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

The biggest complaint, according to Perera, was that WAGES was not helping people find employment. Not minimum-wage, dead-end jobs, but real jobs that offered stability, benefits, and upward mobility.

"People are not being paid a living wage," concedes the WAGES staffer. "They're also being placed in jobs where there's no growth opportunity." Not surprisingly then, says Perera, from the very beginning residents of Liberty City saw WAGES as an attack on their community. "Welfare for some people is cyclical; they were raised on the system," explains the unnamed employee. "Their mothers and grandmothers did it before them, and now here we come along asking people to change their culture. We want to change about 60 years of history in 3 years. It's gonna take time."

Sheton Bellamy was living with a friend and her two baby boys in an apartment on NW 60th Street and Twelfth Avenue when Perera knocked on her door and introduced himself in November 1998. She's been attending meetings on and off ever since. Merlene Tassy was leaving a Liberty City flea market when she stepped on a brightly colored flyer that called out to her. It read, "Our Voices Must Be Heard." Now Tassy, who has spent her life in the projects, is a Minority Families steering-committee board member. Treva Landrum opened her door to two strangers one day and now she too is on the committee. "Everybody around here was tired of WAGES," Landrum relates. "Gihan and Tony went door to door listening to each person's story." A friend of Veronica Sweeting dragged her to a meeting. Sweeting, also on the steering committee, has even been to a conference in San Francisco representing Minority Families.

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

Last September 21 Perera and Romano held the organization's first meeting in Liberty Square's community center. It was a symbolic choice; the barracks-style housing project is the second oldest in the nation. Fifty people showed up at the pale, blue-gray center that at one time was used most frequently as a forum for crime-related discussions. "It was like a religious revival," Perera says.

"People were like, 'I haven't seen people come together in this community for years,'" Romano adds.

There hasn't been much of a sense of community in Liberty City for the past three decades. Beginning in the 1970s, the area fell victim to a nationwide economic slump, and then it became a virtual drug state. The dire problems boiled over in the early 1980s in the form of social unrest, and crime and violence have continued to plague the area ever since. The severe social and economic ills persist: Unemployment is as high as 26 percent in some corners of Liberty City, more than four times the county average. Liberty City also is home to one of the highest concentrations of welfare recipients in the county.

Most of the seven women who formed a steering committee that September evening did so on impulse. A majority dropped out, and another handful enlisted. Nine women have since formed a second steering committee. They meet weekly, pass out flyers, and do community outreach. Large monthly meetings like the first one held in Liberty Square's community center are open to the public.

But getting members to commit remains a challenge. Distractions at home, such as babies, boyfriends, and day-to-day struggles, are factors Romano and Perera must contend with. "It can get frustrating for us," Perera says. " We pull out our hair a lot. One of our biggest challenges is convincing members that the power of change lies in them."

Sometimes a lack of motivation also poses a problem. On a recent early Tuesday morning, Veronica Sweeting wouldn't get out of bed to leaflet hundreds of WAGES dropouts who had congregated near her home. The crowd waited for rides that would transport them to MDCC's North Campus as part of a WAGES-backed two-week push to re-engage former program participants. In other words just the right candidates for Minority Families. But Sweeting lost a golden opportunity.

On the other hand, Sweeting has taken on responsibilities for which no one ever prepared her. A turning point came in mid-November. For the first time in her life she left Liberty City. For the first time in her life she boarded an airplane. For the first time in her life she visited San Francisco, attended a conference, and hung out with people unlike herself. Thanks to a paid invitation from the Applied Research Center in Oakland, California, Sweeting and Perera represented Minority Families in a conference of 45 organizations rallying against welfare reform. "It was encouraging," Sweeting comments unenthusiastically from her rundown two-bedroom apartment.

But the scene outside Sweeting's drab brown building is anything but promising. Weeds and detritus have conquered an otherwise empty field across from her house. Young men are congregated outside the corner store early in the afternoon. Still Sweeting remains hopeful Minority Families will usher change into her neighborhood. "Being part of an organization that can turn lives around is exciting," she says. "Some people have done gave up. We know it's gonna be a struggle."

Minority Families' uphill battle is twofold. The group must tackle its own weaknesses as an organization before it can offer solutions to a tottering WAGES agency. The goals aren't set in stone. Right now the group's most powerful ammunition is discontent in inner-city women. "The organizers of this group have no preconceived notion of what the organization's agenda will be," Greenfield says. "They're very protective of the members setting their own pace, and that strikes me as being the right and true way to go. I can't imagine that they won't achieve some kind of success."

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