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National Welfare Rights Organization

National Welfare Rights Organization


The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was a militant organization of poor women on welfare that mobilized in the 1960s and early 1970s to lobby for changes in welfare policy, press for increased aid to recipients, and demand more humane treatment by government caseworkers. It was founded in spring 1966 by middle-class activists and women on welfare who had been organizing since the early 1960s. The organization was overwhelmingly African American, and membership was limited to welfare recipients, most of whom received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The NWRO grew rapidly, more than doubling from 10,000 in 1968 to 22,000 in 1969. Actual participation in the movement was much higher, perhaps reaching 100,000 at its peak in 1969. The NWRO supported, coordinated, and directed efforts of local groups in places such as Los Angeles, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Des Moines, with the largest chapter in New York City.

The welfare rights movement was an important example of the changing nature of political struggle in the 1960s. After years of intense protest around desegregation and voting rights, many civil rights leaders became disillusioned with a strategy that did not address the immediate needs of most members of the African-American community. They increasingly came to the conclusion that civil rights without economic justice was a hollow victory. In its early years the NWRO got widespread support from liberal churches, civil rights organizations, and government antipoverty programs that were part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program.

Welfare leaders of the NWRO sought to address problems of urban poverty by targeting the welfare system. They fought to get an adequate monthly grant, decent day care, and practical job-training programs. They believed the state had a responsibility to provide for all of its citizens in need. One of their central demands was a guaranteed annual income, which they believed the federal government should provide for every American. They opposed "morality" investigations by government caseworkers, which they found degrading, and affirmed the legitimacy of female-headed households. The NWRO believed that AFDC recipients should have access to decent-paying jobs but also supported the right of these mothers to stay home and care for their children.

The primary strategy for the welfare rights movement was to apply for "special grants" for clothing and household items to which welfare recipients were entitled. Anywhere from thirty to three hundred women would go to a welfare office together and demand money immediately for such things as school clothing and new furniture. If welfare officials refused their request, they would hold a sit-in or another form of protest until their demands were met. By inundating welfare offices with such requests, activists hoped to put pressure on the system and effect more fundamental changes to improve the lives of recipients. In the early years this strategy was very successful and was the key way in which leaders built up the membership of their organization. The NWRO also developed alliances with other political groups, publicized their grievances, and held mass rallies and marches.

For the women on welfare, their goals became twofold: to pose direct and militant challenges to the state and to create an organization of poor women that was truly led by poor women. Women organizers on welfare, such as Johnnie Tillmon in Watts, Los Angeles, and Beulah Sanders in New York City, made up the National Coordinating Committee and were invested with formal decision-making authority. However, much of the day-to-day running of the organization was in the hands of the executive director and the mostly white, male, middle-class staff. George Wiley, an African-American chemistry professor and former associate director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was elected executive director of NWRO in 1966 and remained in that position until 1973. Wiley and his staff raised money, planned conferences and meetings, and set short-term goals. However, tension developed within the NWRO as the women struggled to define their goals, outline their strategy, and assert their autonomy.

By the early 1970s the NWRO was in trouble. As the demands for special grants led to fewer material gains because of changes in state and city policy, membership began to decline. In addition, mainstream and liberal support waned as an antiwelfare backlash swept the nation and popular support for sweeping reforms diminished. This contributed to the decline of the NWRO. In 1972 the NWRO was $150,000 in debt. The following year the resignation of the organization's primary fund-raiser, George Wiley, did little to resolve the financial difficulties of the organization. In 1975 NWRO was forced to file for bankruptcy, and it ceased operations shortly thereafter.

Although often defined as a movement of poor people, the welfare rights movement was also a movement of black women. They saw their struggle as one in which race, class, and gender were inextricably tied together. They fought for the right of economic security, challenged the popular assumption that families headed by black women were dysfunctional, and identified their movement as part of the larger struggle for black liberation. In so doing, they laid the groundwork for future grassroots struggles by poor black women.

See also Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

Bibliography

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard Sloward. Poor People's Movements: How They Succeed, Why They Fail. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Pope, Jacqueline. Biting the Hand That Feeds Them. New York: Praeger, 1989.

West, Guida. The National Welfare Rights Organization: The Social Protest of Poor Women. New York: Praeger, 1981.

premilla nadasen (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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