The Harvest is Past

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved”
So lamented Jeremiah.

I understand. And it is now Fall, here.
This blog has come into being slowly, because I remain unsure of what I want to do with it, much less how to present it with ease. I still know that I want to communicate and share ideas with others beyond my known circle. Facebook does not work for me as a means for this, although
that is supposed to be its purpose. But no matter how hard I try, its form does not satisfy. It seems random, without form or direction. Somehow I want more control in creating a context for what I say, and what sayings I pass on, where conversations lead.
But time is passing, and my website and my blog have not saved me. Both are, in today’s parlance, “underutilized.”
These days, before rising I read e-mails and forward content to people in my contact list–often with a short subject line about what I value, or what’s wrong, or absurd, about them. The resulting e-conversations way stay in my mailboxes for a long time.
Of course I miss teaching, with its scheduled topics and soon-familiar community of learners. My office provided this in a even less structured, but satisfying way. But now CPCS is gone.
That harvest is also past.
So I’m starting again. Below I post something I recently wrote for the twentieth anniversary of Welfare Reform (remember its name is “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”? ) for Boston’s Poor People United Fund, alongside pieces by James Jennings and Georgia Mattison. Next I am posting excerpts from some of the emails relating to the election and poverty that I’ve been sharing,
I hope the this will bring me back into the conversations and actions that matter most today.

Please comment

Keeping on Keeping On Twenty Years after Welfare Reform

Ann Withorn
Throughout the 1990’s, most anti-poverty and welfare rights activists fought “welfare

reform,” hard. Professional advocates wrote position papers. Clergy, poverty lawyers, Head Start parents and labor leaders spoke out. We held forums, meetings, speak-outs and rallies. We testified at legislative hearings in Massachusetts and in Congress.

The energy was intense. And the messages stayed clear: “welfare reform would hurt poor women, and their children….It should not be passed: it was wrong.” We argued fiercely against new Reformers’ revised contentions that income benefits should not subsidize “workforce participation;” nor was education and training “cost effective.” Instead, the goal of Welfare Reformers was to make benefits harder and harder to get, to cut the rolls, and simply to impose time limits on any eligibility — 2 years (in Massachusetts) or 5 years federally. They argued that only their approach could end insidious “welfare seeking behaviors.” After all, if there was no meaningful welfare to seek, then the problem would be solved, right? Especially after the Feds turned it into over state block grants, with loose oversight.

Activists insisted instead that “all mothers worked”; that the circumstance facing poor women were complex and individualized. Income maintenance as provided under the Social Security Act, had become a Welfare Right. And, besides, we all knew that available jobs alone were unlikely to provide adequate wages or time to nurture children well.

Talking past each other, we asked what would happen during the next recession, while others asked how quickly we could cut welfare rolls. . We published endless Fact Sheets, proving that the welfare reform proposals were racist in intent, and effect — because poverty was so racialized — even though more white people would actually be hurt. We tried to get folks to see

that at some point in most lives, bad things happen: a worker could lose a job, a father would disappear; life could just become too hard for anyone to manage. Drink and drugs could make it all worse. And it might not be temporary. Children always needed so much. We thought most people would make the connections, if only we warned them often enough. But we were wrong. After 1996, we had to acknowledge how the depth of public fear of “dependence” was reinforced by the real stigma of living on welfare. Or how most working people needed to accept the slogan justifying Reform that “any job is a good job” — because it meant you are a “hardworking person who never asked for a handout or help from anybody.” We also missed the shallowness of the support for welfare among white non- poor liberals. They were tired. Once welfare reform was passed, with bi- partisan support, then “welfare as we knew it,” in Clinton’s infamous words “was ended.” Poof, gone. No more fussing. Conservatives mostly just expressed quiet, not gloating, relief. A lot of liberals, and social workers soon urged making the best of a bad situation, helping everyone find a job as soon as possible, or if that failed, to find ways to get a child, or even a parent, labeled “disabled” and therefore still qualified for something. Some concerned businessmen received incentives to get people “job ready,” and to initiate programs aimed at the now inevitable “transition from welfare to work” –regardless of what that work might mean for already demanding lives.

Too many non-poor activists warned too frightfully of immediate deathly results. Most poor people, especially Black and Latino people, knew instead that hard lives would be even harder, with fewer options, and less hope. And fewer people would notice, much less care.
The hard evidence” is still coming in, but it seems clear that more women simply wrote off public help as a viable option. They took bad jobs with little security, stayed with dangerous men or relied on families which had failed them in the past. More mothers gave up on that college degree or that hope for whatever had seemed possible before.

It didn’t happen overnight, but more and more people started to expect less, to work off the books more, thereby become less visible, less able to make demands.
Obama, sadly, didn’t really help. The 2008 Great Recession, yielded no calls even to rethink welfare reform, much less to reweave the safety net for all. For eight years he didn’t blame or demonize poor people, but chose not to take up poverty as his cause; he soon joined the Clintons in safer concern for the plight of the “middle class.”

So what now? I miss Kip’s indefatigable energy that led me to join her in getting arrested and jailed in protest of Massachusetts’ 1997 imposition of Time Limits. Today, Rev. William Barber’s “Moral Revival” inspires me to join a new Movement beyond electoral limitations. Barber offers the same hope that Kip did: that if we build a movement, not about Left vs. Right, but about Right vs. Wrong,” then we may be able “rediscover poverty as the central moral and political issue facing us all.”

So, “to keep on keeping on” today, twenty years after Welfare Deform, means that our only hope is still “not to mourn, but to organize.” But I also wonder more than I ever did: Can we? Will we? Who is the “we?” And How? For all our sakes, let’s keep talking.

For the Poor People’s United Fund of Boston September 2016




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