This past October about 2,000 Cuyahoga County residents stopped receiving monthly welfare checks as a result of reforms that limit welfare cash benefits to three years. November brought another round of cutoffs, and still more will lose their benefits in December, January, and so on into 2001. State and county officials embrace welfare reform as a necessary step in promoting self-sufficiency. But others who are opposed to the time limit see it as a setback in the War on Poverty. A group of those advocates met last weekend to take stock of their efforts to improve the lot of the poor. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice- About 60 people turned out for the gathering Saturday at St. Malachi's Center on Cleveland's west side. The event was billed as a panel discussion on the "real issues of poverty," issues those attending claim are being ignored or overlooked by state and county officials. All of the featured speakers are flat-out against taking cash benefits away from welfare families. It's a move Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless says only adds more fuel to the poverty crisis.
Brian Davis- Because what happens is their kids are gonna be removed, which is a cost to us, there are going to be more juvenile delinquents in our community...
BR- And, Davis says, regardless of the reason people are on welfare, the community is worse off if their safety net is taken away.
BD- We're going to be supporting people for a longer term because we have put them in poverty from the beginning. And the cost to society is way more than those $350 we were giving those families to stay at some level of stability, and we're losing that, and I can't see a way to get out of this without providing some safety net for people.
BR- Most of the attendees share Davis' view of how new trends and new regulations affect the poor. Panelists outlined clear goals: they want welfare cash benefits reinstated, new legislation designed to help low income workers rise above the poverty level, and equal access to quality schools and other institutions.
But when prepared speeches gave way to questions and answers, another theme emerged, adding an unexpected dimension to the conversation. It all started when audience member Joe Haggerty of Cleveland - a self-professed poor person - suggested part of the poverty problem is advocacy itself.
Joe Haggerty- As an early organizer and working for welfare rights, we did not change the welfare system until we took busloads of people to Columbus and raised hell. We have legislators who are not listening to anything because all of the lobby or whatever you want to call it are empty.
BR- Haggerty decried the emergence of paid advocates, referring to them at one point as "poverty pimps". He said employees of community groups and neighborhood centers are too dependent on the government agencies that fund.
JH- And the only way we can get any money is from all these agencies that advocate for us because they think we're too stupid to advocate for us. I don't want you to advocate for me. I want you to take me down there, help me get down there so I can advocate for myself. Because I can tell them a lot better what it's like than you can because I'm livin' it.
BR- While Haggerty's comments came as a surprise to many in the room, his point did prompt a little soul-searching on the part of panel members. Joe Meisner is an attorney for Legal Aid, which provides pro-bono assistance to the poor.
Joe Meisner- We used to be able to bring class actions on behalf of people. We used to be able to file against welfare laws. We can't do that anymore and keep our funding. You know, I want to be able to eat, I want to be able to have the car. I want to be able to have my house. In order to do that a number of us have found that we sort of slid into what was happening, went along with it. In a way they were able to come up with a strategy of dividing us.
BR- George Zeller, a researcher for the Council for Economic Opportunities of Greater Cleveland, offered this explanation.
George Zeller- I mentioned they took $318 million out of poor people's pockets with the welfare cuts. What did they do with it? Nobody asked me that, but I'll tell you what they did with it. A lot of it was sent to social service agencies to hire personnel to provide social services. It used to go into direct benefits to clients. Now it's going to programs.
BR- But Zeller, Meissner and others still believe they, as advocates, can be effective in spurring change, and they urged their colleagues to continue the fight. Ruth Gray is the incoming executive director of the Empowerment Center of Greater Cleveland. She says more can be done to educate the poor on a number of non-cash benefits that are still available to them. And she wants to see a more concerted effort to be at the table when government decisions are made.
Ruth Gray- I've been going for the last 2 months every week to the county commissioners' meetings. I don't see us there.
BR- As for this meeting, while there were county personnel in the audience, there was only one government official on the panel. That was State Representative Dale Miller, who has sponsored bills to reverse welfare time-limits - measures he concedes are not well-supported in the General Assembly. Congressman Dennis Kucinich and State Senator C.J. Prentiss were also invited to speak. Both declined, citing scheduling conflicts. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.