ABSTRACT

In the summer of 1969, the welfare rights movement reached its peak. It had initiated several successful campaigns to establish w elfare recipients’ civil r ights, protect them as c onsumers, and insist that casew orkers treat them with dignity. Organizers won thousands of dollars in special g rants for recipients and assisted countless women on AFDC in their day-to-day struggles with the w elfare department. Welfare r ights activists gained r espect and standing w ithin the w orld of social w ork, persuading social workers to recognize them as an essential part of the policy-making process and invite them to meetings and conferences. Amassing a respectable following, the national organization had a membership of 30,000, but, according t o some estimat es, participation in the mo vement r eached 100,000.1 The largest local c hapters, Boston and New York City, counted 1,6002 and 4,000 members, respectively.3 Attendance at the annual convention in Detroit in 1969, the largest ever, drew between 3,000 and 5,000 people, exceeding b y t en times the 350 people at the 1967 c onvention in Washington.4 The number of affiliated locals incr eased as w ell, from 130 groups in December 1966 to 800 in 1971.5

While the Detroit Convention was a benchmark of successful organizing, it also revealed growing divisions within the movement, between staff and recipients, black and whit e participants, and men and w omen. Ostensibly about decision making and control of resources, in reality the divisions ran deeper, reflecting competing philosophies and organizing st rategies. Many staff members advocated mobilization strategies to build the membership of the organization and gain political and electoral leverage for welfare recipients, measuring success by recipients’ power to ext ract concessions from

welfare officials. For welfare recipients, the stigma, political isolation, and mistreatment characterized the problem of welfare as much as political allocation of resources. An ideology of black mothers as undeserving of assistance, lazy, and pr omiscuous was embedded in the postwar AFD C program and justified cutbacks and other punitive welfare policies. Consequently, they worked not just t o build the org anization, but to transform public perceptions of welfare recipients by making claims as mothers. In addition, most welfare recipients valued the process of organizing as much as the result. They were interested not just in the victories, but in the decision making behind the victories. They had come to believe, as had many other political activists in the 1960s, that day-to-day interactions between people reinforced and recreated racism, sexism, and class oppression; patterns manifested in their own organization.6 They believed that political organizing that led to incremental improvements in the welfare system would also empower welfare recipients, enabling them to overcome the stigma associated with AFDC. Although middle-class support aided the movement immensely by providing office space, money, or access to welfare manuals, many welfare recipients, ultimately, wanted to stand up for themselves.