Learning from Victory
In this issue, we offer two articles exploring the challenges of welfare reform from the perspective of community organizers and housing activists.
We’ve all heard of the remarkable decreases in welfare caseloads around the country, but we’re only now starting to read about the failure of reform programs in many states to provide people with jobs that will lead and keep them out of poverty. Responding to these issues, many grassroots activists have focused their attention on reforming “welfare reform.” Can they succeed?
The Center for Community Change (CCC) thinks so. A few months ago, CCC invited members of community organizing groups fighting for diverse issues – living wage jobs, environmental justice, transportation, and affordable housing – to participate in a strategy meeting around welfare reform.
As explored in an article by Leigh Dingerson of CCC, participants in the meeting described their local victories and discussed ways to collaborate on a national scale. They agreed that the key to successful welfare reform must encompass a platform that contends “work must be there; work must be fair; work must be possible; and there must be a safety net.” These groups’ local victories are showing progressives how to reframe the welfare debate and provide real opportunities for low-income people.
A second article, by Barbara Sard and Jennifer Daskal of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reminds us that welfare reform isn’t only about jobs. Sard and Daskal write that “. . . about one million, or nearly half, of HUD-assisted families with children received some income from AFDC/TANF in 1996. . . . about 260,000 lived in public housing, 480,000 received tenant-based vouchers and certificates, and 250,000 lived in project-based Section 8 housing.” If these families lose their assistance and are unable to find work, the housing authorities that rely on that assistance for rent will find themselves with fewer resources than they already have. Without jobs, even more families will be living in the streets.
Some Good News
The social and economic stresses that so many parents face have a profound and debilitating effect on children and families throughout the country. But while the tragic consequences of many of these problems become grist for the evening news, the media often neglects the hard work being done to help undo the damage.
Photographer Stephen Shames brings this good work to our attention with a recently completed two-year project highlighting successful family service organizations around the country. That project resulted in a book and exhibition of photographs called Pursuing the Dream. A selection of his photographs are reproduced here. (Available only in print edition.) Shames’ work is testament to the desire and ability of parents to overcome the odds when given the right measure of help.
From the grassroots organizers who attended the CCC meeting to the family support groups depicted by Shames, we learn that bringing people out of poverty is possible with hard work and long-term commitment. Their victories-some affecting thousands across a state, others just one family-are lessons that should guide all our work.