Fighting for Our Families' Lives

— an interview with Sylvia Mitchell

SYLVIA MITCHELL IS a longtime activist and a community organizer in Portland, Oregon. She was interviewed by David Finkel for ATC.

Against the Current: What's the specific situation with federal waivers for welfare in Oregon right now?

Sylvia Mitchell: The main waiver is to allow mandated work programs. In Oregon, this is called Jobs Plus. It was passed in the Oregon legislature in 1993 and received federal approval in 1994.

As far as I know, most of the placements are in private sector jobs, for the most part in small businesses: retail clerks, janitors, receptionists--there was even one manager for a real estate agency!--getting paid around $5.00 an hour. Then the state reimburses the employer the amount of the minimum wage.

So far, they've had only 290 participants in seven counties where the program started. They cash out your food stamps and welfare benefits when they place you with an employer. That means they take away those benefits from you, in order to subsidize the employer. If you're a single parent with two children, for example, what you would have gotten in welfare and food stamp benefits amounted to the minimum wage.

If you get a regular minimum wage job (i.e. outside the Jobs Plus program) you can still get food stamps because you're so far below poverty level. With Jobs Plus they take that away.

ATC: This sounds like a good welfare program--for business, anyway.

SM: Right. But I think they're struggling to get businesses involved in the program. So far it's mostly small businesses and a couple of temp agencies.

The guy who organized it is a private employer named Dick Wendt, president of the Wendt Corporation. He ran the ballot initiative in Oregon for this program, and paid people to petition.

They're going after people to participate voluntarily at first, but it will become a mandatory program. In this last legislative session, 1995, they re-introduced the bill to expand the program statewide. They're in the process of getting the federal waiver for that, and I suppose they are waiting for welfare to be block-granted.

When the program goes statewide, I suppose they'll be doing a lot of marketing to small businesses. They also passed State Senate Bill 1117, which attaches a two-year time limit on assistance and puts restrictions on teen parents, requiring them to live at home (unless there's some proven abuse, in which case they can live in
a group home).

ATC: What's the impact on people?

SM: I interviewed one woman who said sometimes she doesn't have food to send with her child to child care. They eat a lot of boxed noodles. It increases stress on her and her child, and it was creating stress in a relationship by making her more dependent on her boyfriend.

In one pilot county, because they have people doing this Jobs Plus program--and while you're participating, you still have to go out and look for a job, working thirty-two hours and jobhunting another eight hours a week--some people told me the jobs they looked for were already taken by other Jobs Plus participants.

ATC: What's been the response of the welfare rights movement, and why isn't there more public outcry over this assault on people?

SM: I would say that the reason there's no public outcry is that both sides agree with "work." As an organizer, it's hard to organize anyone--whether it's social service agencies or unions or anyone else--when everyone agrees that "getting people off welfare into work" is good. How do you fight something you agree with?

As the government program changes, agencies adapt their services. Their thinking is: Let's see if we can be involved in Jobs Plus, and keep ourselves alive as a non-profit. That's what really makes me mad--seeing them go with the flow of government because, if they don't, how are they going to win contracts from the government?

And as far as the public goes, all it hears from the right wing is that "we're putting people to work." You don't hear what it's really like to survive--it's a slow process of deterioration. The other thing is that the right-wing solutions can sound easy to people who are frustrated and tired of the problems of their children and the problems in their communities.

ATC: What organizing strategy do you find you can use to counteract this trend?

SM: Basically, I don't focus on all this as a welfare issue but as a working class issue. Welfare isn't about people not working, because they've been working all along! It's a wage issue, it's an economics issue. The decline in income will only continue. Welfare is the bottom floor; if you get rid of that, where are you going to go?

The project I've been working on is about redefining work and looking at the work ethic. Where do we get our work values, and have we given up our families and communities so we can work fifty hours in some trailer factory and then come home and yell at our kids because we can't make it?

I'm working with the Oregon Human Rights Coalition, which has been around since 1981. As an organization we're not going to oppose work-mandate programs now, as we did before. We're going to create our own work program and use it to fight back.

Right now our program is at the research stage. We hope to have the model identified by November or December and be prepared to take it into the legislative session. This is to take place at the community level--I'm going into communities to generate discussions about alternative ways we can work and then look at community-based jobs.

ATC: For example?

SM: We will identify agencies in a small community--in northeast Portland--where we'll try to enlist them to be partners with us to develop a model program. This means asking public schools, Head Start, domestic violence programs, or a community development corporation to identify special projects like fixing up apartments or planting trees.

Then we'll recruit people into these work programs. But it won't be forty hours a week, it would be fewer hours; then after-school programs to be staffed by the women, child-care cooperatives, community markets, and a micro-enterprise or "cottage industry" development.

If we can't get these agencies to partner with us, we will launch a campaign against them and against the government. We will get aggressive; they can't just sit back and do nothing.

We intend to build a whole public education piece in there too, about how in the 1930s and the `60s there were public works. Now the jobs programs are all in the private sector, and they haven't even funded those. And the two-year time limit is real--how can the state save all those billions of dollars except by cutting people off?

Most of the cuts have hit low-income families and their children; the agencies have been able to deliver their services and feel they are making a contribution--emergency services, shelter networks, emergency food banks, etc. have all grown. Now for the first time, really, the proposed budget cuts are going to affect them too. And in that process they won't be able to see the broader picture.

My first involvement with the welfare system was in 1979. I have sixteen years experience in survival, and I know what it does to me. Now a lot of women like myself are at the breaking point. I've been climbing up the ladder, getting knocked back down and picking my children up. Now it's become unbearable, there's almost nothing left to hold on to.

ATC: You already mentioned some of the barriers to effective organizing, but can you discuss them a little more and suggest how they can be overcome?

SM: There are women fighting back clear across this country; they aren't visible because they have to fight everyone a lot. As a low-income person and a leader, most of your energy is spent trying to find resources--and fighting in your own community to get support.

As far as the obstacles, I would identify three basic components. First, it's difficult to organize low-income people. They have resources, but not money--there's a lack of access, lack of opportunity, no leverage. That's the first part.

Then secondly, you have the social service community, which serves low-income people. Their energy is focussed on advocacy to save their programs, or the resources for them. Each social service agency provides a single service or addresses one particular issue--food, housing, Head Start--for low-income people.

So their primary self-interest is to organize us around their need to provide services to us. That creates a weird dynamic. As the forces attacking poor people move, the social service people are defending programs that have undergone serious budget cuts since Reagan. It's difficult to get them involved; they're used to us supporting them, not them supporting us.

The biggest barrier here is class, and then the anger of low-income people. And when I get angry, it takes my energy and gets in the way of thinking and developing strategy.

People from the social service community don't understand that low-income folks can pick up on class bias; but once you experience it your first instinct is to get as far away from it as you can, because it hurts.

It makes you feel constantly reminded of your low skill level and your language, the fact that they know more than you do, that they're the expert and you're the client. Then they don't understand why low-income people won't organize with them.

Some of the same things happen when you turn to the progressive community, the organizations that do political work on a wide variety of issues like the environment, gay and lesbian rights, people of color. They have their issues and priorities and the resources to work on those.

Here in Oregon the progressive community has decided that campaigning to raise the minimum wage would be a way of drawing working-class and low-income people into the movement. But they didn't actually discuss this with working-class and low-income people, they just decided--how do they know what will move these people?

But our organization is fortunate in having a lot of people who want to help, who can support leadership and allow it to develop. My politics have been allowed to grow. I don't have to go to some progressive organization and buy their particular politics, and I don't think I could have been a leader in my community that way.

ATC 61, March-April 1996

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