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"Director's Report - The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support,"

by Deepak Bhargava March/April 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support is a coalition of hundreds of grassroots community organizing groups in 40 states that have joined together to work on issues of poverty at the state and national levels. The Campaign was founded in May, 2000 at a meeting of 2000 grassroots leaders in Chicago. The Campaign is a project of the Center for Community Change, a national non-profit organization that provides support to community organizations in low-income, predominantly minority communities around the country.

The Campaign was founded largely as a response to the seismic changes brought about by the 1996 welfare law. The analysis underlying creation of the Campaign is that what progressives lacked in 1996 were not good arguments or research, but the power to shape the debate. The Campaign is an explicit effort to bring together diverse grassroots organizations and allies together to exercise power on a range of poverty issues.

Members of the Campaign include: national organizing networks like ACORN, the Center for Third World Organizing, the Gamaliel Foundation, the National Training and Information Center; regional networks like the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and Northeast Action [see accompanying Director’s Report by S.M. Miller]; and local grassroots groups such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, South Carolina Fair Share, and the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition of Washington State.

The Campaign represents a promising experiment that links grassroots organizations with varying perspectives together for common action; creates a pathway for innovative organizing and policy approaches to be replicated in other states and at the national level; provides grassroots groups with access to high quality research and communications strategies; and connects the field of grassroots organizing to allies in the faith, labor, civil rights and women’s communities.

Grassroots Innovations

Since 1996, grassroots groups have won impressive victories that have laid the foundation for a new anti-poverty agenda at the national level. Victories include:
  • Changes to welfare policies that allow parents to seek education and training in 15 states;
  • Improved access to benefits programs, including welfare, food stamps and Medicaid, by tearing down barriers to participation in programs, such as burdensome applications, intimidation and disrespect;
  • Expansion of health coverage to low-wage parents and their children in a dozen states;
  • Living wage policies in 50 jurisdictions; and
  • Partial restoration of public benefits to legal immigrants in a number of states and at the federal level.

These efforts resulted from often sophisticated campaigns that involve large numbers of low-income people, engage key allies, use action research strategies, and engage the media. Increasingly, grassroots organizations are able not just to mobilize in response to issues as they arise, but also to frame the debate at the state level.

National Agenda

The Campaign launched two major national initiatives in 2001. The Campaign and a number of allied organizations won a refundable child tax credit (as part of an otherwise dreadful tax bill) that will deliver $8 billion per year to low-income families, and represents the largest national anti-poverty program created in nearly a decade. The effort showed the promise of a sophisticated national effort that can link strategies of grassroots organizing, communication and coalition building.

The Campaign has also been very active in the debate about reauthorization of the food stamp program, and though the jury is still out, it is now certain that whatever legislation emerges from Congress will result in significant improvements rather than retrenchments in the program.

Other Campaign focus areas include: a new legalization program to adjust the status of nine million undocumented workers; a higher federal minimum wage; and expansion of Unemployment Insurance benefits to workers who have lost their jobs in the recession. The Campaign’s major focus in 2002 will be on TANF reauthorization. The Campaign’s theme is that poverty reduction should be the central goal of the nation’s welfare program, as opposed to caseload reduction. Key priorities include:
  • Allowing low-income parents to receive education and training by removing restrictions in the federal law and by counting the full range of education and training activities as work;
  • Stopping the time limit clock for parents who are “playing by the rules”;
  • Ensuring fair treatment and racial equity in the operation of welfare programs;
  • Restoring TANF, food stamps, Medicaid and SSI benefits to immigrants;
  • “Opening up” TANF to provide a platform of opportunity to more low-income families;
  • Valuing all families by ensuring that low-income parents are able to provide appropriate care to children and family members; and
  • Creating wage-paying public jobs – as opposed to unpaid “workforce” placements – that provide real education and training opportunities for parents.

More detail on the Campaign’s TANF agenda can be found at www.MakeTANFWork.org.

A number of factors have converged to make more significant changes than most observers thought possible in TANF legislation. The Administration has not proposed cuts to TANF, has embraced at least some restorations of benefits for immigrants, and has announced its support for more education and training for low-income parents, though the details of its proposals are not available. The public, according to most polls, is supportive of greater investments in poor families and agrees with many of our proposals for TANF reauthorization. The recession has put a spotlight on the inadequacy of the safety net available to families in hard times, and press coverage has been significant and generally favorable. Moderates in Congress have embraced a number of our issues, as well as the language of “poverty reduction.” And perhaps most importantly, grassroots groups and a wide range of faith, women’s and civil rights organizations are energized and focused in a way that will make it difficult for Congress to sidestep the real issues.

To be sure, there are major challenges. Looming federal budget deficits will make it hard to get more money for TANF, or for related initiatives to help lift families out of poverty. And the bi-partisan propaganda machine that has helped to create the perception of welfare reform’s success is still working overtime.

Strategies

The Campaign’s key strategies include: sophisticated public education campaigns to put the spotlight on poverty and its connection to TANF in a number of key states; large public events at which low-income people tell policymakers what they want to see out of TANF reauthorization, including a rally of 1500 people on March 5th on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; research and communication efforts that tell the real story of what is happening to low-income families; and close collaboration with our allies.

Win, lose or draw –and I think we will win—the welfare debates this time around will be a far cry from the pathetic debates of the early 1990’s, not least because this time around low-income people are organized to speak in their own voices.

Notes:

Deepak Bhargava (dbhargava@communitychange.org, 202/339-9354) is Director of Public Policy at the Center for Community Change. Prior to joining the Center staff in 1994, he was with ACORN, working on issues of community reinvestment, fair housing and housing finance.

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