I was wrongfully cut off from welfare six times in the past year alone, mainly as a result of “missing documentation.” My welfare benefits worker either intentionally or unintentionally lost my paperwork. She also told me she had a problem with my being in school and not at work. (I am a college student.) When I pointed out that I work part-time and that I have a right to a college education under California state welfare laws, she told me she did not like me telling her how to do her job. I have found that welfare employment and benefits workers often engage in such abusive behavior and deny support to legitimate recipients with children. I have the tools to address these injustices because I know my rights and have experience as an advocate. But what about other low-income mothers navigating the quagmire of “welfare deform,” as my associates and I call it?
Over the last two years, I have conducted research and worked with a grassroots advocacy organization, Low Income Families Empowerment Through Education (LIFETIME), to help empower other women like me who are striving to be good parents in the face of poverty. Clearly the label “human rights” is called for when these women are struggling just to survive at the very time that nearby Silicon Valley produces 34 millionaires a day!
The current federal welfare reform laws deny low-income women education in favor of work-first programs that lead to low-wage jobs with no room for career advancement, little job security, and often no health benefits. Study after study has shown that higher education is the most effective means to help poor families become self-reliant. Yet across the nation, women with children are being pushed out of education and training programs that would significantly increase their earning potential and help them create a greater sense of life fulfillment. The number of low-income women forced to drop out of college because of the implementation of welfare reform varies from state to state, but it is estimated by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Law and Social Policy to be between 42 and 82 percent. Without good education and training, women with children living in poverty will continue to suffer despite their best efforts to pull themselves out.
Early on in my advocacy work, I became aware of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) while cooperating with other community-based organizations involved in the rights of poor people. These documents have helped to guide the principles and goals of the work that I do. To understand welfare reform in human rights terms is empowering and opens up a new door to understanding the issues at hand. In fact, I am often overwhelmed by the extent to which the human rights framework, by placing the United States in an international context, lays bare the injustices inflicted upon those living in poverty in this country. I am appalled that the United States still has not ratified CEDAW. But if Congress ever did, the entire welfare reform system would have to be overhauled because, by denying access to education, health care, food, and jobs, it blatantly violates the human rights of low-income families.
I frequently employ international human rights concepts and language in my advocacy and education work, especially when people challenge my claims for social justice for welfare recipients. “Where is it written that the United States is obligated to help those in need?” they frequently ask, observing that this is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. I then refer them to the UDHR and explain that current U.S. policies are not only failing to meet many of the requirements of the Declaration, but are in fact making the situation worse and causing many American children to suffer.
Human rights arguments work best when appealing to legislators, who are more aware of such concepts. But the majority of Americans have not accepted the international human rights framework, so this approach has limited ability to successfully challenge current discriminatory welfare policies. For now, the most effective course of action is to work with low-income families and take advantage of opportunities for media exposure and public forums to counter harmful and discriminatory misperceptions.
Some welfare recipients have a hard time with the idea that they are victims of human rights abuse because they are not seeking an activist agenda. Many of the women I work with have little time in their lives to fight back after going to school full-time, working part-time, and being both mommy and daddy at home. Some women on welfare are also unwilling to participate politically because they fear further judgments from conservatives who promote wrongful stereotypes. Still others do not want to get involved because they are fed up with the system, tired of being beat up by unfair and spiteful welfare workers, and want nothing more than to forget they are, or ever were, on welfare.
Still, I am an optimist. I put my hopes in the many women on welfare with whom I come into contact who are open-minded, absorbing information about human rights and rising to the challenge of speaking out. To me, this is the face of the future. There is a tremendous political movement afoot that objects to the injustice of welfare reform. As people in the United States gain a greater awareness of the international human rights regime, and as they start to apply human rights to problems of economic justice in our own backyard, the human rights framework will become an increasingly powerful means to realize such change.