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Reform Welfare From the Ground Up

by Annelise Orleck and Kit Miller

Ruby Duncan Nevada is grappling with how to reform welfare now that poverty policy has been unloaded onto the state. We went to the west side of Las Vegas to learn how to reform welfare from the experts--women who have spent a lifetime being poor and working with the poor. We talked to Ruby Duncan, Rosie Seales, Roma Jean Hunt, Alversa Beales, and other welfare recipients and activists once involved in Operation Life, one of the nation's most effective anti-poverty programs, run by poor women themselves in the 1970s and 80s.

Roma Jean Hunt Rosie Seales Alversa Beales

Here are some of the recommendations we heard for reforming welfare from the ground up in Nevada:

  1. Concentrate on two things: child care and decent jobs. Women are poor because they are working full-time at a non-paying job--taking care of children. They cannot leave that job for another one unless they are paid enough to pay someone else to do child care.

  2. Train women in non-dead-end jobs. Entry level jobs in casinos and other businesses should pay a decent living wage, at least $8.50 per hour, plus health care. Child care is typically more than half the budget for a woman with two kids working full-time outside the home. She pays $680 per month for child care ($85 per week, per child is the average cost). With rent factored in at $400, food at $300, electricity at $60, and not including health care, a car and a phone, the fundamental costs for a family of three add up to $1,440, or $16,800 per year--so $8.50 is closer to a realistic minimum wage for one bread winner to support two children.

  3. Invest in poor women. Use part of the new infrastructure sales taxes to invest in Nevada's human infrastructure. Establish a community bank to bring small business loans to poor neighborhoods so that residents can open shops, restaurants, child-care and senior centers, and other ventures using skills they already have.

  4. Employ poor women to help others transition out of welfare. Employ them in child care jobs and help establish child care cooperatives. For every two women who go to work outside the home one child care job could be created. Assuming that 5,000 jobs are needed in Nevada, 1,600 women could be hired to do child care for the other 3,300 that take jobs outside the home.

  5. Allow women trying to get off welfare to finish a college or vocational degree. Encourage them with continued aid, child care and educational support. National statistics show that with a useful degree women are much more likely to earn enough to stay out of poverty.

Thirty years ago, these welfare mothers faced similar challenges in Nevada as the state moved to cut thousands from assistance without providing an alternative. The story of Operation Life helps us understand Nevada's welfare history and shows us the importance of investing in poor women as they try to escape poverty with their children.

In the late 1960s, faced with hunger and homelessness, Las Vegas welfare mothers took to the streets to protest mass welfare cuts. These women had long been wage workers. Many began working as children chopping cotton and picking beans in the feudal south. In the 1950s and 60s they were recruited to take "back of the house" kitchen and maids jobs in Las Vegas casinos. Hundreds of African Americans came from Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi to serve white gamblers in Las Vegas. But hard as they worked, many women couldn't support themselves and their children on a single job. They began working two shifts--one check went to the baby sitter and the other for rent.

Nevada's welfare system was simple and cruel. The state figured out how much to give a family by taking the poverty level and dividing it in half. Nevada refused federal food stamps and child-care aid. Ruby Duncan and a group of poor women began to protest Nevada's treatment of the poor. They sat in at welfare offices. They took hungry children to eat at casinos and sent the bills to the welfare department as they went to jail.

When Nevada announced late in 1970 that it was waging a war on "cheating" by cutting thousands from its welfare rolls, angry mothers decided to strike Nevada where it hurts. Saying that a country that can afford Las Vegas can afford a decent living for its children, they vowed to make Las Vegas a national symbol.

On March 6, 1971, welfare mothers and children streamed onto the Strip, joined by civil rights leaders and activists from across the country. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Sammy Davis, Jr., and thousands of others stopped at the casino that was the height of conspicuous consumption: Caesars Palace. They marched in, singing, "We're in Caesars Palace. We shall not be moved." Guests and dealers ran for cover and the Flamingo Hilton across the street closed its doors. Nearly 100 were arrested. National news reports ran footage of craps tables surrounded by children holding signs that said "Nevada starves children," and "Don't gamble with human lives." Two weeks later, a federal judge told Nevada to reinstate the families whose benefits were suspended.

The mothers saw that their street actions were effective. But they knew they needed more than welfare to revitalize their community. They needed economic power. So they set up a nonprofit corporation called Operation Life at the Cove Hotel, an abandoned casino on the west side. They applied for foundation and government funding.

Soon the Cove housed the first day-care center, teen recreation program, and public swimming pool on the west side. An abandoned building nearby became a restaurant to train people in food preparation and restaurant management. When the city was unwilling to open a library, mothers brought hundreds of children to stage "read-ins" in downtown libraries, until the city found money for a branch on the west side.

In 1973 Operation Life brought in an early screening and treatment program to improve health care for poor kids. They found doctors who donated their time, and labs to do the testing for a fraction of the cost of other hospitals. It was the first medical facility on the west side, and in the next three years Operation Life Health Center screened a higher percentage of eligible children than any other clinic in the country. During that time Nevada treated nearly three times more children per capita than the national average.

Alversa Beales recalls, "If a woman said that she couldn't get all of her children ready without help we would go inside and help her get them ready. That made a difference." It was this kind of individual attention that proved key to the success of Operation Life's programs.

In 1974, Operation Life got an Agriculture Department contract to run the first Women and Infant Child nutrition program in Nevada. It was the first in the country to be administered by poor women. CETA and VISTA funds trained the women in administration. Operation Life was not just changing women's access to health care and services; it was changing their self image and what they saw they could do with their lives. As Roma Jean Hunt said, "Every time I walked into Operation Life I felt important."

In 1978, Operation Life became a Community Development Corporation under the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. By 1980, it had brought in several million dollars in investments to the west side. President Carter consulted the women on welfare reform because their anti-poverty programs were more efficient and effective than those run by professionals in other states.

But even at the height of Operation Life's success, many welfare mothers could not attain economic independence. CETA and VISTA salaries were not enough to get their families completely off welfare, and they were frustrated at not being allowed to set up their own dreamed of enterprises--a large woman's clothing shop and a soul-food catering business. They were only allowed to run a federal style bureaucracy, and only for a few years.

When the Reagan administration decided that poor women were not qualified to run their own programs, Operation Life was forced to hire credentialed professionals. Only the top two administrators were able to keep their jobs. By the late 1980s, after years of funding cuts and the abolition of jobs and social programs, Operation Life's founders wearily closed up shop. There has not been a community-run poverty program like it since.

The women once active in Operation Life's grass-roots revolution are not so political today. Most are in their 60s and 70s, still living in the west side, raising grand- and great grandchildren.They are not ashamed to be welfare mothers. They are a crucial part of the stable community within that community. And they too are critical of "welfare as we know it," which they blame for the loss of their children to drugs and the inertia and fear that beset their neighborhoods.

But poor women are organizing again in Nevada. A powerful new welfare reform movement is emerging from the ground up. Nevada would be smart to learn from the activists of the past and the welfare mothers of today as welfare reform comes home to roost.

Photo captions, Photos by Kit Miller: Ruby Duncan, Rosie Seales, Roma Jean HuntAlversa Beales

Annelise Orleck teaches history at Dartmouth College and edited The Politics of Motherhood (University Press of New England, 1997).

Kit Miller is a Nevada photographer.
For information about welfare reform contact the Nevada Empowered Women's Project, 428 Hill St., Ste. 100,
Reno, NV 89501 (702/348-9566)

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