NEW HAVEN, Conn. – “When the President is planning to increase the work requirement from 32 hours to 40 hours, he better also provide funding for child care,” Lissette Martinez told a Town Hall Meeting on Welfare Rights here last week to loud applause. “Otherwise, his policies will tear our families apart.”

Martinez, a single mother of three, was one of several women who courageously told their stories to a listening panel of elected officials and leaders including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). The statewide meeting, one of 12 across the country, was organized by Mothers for Justice of New Haven and the national Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL). A host of organizations co-sponsored the event, which addressed the major issues under debate in the welfare reauthorization process.

Jo-Ann Ndiaye, a mother of five, lost her job due to lack of reliable child care, and was unable to complete schooling when her welfare time limit expired. She now lives with her children at a homeless shelter. “I am considered a success story because I am off of welfare. What do you think? Who was successful? Surely not me,” she said. “The majority of families facing time limits in Connecticut now are Black or Latino. … We need policies that protect against discrimination and open the doors of opportunity.”

DeLauro, visibly moved by the testimonies, called this “the most important debate Congress will have for some time. It will determine if we lift families up and out of poverty or sit idly by.”

DeLauro is one of 82 co-sponsors of HR-3113, the TANF [Temporary Aid to Needy Families] Reauthorization Act of 2001, introduced by Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii).

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources and the Senate Finance Committee are now developing their legislative proposals. Several bills have already been introduced, including some with a focus on ending poverty and others that carry forward the Bush program of further cuts and less opportunity. Already, public outcry has forced President Bush to withdraw one proposal that would have required working below the minimum wage.

DeLauro spoke strongly against the Presidential priorities of budget cuts for the poor, including $500 million from job training programs, and tax cuts for the richest corporations. In a letter to the meeting, Rep. Jim Maloney (D-Conn.) said, “In Connecticut alone, almost 27,000 jobs have been lost in the last year. The result of these job-training cuts would be devastating in this struggling economy.”

Welfare recipients and advocates were urged to call members of Congress for support on five main issues: restoration of benefits to immigrant families; increasing access to education and training programs; adoption of civil rights protections for parents on welfare; opposing an increase in mandatory requirements for parents; and opposing President Bush’s proposal to use welfare funds to promote marriage.

Saying that “marriage does not end poverty,” Josie Gomez, whose husband’s 80-hour work week does not bring home enough to make ends meet for their family of seven, angrily rejected Bush’s plan to divert $300 million from welfare funds to promote marriage.

George Springer, of the American Federation of Teachers and the Coalition to End Child Poverty, called for concerted action to end the situation where “day after day mothers must choose between food, clothing, housing and medicine for their children.”

“There is a tremendous amount of wealth in this nation. There is something wrong if we don’t reward work by paying more than poverty wages,” said Connecticut AFL-CIO President John Olsen. “Our most important resource is the human resource.”

Luz Santana, of Vecinos Unidos in Hartford, said, “We want a welfare program that lifts families out of poverty. In Connecticut, a parent of two children needs to make at least $15 per hour to make ends meet. But only one out of every five parents who leave welfare in Connecticut makes even $10 an hour.”

Santana also spoke about the discrimination faced by those whose first language is not English, calling for “special funding that states can allocate to hire more translators and to make sure that everyone who needs benefits and is eligible is receiving them, including immigrant families,” said Santana.

“This is not so much about welfare reform as it is about workers’ rights,” declared State Sen. Toni Harp, who participated on the listening panel. “What good is it to give someone a job if they can’t provide for their family?”

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com

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