When the state of Nevada turned females away from job programs, these welfare rights organizers set up child care and job training for women.
In the early ’70s Duncan wanted to improve pay and working conditions for Black women who toiled in the Las Vegas hotels. She organized a march that went down the strip and into Caesars Palace, a historic first. Worried that the women would disrupt the flow of cash, Caesars’ management allowed the protesters free reign all day.
Over the next decade, many reforms were won. Operation Life — founded by Duncan and others — established the first library, day care center, and public swimming pool in the Westside neighborhood. It also created a children’s medical clinic, a jobs program, and a drug and violence prevention program, among other services.
These remarkable accomplishments came about for a number of reasons. The tight bonds and amazing solidarity gave these female leaders fortitude. Furthermore, Duncan was a natural coalition builder. She reached out to Black neighbors, union leaders, white people, politicians, clergy and attorneys to advance the cause. This brought strength and resources to the struggle.
A right-wing backlash would erode many of these programs. Reagan killed the War on Poverty and Clinton decimated welfare. Today, the idea of welfare that Duncan and Operation Life fought to humanize hardly exists.
But these intrepid leaders demonstrated that one can fight City Hall and win with the right motivation and community support.
Root of the problem. In spite of their many victories, most of the women remained impoverished. They ultimately lost the war to get low-income Black mothers out of poverty. That is one of the lessons the book exposes: welfare keeps people poor. The benefits are never enough to lift folks out of poverty. Orleck writes about businesses needing a disposable work force to maximize profits. Indeed, the entire capitalist system needs a certain level of poverty along with unemployment to maintain profits.
Orleck’s solution is to give more control over anti-poverty programs to the recipients. This is good as far as it goes. But to really put an end to poverty, we must overturn the capitalist system and build a world where human needs trump profit!