In the Media

TEEN VOGUE – The National Welfare Rights Organization Wanted Economic Justice for Black Americans

12. 24. 2021

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black single mothers founded the welfare rights movement and ignited a push for true economic justice.

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This article, written by ESP Senior Journalism Fellow Jacqui Germain, originally appeared in TeenVogue.

Johnnie Tillmon was a single mother of six, the daughter of a sharecropper, and one of the most influential welfare rights activists in the country. “I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare,” Tillmon writes in her landmark 1972 essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” published in Ms. magazine. “In this country, if you’re any of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all of those things, you don’t count at all.”

Tillmon got her start in the movement by organizing other mothers and welfare recipients in her own housing project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. By 1967, Tillmon became the first chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), a multiracial coalition that at its peak had an estimated membership of nearly 25,000. The work of welfare rights activist groups like the NWRO — and the policies they proposed — greatly influenced the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. especially. In fact, his support for a guaranteed income (GI), generally referred to as a universal basic income (UBI) today, was largely motivated by these Black women activists and their radical approach to welfare.

“The poor people’s campaign was not [Dr. King’s] idea,” explains Dr. Premilla Nadasen, associate professor of history at Barnard College, and the author of Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement. “It was an idea that germinated in conversations among welfare rights activists and other civil rights activists and it was really pushed to the foreground because of the Welfare Rights Movement.”

How welfare policy radicalized a generation of poor, single Black mothers

Early welfare policy, formally established in 1935 as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, wasn’t saddled with the racialized and gendered stigma that we see today. Back then, Dr. Nadasen says, the vast majority of welfare recipients were white single mothers.

“It was only when the demographics of the program began to shift in the 1950s and the 1960s and more and more women of color started receiving welfare assistance that it became a controversial program,” Dr. Nadasen explains to Teen Vogue. “There were more and more requirements placed on welfare recipients and more rules and regulations that served as grounds for cutting people off of welfare assistance.”

Like Tillmon in the early 1960s, many welfare rights activists began organizing organically, using the material realities of their everyday lives to shape their priorities, strategy, and future policy proposals. Some of those informal meetings between welfare recipients became the basis for innovative solutions, such as creating buying clubs, working together to identify the best sales and coupons, and negotiating with stores to get high-quality food products.

“They had the question of economic agenda at the forefront from the very beginning and never saw the question of racial justice as separate from or divorced from economic justice and gender equality,” says Dr. Nadasen. “So they were practicing what we today would call intersectionality even before it had that name.”

Shaping a more radical view of economic justice

In contrast with middle-class white women who were organizing around their right to join the workforce, Black women were already expected to work and spend time away from their children, often filling domestic roles caring for the children of those same middle-class white women. The poor Black women that made up the bulk of the Welfare Rights Movement wanted to prioritize motherhood instead, arguing that economic justice was about more than job opportunities. To them, it meant a guaranteed standard of living, regardless of whether or not you worked outside the home.

Under Dr. King’s leadership, the Civil Rights Movement addressed economic justice by focusing largely on employment discrimination. It wasn’t until later in Dr. King’s life that he came to embrace a more radical understanding of class, poverty, and dignity.

“For many people, the question of poverty really circulated around the problem of single motherhood and the problems of lack of jobs for Black men,” explains Dr. Nadasen. “People like Martin Luther King, people like Bayard Rustin, many of the civil rights leaders, when they did talk about economic justice, they talked about it in terms of economic opportunity and job creation.”

By the mid-1960s, the NWRO and other welfare rights activists were “extremely visible” on the national stage, says Dr. Felicia Kornbluh, professor of history and of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Vermont, and the author of The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America. According to both Dr. Kornbluh and Dr. Nadasen, Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington was inspired by the NWRO’s success, and his eventual vocal support of guaranteed income was motivated by their work and growing political influence on Capitol Hill. The NWRO was considered to be “an important lobbying force” on federal welfare policy and had been called to testify before Congress on welfare issues. Their 1966 “Walk for Decent Welfare” stretched 150 miles from Cleveland to Columbus, Ohio, the state capitol, with thousands of people either joining or demonstrating solidarity in other cities. But when Dr. King actually met with the women of the NWRO in the months before the Poor People’s Campaign, says Dr. Kornbluh, he seemed uninformed about the realities of welfare policy.

“They had some very specific demands and King just — he just wasn’t really paying attention to the issue,” she explains. “So they had a tough conversation with King and they recruited him to their real goal, which was to create a new program that would put their economic well-being on a new footing.”

The NWRO’s solution to poverty: guaranteed adequate income

Informed by their own firsthand experiences, the single mothers of the Welfare Rights Movement developed bold welfare policy proposals that prioritized their dignity and agency. In a country that still defines poverty as an issue of individual poor choices, the insistence that their economic condition wasn’t a personal failing was a significant intervention in 1960s America — especially as poor, mostly Black women advocating for themselves.

“The women in the Welfare Rights Movement had what I would call a radical Black feminist perspective on how to address the question of poverty because what they suggested is, ‘We are not poor because we are single mothers [and] we are not poor because we are steeped in a culture of poverty,’” Dr. Nadasen explains. “‘We are poor because we don’t have enough money.’”

“They really divorced that question of economic security from the question of employment, right?” she adds. “They divorced the question of poverty from the question of the culture of poverty and from a single-parent status.”

The NWRO’s core proposal, Guaranteed Adequate Income (GAI), was intended to support recipients regardless of marital status, gender, or employment status. And although the idea is similar to today’s experimental UBI and GI programs around the country, GAI wasn’t meant to function as just a cash supplement. Welfare rights activists were fighting for an income that would be “adequate for raising a family, and that meant that the levels that they were talking about were much, much higher than was being conventionally proposed,” Dr. Kornbluh says. Dr. Nadasen agrees, calling the GAI proposal “much more generous than other guaranteed income plans” at the time.

Today, there are well over a dozen guaranteed income initiatives and experiments gaining ground around the country. UBI, GI, and the NWRO’s proposed GAI all share a primary goal: to create a consistent economic floor for everyday people to ensure a basic standard of living and quality of life. But Dr. Kornbluh says the Welfare Rights Movement’s proposal had a more transformative vision.

“The idea coming from a lot of liberal Democrats and the Nixon administration was that it would be kind of a supplement to your income. And when people talk about it today, they also think about it in those terms,” explains Dr. Kornbluh. “For the welfare recipients who were active in this movement, that just didn’t cut it. What they really wanted was a guaranteed adequate income that would improve their benefits from what they were getting from the welfare program — improve their benefits and make administration of it much more fair, more humane, respectful, and less complicated. Get rid of all that red tape and all of the eligibility checks.”

“They were putting forward a vision of a kind of permanent solution to poverty and to the particular way that Black women, Puerto Rican women, Mexican American women, Indigenous women, poor white women, and some men experienced the government poverty programs,” Dr. Kornbluh continues. “How can we put something in place that would just be a baseline of economic security for us? [Something] that’s going to be high enough and generous enough to really allow us to raise our children and have some minimal level of dignity?”