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October 03, 1968 - Image 5

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Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1968-10-03

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Inagazine page

ULberating

the

THE RECENT confrontation between the wel-
fate mothers and the power structure in
Washtenaw County clearly illustrates two sig-
nificant changes in the politics of poverty:
-The politicization of the poor has become
a reality. The time has passed when welfare
recipients will allow a group of "uptight stu-
dent activists" and hypocritical upper middle
class "liberals" to dominate the welfare rights
movement.
-The inability of the Ann Arbor liberal es-
tablishment to shake off its benevolent pater-
nalism is also now quite clear.
September's crisis over emergency clothing
allowances has finally exposed the insincerity
of liberals in the community. It has demon-
strated that liberals are only willing to sup-
port a welfare cause when they are allowed to
assume its leadership and when the demands
themselves are even less substantial than the
recent request for school clothing allowances
based on each child's individual needs.
The $70-per-child that the tiny band of
welfare mothers managed to extract from the
recalcitrant supervisors is in itself an unim-

only justifiable, but is in fact part of a nation-
wide movement.
They have decided to throw off these
would-be benevolent oppressors completely.
On the other hand, the self-proclaimed "li-
beral" organizations of the middle class have
finally proven themselves unwilling to support
a humanitarian cause when the material de-
mands become too loud and too clear. They
cannot accept a simple request for more mon-
ey when it does not involve programs to send
the mothers back to work or get the children
out of their present "bad" environment.
Representatives of the middle class benevo-
lent societies were conspicuously absent from
the County Building during the period of con-
frontation. Those who accompanied the wel-
fare mothers to jail, with very few exceptions,
were students who were willing to follow their
lead.
THE APPARENTLY sudden and miraculous
transformation of a small band of ADC
mothers into a hard core of militant activists
is the culmination of a long'trend of develop-
ments.
To some extent, the group gained inspira-
tion from the nationwide campaign of welfare
recipients for a decent standard of living in
the midst of this otherwise affluent society. It
demonstrated a more adamant refusal to ac-
cept compromises foisted upon them by the
middle class. Welfare recipients have formed
their own organizations throughout the coun-
try because they are grossly dissatisfied with
the efforts of middle class groups composed of
social workers and professors, supposedly to
improve welfare services. And they have be-
come impatient with the volume of middle
class rhetoric which surrounds guaranteed an-
nual income proposals.
Middle class and professional organizations
have never -seriously tried to incorporate the
welfare recipients' wishes into their formula-
tion of strategy. The mass of recipient discon-
tent which sprang up across the country as a
result of this led to the formation of the Na-
tional Welfare Rights' Organization (NWRO),
a decentralized association of local welfare
rights groups.
In Washtenaw County, the fledgling wel-
fare rights movement was almost exclusively
the property of the middle class until Septem-
ber's clothing crisis. According to Mrs. Kate
Emerson, one of the area's first welfare rights
leaders, it was bogged down by a preponder-
ance of "ministers and nice, polite middle class
ladies."
"The mothers from the beginning have
wanted their own group," says Mrs. Emerson,
who helped to start Humanizing Existing Wel-
fare (HEW) late in 1966, one of the first re-
cipients' groups to be organized in the recent
demonstrations. But always before it had
been stymied by trying to work with the mid-
dle class.
FURTHERMORE, the ability of benevolent
members of the middle class to grasp the
problems which beset welfare recipients has
always been appalling. It has longassumed
that poverty is merely the result of poor work
habits and general lack of skill in dealing with
the problems of day-to-day living.
Some of the efforts by the middle class to
alleviate this situation have been ludicrous.
Mrs. Emerson relates: "the middle class wo-
men were always telling the mothers how to
buy food. They told us not to buy chicken un-
til It got down to 27 cents a pound and then
to store it in our deep freezes." The fact that
people on welfare might not be able to afford
deep freezes seemed to be a difficult concept
for middle class housewives in Ann Arbor.
Another attempt at charity by these early
middle class benefactors was a series of mo-
dern dance classes for the welfare mothers.
They also organized day care centers for
the children so that the mothers could work
and the children could get out of their "un-
healthy" environment.

welfare

movement

By Ann Munster

The welfare mothers have always felt that
their most pressing n'eeds are more basic than
these-needs which the middle class has nev-
er been able to comnprehend.
The middle class has consistently thought
of welfare as a form of charity-a dole which
they could always discontinue if the mothers.
got "uppity". But the welfare mothers are
undertaking a serious campaign to reform the
system, which for them is a life-and-death
struggle. They stress that the middle class
simply does not seem to realize that the en-
tire welfare system functions in a wholly ir-
rational and chaotic fashion and that thereby
the mothers' source of income is continually
threatened.
"The rules can be interpreted in a thous-
and different ways, and there are all sorts of
conflicting regulations," Mrs. Emerson says.
"Somehow the welfare people always seem to
pick the harshest.''
THE DEMANDS of the welfare mothers in
this area have never been, by any stretch
of, the imagination, radical ones. Many of
them have been simply clear-sighted reme-
dies to problems. which stem largely from the
basically slap-dash efforts of a guilt-ridden
and neurotic upper middle class to pacify the

internal leadership. No really momentous
strides had been made.
But events since the spring of 1967 clearly
show that however quiescent the movement
may have become, it always possessed the
potential for coherence and vitality. In addi-
tion, local welfare rights workers were also
acquainted with state and national organizers.
And much of their recent activity has focused
on issues of state and national scope.
This fall there was also an influx of new
people, primarily from Ypsilanti, who were
less concerned with middle class values than
many of the Ann Arbor welfare mothers. The
fact that this time middle class people and
welfare mothers with a middle class outlook
were not the leaders of the movement
wrought a transformation in tactics. Virtu-
ally all previous efforts had been directed at
achieving highly specific goals, ,completely
obscuring .the issue of fundamental change
for the system:
A CLASSIC EXAMPLE was the sso-called
Fair Play for People Coalition formed last
spring to block (successfully) the movement
of /county welfare department offices to an
extremely inconvenient office on N. Main.
When the welfare department agreed not to

the Fair Play for
welfare recipients
away'from seeking
"liberals' and the
tivists.

People organization, local
have turned completely
the support of middle class
leadership of student ac-

"The politicization of the poor has become a reality. The time has passed
when welfare recipients will allow a group of 'uptight s t u d e n t activists'
and hypocritical upper middle class 'liberals' to dominate the welfare
movement."

In tune with the nationwide trend -which
gave rise to NWRO they are trying to form a
strong organization composed solely of recip-
ients which will keep its own members con-
stantly mobilized, defy the middle class "sup-
port groups" if it has to, and keep the student
activists under control.
Moreover, the overwhelming white upper
middle class community of Ann Arbor is soon
going to have to recognize that it is surround-
ed by communities such as Ypsilanti with
much denser concentrations of. poor blacks
who are even more acutely aware of their op-
pression. And their organizational efforts are
not being hindered by geographical dispersal
or by the oppression of a strong middle class
and student community.
However, there is now some hope that a
small segment of the middle class has finally
awakened to the need for independent recipi-
ents' organizations and the necessity that it
play^ only a supporting role in the struggle
for welfare rights. One group, the Washtenaw
County Poor-People's Support Committee, has
complied with the recipients' wishes in sup-
plying only the kind of support they: have
requested.
There is even some talk of organizing the
.welfare caseworkers, many of whom are sym-
pathetic to the recipients' cause but are al-
most as terrified of the oppressive welfare sys-
tem as the recipients themselves. However,
the relatively small scope of the welfare sys-
tem in this area will probably necessitate
deferring this more difficult kind of action
for a while.
JN THE MEANTIME, a polarization is de-
veloping around the welfare issue. Those
who have always scorned welfare recipients as
a "bunch of freeloaders" have become more
vociferous in reaction to the recent demon-
*tration. Welfare recipients who have always
resented the system are bolstering their cour-
age and have begun to seriously assert them-
selves.
Although middle class attempts to reform
the welfare system were doomed by narrow
and eroneous conceptions of the poverty prob-
lem, they were a necessary starting point.
From now on, welfare recipients, and anyone
who will support them, will be making an
all-out effort tordemonstrate that the entire
welfare system is ludicrous and that a totally
different alternative must be devised.

Daily-Andy Sacks

pressive achievement. Thus it is exceedingly
unlikely that the welfare rights struggle in
this area is going to stop, having attained this
one particular goal.
Of far greater importance than the large
number of arrests and the massive student
mobilization is that the welfare mothers have
at last taken the .leadership of the welfare
rights ' movement in this area away from the
students and the middle class. All the groups
which have participated in the welfare rights
movement up to now - recipients, students,
and middle class support groups - are begin-
ning to learn their proper roles.
The students consistently took their cues
from the vanguard of 40 welfare mothers. Al-
though many of them undoubtedly were con-
tributing only their physical presence to the
fight against oppression, they have at least
begun to realize that they can no longer ex-
pect to 'exploit with impunity every movement
to fulfill their own psychological needs or po-
litical goals.
Several of the mothers have emerged as
dynamic leaders. They now realize that they
no longer need to meekly follow the lead of
the middle class support groups. And they have
begun to see that their own adherence to false
middle class values has hindered them from
pursuing their fight for justice in the welfare
system. They also see that their uneasiness
over working with middle class groups is not

blacks and the poor without jeopardizing.
their own position.
For example, the city several years ago
decided to bus children from the Jones School
area to other schools in higher income areas
of the city to achieve a racial balance in the
school system. Unfortunately this effort com-
pletely subordinated the educational needs
of the low-income children, who were placed
at extreme disadvantage in competing with
more affluent, white classmates. Although
the school board eventually started a pre-
school program for these children, it neglected
to provide adequate funds to operate the pro-
gram or to supply transportation for the
children.
This was by no means an isolated exam-
ple of problems created by poorly conceived
middle class programs. Several years ago, fed-
eral work training programs were started in
this area which neglected to provide adequate,
transportation funds for the mothers. And
the small training allowance which was pro-
vided "justified" the welfare department to
cut the mothers off the welfare roles. After
a,struggle, they were reinstated.
In the early' stages of the welfare rights
movement in this area, recipients concen-
trated much of their effort on the simple-day-
to-day struggle against the manifold injus-
tices perpetrated by the welfare department.
This effort centered primarily around the
resolution of grievances which arose because
of the welfare department's tendency to cut
recipients' allocations on false charges.
There was also an energetic campaign to
get financial aid for those mothers who
wanted to resume their education. Surprising-
ly enough, this met a great deal of resistance
from the educated middle class. "Middle class
people have theoretical, complicated notions
which incapacitate them from doing anything n
about anything," says Mrs. Emerson, the first
welfare mother from this area to attend col-
lege. She managed to do this only after a
drawn-out struggle with some of the groups
whose supposed function is to help the poor.
The situation has improved considerably,
however, in the last few years. There are now
over half a dozen welfare mothers taking

move, the white support groups thought the
job was done. The mobilization of welfare re-
cipients in defense of' their own interests
ceased because they had never been allowed
to participate and because plans for an on-
going reform effort were, never formulated.
"Before Fair Play for People, welfare recip-
ients just didn't know, for the most part, what
they wanted," Mrs.' Emerson says. But the
recipients continued to neet regularly among
themselves. And there were enough issues to
keep a lot of them at least partially mobilized.,
But, says Mrs. Emerson, "A coalition can't
work when a part of it isn't organized." And'
the overwhelming domination of Fair Play
for People by the middle class support groups
and students demonstrated clearly .to the
recipients that their basic inclination toward
having an organization of their own was en-
tirely correct.
Since that time, the laborious process of
building local welfare rights organizations has
been proceding steadily. With the demise of

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