A brief history of National Welfare Rights Organization

A brief history of National Welfare Rights Organization

The 1974 film “Claudine,” starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, told the story of an unpartnered Harlem Black woman raising six children, working under the table as a domestic, and receiving welfare. It gave a taste of the era’s Black woman’s inhumane treatment trapped in the means-tested social service system. 

On June 30, 1966, the National Welfare Rights Organization organized a 150 mile “Walk for Decent Welfare” that began with the goal to amplify the inadequacy of current welfare. It started in Cleveland, Ohio, with 35 mostly women and children. They walked to Chicago, where they were joined by 200 people. In Newark, they where joined by 75. In New York, they were joined by 2000 people by the end of their 150 mile journey, 6,000 people had demonstrated in cities all over the country, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, San Francisco, Louisville, Boston, Trenton, and Washington. While it was mostly Black, there were Latino, Native American, and white participants. 

June 30 became a national day of action for welfare rights annually for over a decade until the general public mostly forgot why welfare mobilizations took place.

The “Walk for Decent Welfare” walk inspired the Poor People’s March of 1968.

National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was founded in 1966 by Dr. George Wiley. Wiley was a chemist, tenured faculty at Syracuse University, and former associate director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Welfare was not open widely to Black women until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The NWRO worked with and later merged with Ms. Johnnie Tillmon’s organization Aid to Needy Children Mother Anonymous (ANC) founded in 1963. ANC was one of the first grassroots welfare mothers’ organizations. Tillmon wrote the 1972 Ms. magazine essay “Welfare is a Woman’s Issue,” which stated that women needed a just income whether they worked outside the home or exclusively inside the home raising children. 

When welfare became widely available for Black women, the name changed from Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). States lowered benefits and increased paperwork. Dehumanization became institutionalized and systematic. 

In the minds of Southerners and conservatives politician (conservative means racist in the United States), the entitlement programs within the Social Security Act were never supposed to be for non-white people. The unemployment portion of the 1935 Social Security Act even excluded domestic and agricultural work, fields that African Americans were at the time the predominant workers. It was done to make sure that Black people could not access entitlement programs and keep them working even in the most unpleasant conditions. 

As African Americans gained Civil Rights and more Black women could access welfare, various states put forth punitive laws to reduce recipients and informal rules were formalized. The amount of benefits dropped. First, in 1961 then again in 1963. Between 1970 to 1994, benefits dropped by 47% when adjusted for inflation. The notable exception being New York where NWRO’s New York chapter was excellent at organizing and getting buy-in for the NWRO “minimum standards” campaign for furniture and clothing. The New York WRO chapter organizing efforts increased New York City welfare payment over 30-fold from $1.2 million in 1963 to $40 million in 1968. Those payment went directly into the pockets of women taking care of their families.

The success of NWRO in New York had its benefits and drawbacks.

Politicians and journalists began regularly portraying the Black woman as THE welfare cheat. Owing to the history of slavery, society viewed Black women as laborers and not mothers, and this shaped policy. Black women raising their children was viewed as Black women cheating the country by not providing their cheap and exploitable labor. America never extended the empathy for white mothers who were unmarried to unmarried Black mothers. 

In 1960, Louisiana dropped 25% (22,501) of families off the welfare rolls owing to adding a “suitable” home clause. If you had a child out of wedlock, your home was no longer suitable. The courts reversed the retroactive clause as it violated the 14th Amendment due process clause.

Owing to the poor treatment of Black people in the US regarding labor and access to entitlement programs, one of the goals of the NWRO was a guaranteed income. A guaranteed income is different from a universal income as it is means tested, meaning that you would have to meet some income requirement to access it. 

The idea of guaranteed income was championed in the 1970s by both the left and right. 

“For those who are unemployable, employable only with difficulty or who should not be working, the immediate solution is a source of income unrelated to production. In recent years, this has come extensively into discussion under various proposals for guaranteed income or a negative income tax. The principle common to these proposals is provision of a basic income as a matter of general right and related in amount to family size but not otherwise to need. If the individual cannot find (or does not seek) employment, he has this income on which to survive”.

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society Premilla Nadasen. (2005). Welfare Warriors : The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. Routledge.

One of the women’s goals on welfare in the NWRO was to remove the morality of being poor. Empowerment of women, regardless of if they worked inside or outside the home, was another goal. It viewed NWRO as an inclusive Black feminist organization. 

“A lot of things that Welfare Rights is going after are Indian ideas—Guaranteed Adequate Income is really an Indian concept. It is the way the Indians themselves ran their early communities. The Dignity Of the individual says that no matter what a person’s capabilities are, whether he is the leader or whether he is a person who is crippled or elderly or can’t do anything, he still has a place in the tribe.”

Loretta Domencich, a member of the Oneida Nation, NWRO Organizer Wisconsin. Premilla Nadasen. (2005). Welfare Warriors : The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. Routledge.

While Tillmon wanted to create a feminist movement, she also had challenges because she wanted something for Black women that white women always had, the right to stay home, and care for their children, which conflicted with what white feminists wanted —to get out of the home. But she persevered with her Black feminist agenda.

This was also not an agenda shared by Wiley. The middle-class and college-educated organizers under Wiley sought to expand the movement to include the working poor of all genders.  

A split occurred within the NWRO owing to these similiar, but different goals.  

In 1972 Wiley resigned, and Tillmon became the NWRO’s executive director. Three years later, in March 1975, the NWRO went bankrupt, and the organization came to an end. Its legacy and organizing style continues, most clearly in the homeless union movement. 

Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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