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

With that ideal, a $5000 New World Foundation grant, the intellectual support of the National Employment Law Project, and the guidance of a few other activists (including the two organizers from New York and San Francisco who attended the WAGES meeting), Perera and Romano founded the Miami Workers' Center last March. Perera took a job selling computer parts; Romano dedicated himself full-time to get the center up and running. The two rented a charming, wood-floor Buena Vista duplex and set up camp. Equipped with a laptop and a cell phone, they got to work.

While worker centers have been around for at least 25 years (one of the first popped up in New York City's Chinatown to protect exploited Chinese laborers who toiled in restaurants and sweatshops), the Miami Workers' Center is the first such organization in the area. "It's about time we had one," says attorney Valory Greenfield. "Smaller cities than Miami have them; it's long overdue." Still Perera and Romano have a long road to pave. Unlike cities with an industrial base, there aren't any strong ties to unions in Miami, let alone a tradition of organizing workers. "There is, however, a history of sporadic protests and violence in Liberty City," Romano points out. "Our concern is to try to organize folks to funnel that anger in a positive direction."

Like others across the nation, the Miami Workers' Center reaches out to a constituency that labor unions traditionally have ignored. Specifically Perera and Romano's mission is to organize former and current welfare recipients "without losing sight of the bigger picture of social justice," Perera adds. Like Romano he interprets WAGES's shortcomings through the filter of class struggle.

No longer receiving cash benefits, Merlene Tassy's four kids now depend on her
Steve Satterwhite
No longer receiving cash benefits, Merlene Tassy's four kids now depend on her
Public benefits attorney Valory Greenfield says WAGES doesn't work
Steve Satterwhite
Public benefits attorney Valory Greenfield says WAGES doesn't work

The duo uses phrases such as "the displacement of workers," "free labor," and a "revolving work force" to describe the working-class's plight against globalization, and what they see as the government's attempt to further bury the poor by cutting off safety nets that have been in place for 60 years. They refer to the local WAGES board as a "power coalition," because more than half of the seats are held by members of the private sector. "There are economic factors at play here," Romano asserts while standing in the hallway of his Buena Vista home. Sketched on each wall are Soviet-era style proletariat figures rising from the ground, their rough, mammoth hands reaching up to the ceiling. "At a time when unemployment is relatively low, the government decides to cut people's welfare and throws them into the unemployment pool. That in turn creates more competition among workers, wages go down, and profits go up. How deliberately it's done, I don't know; I'm not in the backrooms. But there's no doubt in my mind that the whole system is set up to encourage that people don't stay in jobs."

In 1996, before Perera and Romano began flirting with the idea of mounting a battle against welfare reform, the state WAGES board created local coalitions to administer Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The law requires former AFDC recipients to earn their welfare checks, sets time limits for receiving them, and eventually pushes welfare dependents off the rolls by placing them in subsistence-level jobs.

Welfare recipients can stay on the rolls for two consecutive years within a five-year period, as long as they participate in WAGES, either through "volunteering" their hours for welfare checks (also termed workfare), or by attending training courses. The goal is for recipients to graduate from WAGES with stable, long-term jobs. But critics claim those long-term jobs often last only a few months. Under the new laws, former welfare recipients can return to the rolls only once, for two additional years. In total they are allowed four years of cash assistance over a lifetime, with an extra yearlong hardship exemption as the only remaining window for monetary relief.

Almost overnight, and in more ways than one, this welfare reform changed the lives of four women who now are active in the Minority Families fight against WAGES: Sheton Bellamy, Treva Landrum, Veronica Sweeting, and Merlene Tassy. WAGES withdrew Bellamy and Landrum's cash assistance because they weren't participating in the program. Tassy's government check stopped coming in when the mild-mannered mother of four began working full-time for slightly above-average pay. (WAGES workers generally earn about $6.09 per hour compared with $5.15 per hour minimum wage.) And though Sweeting's time for assistance is almost up, the 21-year-old says she hasn't even heard from WAGES.

All four Minority Families members are single moms struggling to get ahead. All sometimes feel as though they're running in place. "These past few months have been the worst months I've ever had," says 28-year-old Bellamy from the dark kitchen of her home in Liberty City. Yet the best these women can hope for, according to WAGES executive director Milton Vickers, is to join the working poor. "No one who comes off welfare is going to be thoroughly self-sufficient," he adds. "That's the reality."

But Bellamy, Tassy, Landrum, and Sweeting contend WAGES can certainly meet them halfway. "We're not asking for handouts," Landrum declares. "Most of us want jobs. And we're not trying to eliminate WAGES either. We're just trying to reconstruct it. We just want somebody to sit down and listen to us." Some of the women point to specific problems in job placement and transportation. Another challenges welfare reform's philosophy that working moms set better examples for their children. All say they feel excluded from the very system that decides their fate. "When the local WAGES coalition is voting on our lives, we can't interrupt," Landrum says. "None of them experience what we experience. We can help each other better than anybody else can."

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