Maribel Soto lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she raises her three children – aged 9, 11 and 14 – while she works 35 hours a week to receive government financial aid. She also organizes against “welfare reform” as part of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE). She joined many other groups who are part of Grass Roots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL) to speak to legislators in Washington, D.C., last February.

She described what it means to live under the current rules and regulations governing Americans’ survival in poverty. “It is mandatory that I do WEP – the Work Experience Program – 35 hours a week to receive my benefits,” testified Soto. “That means I work for less than $2 an hour, usually in demeaning jobs like cleaning the streets or parks – it’s slavery – and there are so many people out there going through this.”

These sub-minimum wages, illegally low in fact, are allowed because workfare is considered “community service.” To add insult to injury, Soto and other workers cannot unionize for better pay, sick leave or respect on the job.

This May the House passed the draconian Bush-backed plan for the re-authorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This version has even tougher work requirements, demanding 40 hours of paid work per week from people, mostly women, many women of color, who already work as they raise their children.

Republicans say that because welfare rolls have dropped, welfare reform works. What they refuse to admit is that poverty levels have not dropped, not for adults and certainly not for children, even in supposed boom years of the 1990s. Forty percent of former welfare recipients, over a million people, do not have a job. Even those with minimum wage jobs do not earn living wages, now they work in poverty.

The House bill, which goes to the Senate this month, demands more paid work but gives very little money for childcare, and bans benefits to legal immigrants. Welfare reform means the reduction of aid to people struggling to make better lives for themselves, not the reduction of poverty.

As Maribel Soto argues, “Welfare is forcing people to work without allowing us to find jobs that will lead to the survival of our families. So please, help us get out of poverty and not into dead end jobs with no future.”

Progressive bills were introduced in the House, backed by Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), and in the Senate, backed by Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). These bills fought to reduce the conditions of poverty through education, healthy childcare facilities and respectful treatment of recipients. These bills seek to change the emphasis of welfare reform from punishing the poor to supporting people who face economic hardship. But even with the support of women’s groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and grassroots coalitions like GROWL, the fight is difficult.

Mary Caferro, a welfare participant from Montana also participated in the speak-out in Washington, D.C. As member of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL) she spoke against mandating marriage, a key part of the Bash-backed bill. From personal experience, Caferro testified against these invasive demands. “Marriage promotion is not about solving poverty. Marriage promotion is about controlling women by using racist rhetoric and restrictive policy … the role it plays in destabilizing families and the blind eye it turns on domestic violence situations.”

Many states currently face huge deficits in childcare facilities. State legislators say that only one in seven children of working welfare recipients have childcare. In California, 280,000 children are on waiting lists for care. Working mothers must make impossible choices about how to provide care for their children while they take paid jobs. Left in substandard daycare or with unsafe childcare providers or without any adult supervision, children’s needs languish. With childcare bills of $650 to $800 per month, many working mothers cannot afford to work outside of the home.

As national legislators posture about tough love and self respect, they close doors of education, healthy child rearing, and dignity. Coalitions like GROWL organize the people who struggle to survive welfare reform with dignity and hope, like Maribel Soto and Mary Caferro. Legislation, like the Mink bill in the House and the Wellstone bill in the Senate, fight to reduce poverty, not welfare rolls.

Lisa Armstrong teaches Women’s Studies at Smith College.
She can be reached at