LOS ANGELES – Expressing their concern over Republican efforts to expand so-called welfare reform, over 600 low-income residents, community activists, labor, religious and political leaders gathered at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in the Wilshire District here on June 15 for a Town Hall Meeting to jump start a national fightback campaign “to save the safety net.”

The meeting was sponsored by the LA Chapter of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of 1,000 grassroots community organizations in 42 states that work on poverty and economic justice issues. Welfare recipients and representatives from groups such as Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), ACORN and the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness spoke on topics including education and training, childcare, living wage jobs and public assistance benefits for immigrants.

Also speaking at the forum were Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice president AFL-CIO, and Reps. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), though unable to attend, spoke to the audience via videotape.

With Bush administration support, the Republican-controlled House recently passed a welfare bill that makes further cuts in public assistance while at the same time, increases the number of hours a recipient must work in order to maintain benefits. Under the House bill, a welfare recipient must work 40 hours per week, 24 hours of which must be in work-related activities that are not related to education and vocational training. But even in the remaining 16 hours that can be devoted to education and training, the limits are severe. The bill limits the training and education to just three months in a 24-month period, with little or no help for childcare.

The Senate is currently set to begin debate on its version of the welfare bill. A number of Senate Democrats, including Boxer, are drafting alternative proposals that would expand childcare benefits and allow welfare recipients to substitute education and training hours in place of the rigid work requirements.

Solis criticized the limits on training, education and childcare under the House bill, and called for eligibility rules that “help instead of hinder” welfare recipients as they try to break the cycle of poverty. She also supported the restoration of public assistance eligibility to immigrants. “They [immigrants] pay their taxes, why shouldn’t they be eligible to receive benefits?”

Chavez-Thompson blasted the Bush administration and its conservative allies in Congress for “their so-called reforms that kick families out of their homes, leave children without enough to eat, and shrinks welfare rolls but never gives people a chance to move out of poverty.”

Welfare is an especially important issue in Los Angeles, since LA County has a larger welfare caseload than most states. When the five-year limit on assistance is reached next January, between 35,000 and 40,000 recipients will automatically lose eligibility.

Waters called for an increased activism to fight the “Republican assault on the poor.” Thee Republicans, she said, “aren’t really talking about welfare reform, they’re really talking about welfare punishment. They want their constituents to believe that welfare recipients are the problem. But it’s the Enrons of the world who are really the problem.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, about 300 participants marched to the busy street corner of Wilshire and Vermont for a rally, where they displayed a giant billboard that displayed slogans supporting welfare rights.

The author can be reached at rayleos@aol.com