In this month’s briefing, we take a look at the expansion of the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan Act within the context of welfare reform and the demand that poor women have been making for their basic dignity. We draw on the lessons of the National Welfare Rights Organization, their call for a guaranteed adequate income more than fifty years ago and the voices of poor and low-income women who are taking up this charge today.
Indeed, as we approach the end of Women’s History Month, it is necessary to remember that there are 74 million poor and low-income women in the nation. These women may not run this economy, but they make it run: women make up more than half (59%) of low-wage workers and take on more care responsibilities, both paid and unpaid, than their male counterparts. In fact, if unpaid work was paid at the federal minimum wage of $7.25, it would total over $1.5 trillion.
In the words of Nell Myland from the California Poor People’s Campaign: “I’m showing up to say that it’s past time for women — Black, Latinx, Asian, white, Native American, moms, childless, trans, living with disability, immigrant, with or without papers — indeed all of us, to have policies in place that end poverty and enable us to live decent, dignified lives, rather than forcing us into jobs that destroy our health and the environment.”
Forward together, not one step back!
There are 74 million poor and low-income women in the nation. These women may not run this economy, but they make it run.
Revisiting Welfare Reform
The passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) this month has been rightfully welcomed as bringing much-needed and long overdue relief to millions of people. Along with resources for COVID-19 testing and vaccines, ARPA is extending unemployment insurance, issuing a third round of stimulus checks, providing housing and utilities assistance, extending food security programs, allocating resources to public education and state, local and tribal governments and dedicating specific resources to Indigenous and Native institutions.
One of its most celebrated provisions is the expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC). Originally designed to benefit middle and higher-income families with children, the CTC will now be available to families who have otherwise been unable to access the credit, because they were too poor to have any tax liabilities. This expansion will reach over 65 million children, including 27 million whose families have never been able to receive the full benefit. Many of them will receive direct cash assistance in the form of monthly payments, bringing us one step closer to a guaranteed income. Importantly, there are no work requirements, drug testing or other forms of shaming poor families to receive these resources.
All of these changes add up to more than mere technical adjustments to the CTC. In fact, this may be the biggest shift away from neoliberal solutions to poverty in at least a generation, since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (welfare reform) was passed in 1996. Welfare reform made good on President Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” It eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the welfare program started under the Social Security Act of 1935 that had provided direct cash assistance to poor families as part of the New Deal. In its place came Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which reduced resources, ended the federal entitlement to welfare, worked through block grants to states rather than direct payments and imposed unrealistic work requirements on otherwise eligible recipients. Failure to comply could mean a loss in benefits.
These work requirements were part of a broader narrative that blamed poor people, especially women and women of color, for being poor and not having the right behaviors or work ethic to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather than seeing poverty as the consequence of structural changes to the economy and labor market, poverty became framed as an issue of “personal responsibility,” poor decision-making and individual failure. The policy responses that followed would therefore (1) only be made available to those who were seen as “deserving,” rather than everyone who was in need and (2) be limited in their scope and amount to avoid contributing to these “bad” behaviors and habits, rather than meeting the need at hand.
The Dignity of “Women’s Work”
Poor women had been organizing against this paternalistic and dehumanizing narrative for years before welfare reform was passed in 1996. Formed in 1966, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) led this charge. NWRO was organized primarily by poor mothers and families. In its brief history, it was able to broaden access to welfare programs and defend housework and carework as valuable economic contributions that deserved an adequate wage. Their hallmark demand was for a guaranteed adequate income that would honor the dignity of this work, end their poverty and address discrimination based on race, gender and class. As NWRO’s president Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972, “If I were president, I would solve this so-called welfare crisis in a minute and go a long way toward liberating every woman. I’d just issue a proclamation that ‘women’s’ work is real work. In other words, I’d start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing: child-raising and house-keeping. And the welfare crisis would be over, just like that.”
As early as 1969, NWRO was pushing back against work requirements. That year, the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) had been introduced in Congress and, while it offered a form of a guaranteed income, it also imposed work requirements that suggested that the house and care work women were already doing was not enough to merit a wage. Beulah Sanders, a NWRO leader, testified against the FAP in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying, “Surely the mother is in the best position to know what effect her taking a particular job would have on her young school child, but now we are told that for welfare mothers the choice will be made for them, work for the mother, government centers for the children, the government decides.” Indeed, behind the narrative of work requirements was the belief that poor people, especially poor women and poor women of color, did not know what was in their best interests.
While the FAP was defeated, “work-fare” was eventually made into law through welfare reform and the narrative that NWRO had been battling prevailed. Even to this day, it is present and influential across party lines. It recently resurfaced in the debates on unemployment and the minimum wage. As the passage of ARPA makes clear, today’s “deserving” poor include some (but not all) children and some (but not all) of the people who make “essential” contributions to the economy. Notably absent are people who are undocumented, even if they are in essential work; people who are incarcerated or detained; and those who may be able to rely on their family members to care for them, such as students or people with disabilities.
Finally, despite the $1.9 trillion price tag, ARPA meets just a fraction of the need at hand: the average food stamp beneficiary will receive only $125 per month or $1.40 / per meal; unemployment benefits will only pay up to $300 / week when the average costs of living are over $1000 / week (for a family of four); and stimulus checks are not accompanied by debt relief. Thanks to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the minimum wage remains at $7.25. And many “essential” but low-wage workers will not receive the benefit of ARPA’s health care expansions, because they prioritize COBRA or the ACA marketplace, rather than programs like Medicaid. Even the changes to the CTC are limited, being both temporary and administered through our cumbersome tax system, which may not be up to the task at hand. This will certainly constrain its impact, despite early estimates that show the changes to the CTC may reduce poverty by 10-45% (depending on what measure of poverty is used).
“If I were president, I would solve this so-called welfare crisis in a minute…I’d just issue a proclamation that ‘women’s’ work is real work.”Johnnie Tillmon
We are the Foundation that Keeps This Country Going
For the 74 million poor and low-income women in the country today, ARPA is not nearly enough. This is why so many of these women are following in the legacy of the NWRO and demanding more.
The remainder of this briefing is dedicated to these women, in their words, as offered during the series of the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Mondays this March. They are organizing against systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation, and the false narrative of Christian nationalism that blames them for society’s failures. As we see below, these are not separate fights. Women are the center and forefront of these interlocking struggles, like the multiple limbs of the goddess Kali, raging against injustice and evil so that we may all thrive in a world of abundance.
The following testimonies can be found in full as part of the March 2021 Moral Monday videos of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Maureen Taylor, Michigan: America declares herself to be the land of opportunity, but I work with welfare rights recipients and I see that the cost of living is going up, while the chances of living are going down. In Detroit, low income families suffered the indignity of mass residential water shutoffs, impacting hundreds of thousands of families who were behind just a few hundred dollars in water payments. Senate members earn $483 a day, while a Michigan welfare mom with 2 children, a household of three, earns approximately $483 in a month. If we listen carefully, we can hear the anguish, outraged voices when they ask their questions, ain’t I a woman?
Kris Kinkaid, West Virginia: I’m a low-wage worker here in West Virginia, and at the beginning of the pandemic I was a restaurant worker. That’s what I’ve done for pretty much the last decade, I’ve worked in restaurants. And then, of course, the restaurant that I worked at closed at the beginning of the pandemic, so I went to work as a janitor. I cleaned banks, doctors’ offices and dentists’ offices.
We are the foundation that keeps this country running. We clean and cook and serve your food and then in our time off, we serve our communities. Especially here in Appalachia, people are working 2 and 3 jobs and they can’t afford to buy groceries, kids are hungry…Our senator here says that West Virginians would be just fine with $11 an hour, but let me make it very clear that we’re not okay with $11 — that doesn’t begin to touch the need that we have.
With my new stimulus check, I’m going to pay a month’s worth of rent, I’m going to pay some bills that are a little behind and then I’m going to put the rest towards my community, because there are people here who won’t get that check. And it isn’t because they make too much money. It’s because they don’t have an address to send the money to. It’s because they don’t have anywhere to live. They’re couch hopping because they lost their house six or nine months back, when they were waiting for help to pay their rent last year.
Linda Burns, Alabama: I work in the Bessemer Amazon facility. We get two breaks out of a 10-hour shift and that’s when we can use the bathroom. Because of how big the facility is, it can take you up to five minutes to get to the bathroom, then another five minutes to get back. And if you’re gone too long from your machine, there is a thing called “time on task,” which counts any extra time against you. You can basically get fired for going to the bathroom. There are a lot of other things going on. I caught COVID at work. They paid me for two weeks, but I needed an additional week and they did not pay me for that. I got a check on November 13th and I went back to work on December 6th, but then didn’t get my next check until December 24th. Everything fell behind. I had to get another job to make ends meet, because after paying rent, my car note, insurance, and everything else, I didn’t have enough money for food. I’m still struggling from that. I’m still catching up. Thank God the power company didn’t turn off my power, because otherwise I would have been sleeping in my car.
Elaine Gore, North Carolina: I’ve been a home care worker for over 20 years. I’ve worked taking care of seniors and people with disabilities in various states. I find it very rewarding, my work, but although I provide essential care to community members and loved ones, I have not been treated as an essential worker. I work without benefits, health insurance, paid time off or bereavement time. We home care workers have to choose between taking care of ourselves or having enough money to eat. I’ve been working for 20 years and I still make less than $15. When the pandemic started and work opportunities began slowing down, I lost even the very little I was earning. My daughter and I lost housing. I lost my car and now I have less work available to me. My family cannot afford health care at the (ACA) marketplace. We are the backbone of this economy and I’m going to make my voice heard, so home care workers have basic benefits like health care and paid time off and can join a union no matter what state we live in.
Julia Kennedy, Virginia: I am a third-year graduate student at Hampton University, a proud black woman and a deaf woman with cerebral palsy. it’s important to know that employers are legally allowed to pay people with disabilities less than the current minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would help me to afford basic necessities, medical bills and therapy. I would be able to afford accessible housing for me to live independently. I want everyone to be able to contribute to society and earn enough to support their families.
Danielle Owens, Maine: My children watch me work all day and night at home during a global pandemic, making health care more accessible to the front line workers. And the reward for my work is that we aren’t hungry all of the time. All of my overtime keeps my rent paid. We don’t have any savings, vacation, or luxury items. We are just surviving. I admittedly feel lucky to be surviving this pandemic, but how odd to feel lucky to only survive? I work 70 plus hours every week only to be able to eat and not be without a home. The poverty measure, which has been unchanged for more than 50 years, is being used as a weapon against poor and working class people. Our government is using this outdated policy to avoid revealing the true number of people who are living in poverty today. The same people who deny moral rights like housing, food and health care are denying life-sustaining aid to hard-working people, who instead have to work 2 full-time jobs and claim every hour of overtime just to fill the gaps. We need to end poverty, but that begins by being honest about poverty.
Rev. Letiah Fraser, Kansas: I am an African American disabled woman and I cannot celebrate International Women’s Day when 74 million women are poor and low income. I cannot celebrate when tax credits that were just passed only cover 50 percent (or less) of our children. As a person with a disability, I am keenly aware of the personal care attendants, many of whom are women. They make it possible for people with disabilities to live active lives in our communities. These essential workers do not have access to health care and earn substantially less than a living wage. I cannot celebrate, not when the U.S. continues to choose funding corporations in the trillions of dollars, yet people with disabilities are stuck in poverty, because we must choose between getting assistance to bathe or going to work. I refuse to celebrate International Women’s Day in a country whose policies would prefer that I die, rather than celebrate my womanhood.
Sophia Helene Mees de Tricht, Iowa: I’m a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, I’m a transgender woman and I came out shortly after my wife left me, because I thought I didn’t have anything else to lose. I ended up losing a house, my car, my cat, my clearance at my job, half of my paycheck and the comfort with who I am as a person and eventually, the military discharged me for being trans. I’ve not had full-time permanent employment since then. I’ve faced housing insecurity, food insecurity, poor food quality and the looming specter of subsistence sex work and the ruination that follows. And I know I am not alone. People of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, indigenous people, mothers and other poor people are routinely discriminated against. This cannot be how we treat people. We demand equality, not just in paper, but in practice.
Nell Myland, California: I have been a low-wage worker and an unpaid caregiver. I’m a 64 year-old black lesbian whose income is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. I live in constant fear of losing my housing. My only source of income is Social Security disability. Our family home was foreclosed on by Chase bank after my Mom died. Chase had a choice and they chose to foreclose on our home, rather than modifying our loan. I spent the next 2 years in housing instability — I had to move 12 times in that 2-year period — and that was very stressful, emotionally and physically.
Women like me, we are exhausted. We are unpaid caregivers for children, elders, family members with disabilities and we are low wage workers. After welfare reform was passed, those of us on welfare have been used to undercut the wages of other workers and compete with them. We are forced to take any job just to get our welfare check, but we refuse to be used against one another that way. So we’re coming together to build a fusion movement so that all the work we do — work that reproduces and sustains life and all of society — will not only be paid, but be paid a living wage. We need a base of at least $15 an hour. And I’m showing up to say that it’s past time for women, all of us — Black, Latinx, Asian, white, Native American, moms, childless, trans, living with disability, immigrant, with or without papers — indeed all of us, to have policies in place that end poverty and enable us to live decent, dignified lives, rather than forcing us into jobs that destroy our health and the environment.
Sharon Lavigne, Louisiana: I’m from the middle of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, in a rural area called St. James Parish. I’ve been living here all my life. Industry started to come in here in the late sixties. We didn’t know that this industry was causing our illnesses — cancer, respiratory problems, all kinds of ailments. In 2018 when our Governor Edwards announced that another industry was coming into St. James, I didn’t understand how he could let another industry in. We’ve been drinking dirty water for years and we can’t plant our garden anymore because the ground is contaminated. We can’t breathe the air. Immediately, I went into prayer. And I prayed and I prayed, and that’s when I asked God what I should do and he told me to fight. So I started fighting. And I’m so sorry, I’m going to cry, but we’ve been fighting this since 2018…If this plant comes in…We’re not going to be able to breathe the air. We will not live. All we want is to have clean air, clean water and clean soil so we can live.
Kathy Robinson, Tennessee: I’m a fourth generation resident of southwest Memphis. This is the same community where both my grandmothers grew vegetable gardens to feed their families. This also the same community that my great grandmother, who we called Big Momma, would tell the stories of why she moved to Memphis after growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, to look for better opportunities for the generations of children coming after her. Now, the same community that she saw as promising is surrounded by industrial facilities and a pipeline is coming through. There are only two types of pipelines: one that has already leaked and one that will eventually leak.
These things did not happen by chance. It is because this area has a lower amount of political clout and we have not had environmental champions, but we are telling big business that southwest Memphis has had enough of your pollution. We want to be able to continue to fish in Lake Byhalia and have the peace of mind that there is not an oil leak that is undetected and poisoning the fish we eat.
Claire McClinton, Michigan: I want to highlight the health care challenge that’s facing my community, which has been poisoned through man-made decisions. One of the things we’ve learned here in Flint — and it’s something we didn’t even want to know about — is that lead can be passed onto the next generations or even the next generations. The lead gets in the DNA and it can be passed on to those who have not yet been born. So the poison that was in our water has compromised not only their immune system, but their neuropsychology issues and now our reproductive functions. We need comprehensive health care and we have learned how to fight and how to win from another town: Libby, Montana. They won a fight for their health care, for Medicare for all their residents, regardless of age when they were poisoned by a plant that was polluting their water. If you can do it for Libby, Montana, you can do it for Flint.
Debra Thomas, Mississippi: At the age of 20 I was convicted as a first time offender for shoplifting. I was sentenced for 5 years and was permanently disenfranchised as a voter in the state of Mississippi. Since my conviction and release from prison, I have been denied access to low-income subsidized housing, which has made providing adequate housing for my family a serious challenge. The felony shoplifting conviction — from 18 years ago — keeps me to this day from being hired and making a living wage at any decent job that I qualify for. My luck with jobs has only been housekeeping and chicken plants, which tells me that after making one bad decision in Mississippi, my life’s worth is only good enough to clean up another man’s trash.
Due to COVID-19, I was forced to leave my job as a housekeeper. This year, I have faced even greater hardships being impacted with the winter ice storm in Mississippi. My family and I had to go without water for two weeks and we still do not have clean drinking water. I want better and I deserve better. I want to be able to work and provide for my family. I want to be able to make enough money to care for my family and not have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. I want to be a resident with a voice and vote to count in the electoral process.
Nicole Nevarez, Iowa: The new voting law that has been signed by Governor Reynolds is the first in the nation of these laws passed and it concerns me for several reasons. Since this law has been signed into effect, Iowans have lost an hour of voting time. We lost 9 days of early voting. We’ve lost satellite voting sites. We may have lost mail-in ballots that conveniently showed up at our house, which made it very easy to vote. And auditors now have lingering, severe consequences over their heads, potential felony charges and huge fines if they don’t follow the newly implemented rules. Citizens supporting one another by submitting absentee ballots for someone else have lingering consequences, misdemeanor charges and fines, if they aren’t a caretaker or immediate family member. Our rural communities here have a lot of elderly people who depend on church groups to mail their ballots in for them, but they won’t be able do that anymore.
I, personally, loved receiving a mail-in ballot that I never asked for. I found it to be the easiest and most convenient way to vote. I felt like my state wanted me to vote so I did. We should be encouraging citizens to vote and making it as easy as possible, not placing uncalled for restrictions on our voting process and making it more difficult and stressful to move around.
Tayna Fogle, Kentucky: Our Congress is in session right now voting on terrible, terrible voter suppression bills. In 2020, we brought out a record number of people, including people who had lost interest in the democratic process. We had more voters in 2020 than we’ve ever had in our voting history to come out at one time. And now our legislative body is voting to close precincts. They’re voting to shorten the mail-in ballot dates. It took me a long time to get my voting rights back (after being disenfranchised). We have over 170,000 people right now that could register to vote, but they can’t right now, because they’ve lost their right to vote. And it’s wrong and immoral to do that. So we are going to vote and vote again. We won’t fall down. We don’t fall down.
Vanessa Nosie, Arizona: Today we did get some good news. We had a small win. The forest service rescinded their final Environmental Impact Statement and that buys us time, but that does not stay the fight. We need an act of Congress to protect our religion, protect our way of life, to protect future generations and all people, because no one can drink contaminated water. No one can breathe in contaminated air. And we have a right to have a religion. For us, the Apache people, when our religion is destroyed, that’s a genocide on the environment. We can’t separate the two, and that’s why we stand at the forefront and say we’re protecting all people. None of us can live in a world that is unsafe, where our environment is being destroyed and contaminated with chemicals. Pray for us, pray for the Apache people and all people, as we continue to fight for Chi’ chil Bildagoteel, because our fight is your fight.
Yesenia Chavez, Illinois: I’m an organizer on the Southeast side of Chicago. On February 8th, 2021 I committed to participating in the Chicago Hunger Strike and gave up eating solid foods to raise awareness surrounding the injustices of environmental racism. Along with over ten other brave individuals, we made this commitment to devote our physical bodies to create necessary change for our community. Our kids and students keep getting asthma and our residents keep getting sick mentally and physically. What are we supposed to do? It is unacceptable for elected officials to remain silent on these issues.
We will no longer wait for a seat at the table. We will no longer suffer in silence and we will no longer be intimidated. Our movements will continue to grow. Our movements will continue to reset the standard. Our movements will continue to make the necessary changes for the betterment of the people. Our movements will continue to heal. Remember, if we were not powerful they would not be working hard to stop us.