The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America
The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America
By Felicia Kornbluh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 304 pp. Cloth, $49.95, ISBN 9780812240054).
Reviewed by Victoria W. Wolcott, University of Rochester
There is no topic more difficult to teach to my mostly liberal students at the University of Rochester than welfare rights. Why, I ask them, are middle-class women urged to stay home with their children but poor women are required to enter the workforce? Most recognize this contradiction but view the notion of state aid for women to care for children as insupportable. But a group of poor women in the mid-1960s made just this claim, and for a time they succeeded in challenging a welfare state strongly hostile to the rights of single mothers. Until recently, historians, some of whom themselves participated in 1960s-era social movements, have failed to recognize the significance of the welfare rights movement. Kornbluh's fine work, The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America, suggests that the radical maternalism expressed by poor women directly challenged not only the growing rank of conservative Republicans, but also movement leaders and fellow activists. Here was a class-based movement organized around family and community, not the workplace. Crossing lines of race, it borrowed heavily from, but was not dependent upon, the black freedom struggle. And although it was made up of women, welfare activists were marginalized from second-wave feminists' careerism. While other 1960s movements were foundering at the end of the decade, welfare rights flourished. Thanks to a group of women's historians this overlooked movement is taking its rightful place in twentieth-century history.
Kornbluh's book is the third of a series of recent studies. Premilla Nadasen published Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States in 1994. This fine overview of the movement was followed by Annelise Orleck's engaging local study, Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, in 2006. Although Kornbluh covers much of the same ground as Nadasen, like Orleck she focuses on a local case, that of New York City, and places it in a national context. New York's movement predates the founding of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in 1967. By the early 1960s a dedicated group of civil rights and poverty activists had formed Citywide, which coordinated welfare activism. Citywide and other pre-NWRO campaigns were heavily influenced by the black freedom struggle, particularly the work of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). But New York led the way in wide-scale organizing efforts with school boycotts, labor strikes, and housing protests all shaping a discourse of citizenship rights that would prove central to the NWRO's ideology.
While welfare rights activists used many civil rights tactics, they also employed a "benefit-based" organizing strategy that offered immediate rewards to poor women and their families. This strategy emerged from the organizing experiences of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in California and its concrete, consumer-oriented demands proved very effective in recruiting members first to local organizations, and then to the NWRO. Local officials often responded positively to what were legal and fair demands for winter coats, holiday allowances, and other "minimum standards." Central to this consumer strategy was the work of hundreds of lawyers who represented welfare clients at "fair hearings" with local offices. Kornbluh makes a strong case for the efficacy of legal strategies in the movement,
[pp. [NA]]and the importance of poverty lawyers whose availability was a direct outgrowth of the long legal struggles in the civil rights movement and new programs funded by the War on Poverty. Particularly in New York, poor women found ample resources to challenge the system and assert their consumer and citizenship rights. The immediate material gains for poor families won by poverty lawyers also helped the NWRO grow on a national level.
But the success of legal strategies faltered under the weight of new public policies by the late 1960s. In New York, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay appeased angry white voters dismayed by the growing welfare rolls by instigating a "flat grant" and supporting federal amendments to the Social Security Act that included work requirements. Kornbluh argues that this retreat on the part of liberal Republicans meant that the NWRO was on a "collision course" with the city. Welfare activists with years of successful direct action behind them became more militant in response to the new restrictions. Stymied in their negotiations with public agencies, activists demanded that private corporations offer credit cards and other consumer rights granted to middle-class Americans. The NWRO's rank-and-file strongly supported such strategies, but the leadership, particularly the male leadership, was uncomfortable with militant demands for equal credit and with poor women's resistance to work programs.
This split intensified as the NWRO began to negotiate with the Nixon administration over the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) that would provide a minimum income to all Americans. Most poor women opposed FAP because the income level was set so low and the ideological underpinning stressed the plight of working-class men rather than mothers. But Kornbluh rightfully stresses that FAP's eventual defeat was the
[pp. [NA]]result not of welfare activists' opposition, but rather a growing antiwelfare sentiment within the Nixon administration. Indeed the final chapters of the book stress the role of the 1970s conservative political realignment. Social conservatives' opposition to welfare, not internal strife or misplaced tactics, led to the disintegration of the NWRO. Kornbluh's emphasis on the rise of conservatism differs from Nadasen's overview of the movement, which highlights internal breaks within the NWRO along racial and class lines. Perhaps we now need a book on the antiwelfare movement to fully understand the political opposition faced by poor women in the 1960s and 1970s, and echoed by my students today.
Although the NWRO was vanquished by the mid-1970s, I wished Kornbluh had provided a more lengthy discussion of post-1975 welfare politics. Orleck demonstrated in Storming Caesar's Palace that welfare activists remained active well into the 1980s-in Las Vegas they set up a health clinic and other facilities for poor women. A discussion of the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act, which marked the end of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, is strangely missing here. Kornbluh and other women's historians, however, have done us a great service by demonstrating that the struggle for equality did not end with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Along with others who are rewriting the "long civil rights movement," Kornbluh challenges an older declension model that blames the rise of Black Power and urban rioting for creating a conservative backlash and undermining struggles for racial and class equality. Instead, after 1964 a successful movement of poor women transcended racial and ethnic divisions and forced the state to respond to their demands. This forgotten movement of radical maternalism suggests a culmination of successful struggle, rather than the failure of sixties activism. Given the rise of the
[pp. [NA]]New Right, even the temporary gains won by Citywide and the NWRO were remarkable. Kornbluh's deeply researched and elegantly written book brings these struggles to the surface.
Victoria W. Wolcott is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Rochester and the author of Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).