Wages of Welfare War

Down in the Liberty City projects, a growing number of women's voices are just saying no to workfare as we know it

On a warm Friday morning in mid-December, the local Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency (WAGES) coalition held its monthly meeting at Miami-Dade Community College's downtown Wolfson Campus. The troubled agency's mission is to ease program participants off welfare and into the work force, a transition that has been rocky at best. As board members filed into the James K. Batten Room, they were greeted by a black, disoriented homeless man with raw, bloodshot eyes. The man attempted to light a cigarette butt he had retrieved from the ground, then pulled out a small Styrofoam cup from the inside pocket of his brown blazer. He held it out, hoping someone would drop in some spare change. No one did. One middle-age man attending the meeting avoided making eye contact with the strung-out vagabond altogether; briefcase in hand, he quickened his pace and dared not look back.

Fifteen minutes into the meeting, as some of the 31 board members discussed the results of a critical survey, female chanting resonated through an outside chamber. It was hard to ignore, and loud enough to drown out the bureaucratic drone. "We are the women, the fighting women./Everywhere we go, people want to know/who we are, so we tell them./We are the women, the mighty, mighty women," sang fifteen mostly black single mothers, in military style. The audience stirred and Milton Vickers, the coalition's executive director, shot up from his seat. He made a dash for the door as the collective voice of Minority Families Fighting Against WAGES, a grassroots organization from Liberty City, grew louder. The angry women, who carried signs that read "Save the Children," charge that WAGES is not connecting them to the kinds of jobs they need to support their families. When Vickers met the group at the entrance, an MDCC security guard and two National Guard members already had barred the protesters from barging into the public meeting.

In an effort to quell demonstrators, Vickers offered them five minutes to address their grievances to the board during the public-comment section at the end. "That's unacceptable," replied Ilana Berger, a 26-year-old POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) organizer from San Francisco, who was donating her time to the newly formed group. "Okay, okay, this is what I am willing to do," Vickers reconsidered, while the demonstrators continued to march, sing, and picket. "I will also provide myself and all of my staff to meet any place you want to, and address any issues that you have." But Berger wouldn't budge. "You people always want to get the women away from the meeting," she responded. "This is the forum to address those issues."

A small regiment of single mothers marches to war against welfare reform
Photo courtesy Gihan Perera
A small regiment of single mothers marches to war against welfare reform

"I am trying to provide you with a forum to speak on your issues," countered Vickers in an irate tone, visibly shaken. "Five minutes!" Berger exclaimed. "How much time does each board member get?"

"They are the board, ma'am," Vickers stressed impatiently.

Then he turned to Merlene Tassy, a 30-year-old single mother of four and a member of Minority Families who for the most part remained on the sidelines of negotiations. "You may not know how it works," Vickers scolded, pointing his finger at Tassy. "But she knows exactly how it works," he added, referring to Berger, a white Gen X-er clenching her bottled water. "Let's not be misled. In any public meeting you do not get carte blanche to speak." But succumbing to threats that the women would attempt to break through and chant "on the inside," Vickers agreed to allow three women to speak for three minutes each.

Tony Romano and Gihan Perera, the group's organizers, huddled and strategized with members and volunteers in a separate room. Then the pack entered the conference room, lined the back walls, and waited for their turn to speak. Stickers wrapped around each woman's arm read "United We Stand." Marcia Olivo, a volunteer from a Bronx, New York-based organization called Mothers On the Move, distributed fluorescent-yellow leaflets. Sheila O'Farrell, a 41-year-old consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change who has donated about $200 to Minority Families, videotaped the session. Outside, beyond the glass windows, as the board approved a plan to fix program weaknesses, a black, homeless man wearing a poncho tap-danced to the music in his head. According to the women, who at times offered less-than-eloquent testimonies of life after welfare, the WAGES coalition has been waltzing around the issues of their lives.

Tassy was one of the single moms who launched angry tirades from the podium. "It is time to wake up and listen to us," she demanded. "We are the WAGES participants. We have the solutions."

Or will have the solutions, according to organizer Romano. "It's not just about putting bandages on the problem," he says. "Part of the solution lies in organizing people. The women in this organization are slowly developing their skills to take collective ownership of their group." Once they do that, it is unclear what their next step will be. In the meantime they are airing their criticisms against WAGES. They have been to the last three coalition meetings and planned a fundraiser during the Martin Luther King Day parade.

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