By Liz Theoharis
April 10, 2020
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, pulling together poor people and moral leaders from across the country to unite across lines of division. Just two months before his assassination he traveled to Chicago to enlist the women of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which included in its ranks 10,000 dues-paying, welfare-receiving members in over 100 chapters.
At the meeting, welfare rights leader, Etta Horn, asked Dr. King about his position on the recent passage of anti-welfare legislation. His answer revealed his unfamiliarity with the fight around welfare that these women had been waging for years. Johnnie Tillmon, the national chairwoman of the NWRO, stepped in: “You know, Dr. King, if you don’t know about these questions, you should just say you don’t know, and then we could go on with this meeting”. Dr. King replied, “We don’t know anything about welfare. We are here to learn.”
More than a month into the coronavirus pandemic, our nation is revealing how little it knows about welfare or how to care for all of its people. The $2 trillion stimulus package passed last week may include stop-gap measures for the poor, but it does very little to respond to the vast need being created by COVID-19 nor the pre-existing crisis facing 140 million poor and low-income people. Federal intervention thus far has largely amounted to a bail-out of Wall Street and the continued redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top.
Both Democrats and Republicans have celebrated the promise of $1200 direct payments for adults and $500 for children; some have said these policies represent the arrival of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). We should not be fooled by this smokescreen. These payments are time-bound, limited in who and how many they reach, and woefully insufficient to meet even the most basic living expenses.
Indeed, over one in three Americans say the benefits will not sustain them for a single month. And even if the payments were more robust, the current rules mean that those too poor to have to file taxes will either face weeks or months before they receive payments or won’t even receive them at all. Moreover, the exclusion of 11 million undocumented people and their children from these benefits, as well as millions of students who fall in a coverage gap, adds to the failure of our elected leaders.
The complete inadequacy of our nation’s welfare system is one of the things most clearly revealed through this crisis. The millions now being thrown into poverty are joining the millions more who were already confronting a threadbare social safety net that has been systematically undermined for decades, undergirded by a theological discourse about personal responsibility, work reconciliation, and the alleged depravity of poor people.
From the start, the U.S. welfare system was constructed to devalue the work that happens in the home—work disproportionately placed on the shoulders of poor women. And now these direct payments reinforce the false distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor by substituting temporary provision of money to individuals for the development of a strong universal social safety net.
The attacks on welfare over the past six decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have identified welfare recipients as the problem in need of fixing, obscuring systems that produce their poverty. Couched in religious language, these narratives have used racism and sexism to demonize, isolate, and divide the poor—hiding the fact that the conditions faced by those on welfare only anticipate the poverty and precarity of millions of people in an economy undergoing massive structural dislocation.
As our society wrestles with how to respond to the current moment, the leadership of women on welfare can point toward a more visionary model for how to build a nation that cares for everyone. For nearly sixty years, these women have been organizing the welfare rights movement to win policies that protect their communities and reveal the grinding truth of their reality to the larger society.
In 1966, fledgling organizations of women formed the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) as a way to impact federal policy and break through the lies being told about the benevolence of the welfare system and immorality of poor people on welfare. The organization was built and led by poor women like Johnnie Tillmon of Los Angeles, Dovie Thurman of Chicago, Beulah Sanders of New York City, Annie Smart of Baton Rouge, Annie Chambers of Baltimore, and Marian Kramer of Detroit.
The central tenet of their vision was that welfare should be a right, not public charity. They argued that the realization of this right should come in the form of a Guaranteed Adequate Income for everyone regardless of employment status, family structure, or any other aspect of their lives, outside of need. Leaders like Johnnie Tillmon expressed this demand as a logical extension of the idea, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, of universal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Beulah Sanders extended the call that the poor thrive—not barely survive—to religious institutions, “We expect the churches to spread the truth about the welfare problems in this country. We expect the churches and their members to oppose local, state and federal legislation that oppresses poor people…If we fail in our struggle, Christianity will have failed.”
NWRO and their demand for a Guaranteed Adequate Income became a leading force in the Poor People’s Campaign, which was launched in Washington D.C. with a Mother’s Day March led by welfare rights leaders.
It’s in this context that the renewed debate around a Universal Basic Income is a welcome development. But, the welfare rights movement teaches us that the devil’s in the details and that welfare policies have to be examined critically for their moral foundations. The NWRO found itself in fierce opposition to a basic income plan put forward by the Nixon administration in 1969 because its restrictive nature, low benefit levels, work requirements, and the intention to eliminate other hard-won entitlement plans in exchange, meant that it actually amounted to a further attack on the poor.
In the early weeks of this pandemic, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (full disclosure: I am a PPC co-chair), which includes in its leadership welfare rights leaders from the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, has demanded the immediate establishment of a permanent Guaranteed Adequate Income for all, as a part of a broader moral agenda that is the only-long term solution to this crisis.
This demand, made by poor people of all backgrounds, runs counter to solutions that propose a temporary fix to maintain consumption and corporate profits. In fact, welfare rights leaders have shaped many of the demands, now being picked up by people across the country, that reject the manipulation of the welfare system as a means of extending the control of the wealthy over the labor and lives of the poor.
With the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination having just passed, our society cannot forget his final call for a movement to end poverty, led by the poor. Political and religious leaders today could do no better than to follow what Rev. Dr. King did in the last months of his life: listen to and follow the fierce leadership and genius of the welfare rights movement and the poor women who began ringing the alarm well before the coronavirus.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She is the author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and Co-Author of Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing with Rev. Dr. William Barber.