MN Poor Resist Massive Cuts
St. Paul, MN – A team of Welfare Rights Committee members marched up with the ladder and put it against the iron gate of the Minnesota governor’s mansion, Sept. 24. Deb Konechne of the WRC climbed to the top. Surrounding her were dozens of angry women chanting “Hey Pawlenty, come out today! We have bills that you must pay!”
Eventually, glaring state troopers gave up, standing by helplessly while members of the crowd came up to the fence one after the other and presented household bills, denials of medical coverage, utility shut-offs and eviction notices. After giving short, impassioned speeches about each bill, the people reached through the fence and put the items in the ‘mailbox’ that Konechne had dropped over the fence onto the governor’s walkway. Amid chants of “Make Pawlenty pay,” the protest ended with the troopers carrying the mailbox into the mansion, for delivery to the Governor.
Biggest cuts in history
The protest by the Minneapolis-St. Paul-based Welfare Rights Committee was against the biggest cuts to the Minnesota’s safety net in history. A statement from the WRC summarizes the worst cuts: “On July 1, the cuts took $125 per month per disabled person from the rest of the family’s welfare grant. This is outright stealing from disabled families and children! On Sept. 1, most of us who are in subsidized housing saw our already-too-small grants slashed by $50 per month. In the future, we looking down the barrel of 100% sanctions for supposed ‘non-compliance’ with welfare rules and a ‘family cap’ that steals from innocent babies.” Besides the cuts to cash welfare, many day care providers had their income cut in half. Over 30,000 Minnesotans lost health care.
Behind the Attack
The cuts were the result of Minnesota politicians making the decision to balance the state’s budget by cutting services and programs for poor and working people, instead of increasing taxes on the wealthy. According to Konechne, “Minnesota legislators stole money from poor families, in the name of ‘balancing the budget.’ While these cuts are having a devastating effect on our families, the sickening reality is the grant cuts to our families didn’t have that much of an impact on the whole state budget. The politicians did it just to be cruel; just to make families on welfare suffer. They have wanted to get rid of welfare for years.”
Yolanda Moore, one of many affected by the cuts, states “The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. If my rent goes up, I might wind up living with Pawlenty. We can’t give our kids a good education and all if we gotta worry about how they’re gonna eat or where I’m gonna get their clothes for the winter. I would like for him to try my living for two years. He needs to just stop it.”
Welfare programs were started during the economic crisis of the 1930s, in response to a near revolt of poor unemployed working people. Today’s economic crisis is showing the need a survival safety net again. For all its problems, the welfare program’s cash grants provide a ‘floor’ below which workers’ wages cannot fall. “Without this, the employers would be paying us around $2 per day, like in other countries,” said WRC’s Trishalla Bell. “Its part of the whole globalization thing.” It is no coincidence that one of first ‘re-structuring’ demands of the IMF to debtor countries is to get rid of social safety nets – from unemployment insurance, to healthcare, to education, to public water systems and on and on.
Minnesota is a racist state. For years, politicians have used welfare as a codeword for ‘Black’, and presented welfare cuts as a way to attack people of color, even though, up until recently, most welfare recipients in MN were white.
WRC’s Deb Howze explains the situation this way; “We all know welfare was not originally for people of color,” referring to how Black parents were shut out of the program at the beginning. But now, “Politicians say, ‘those lazy black people are on welfare; they’re taking our money. We’re not going to take care of them with our tax dollars.’”
Howze continued, “What about white America who uses the government tax dollars? No one is screaming about that. Why? Because it’s the rich who are collecting tax dollars and running with it – that’s the real welfare in this country.”
Recent revelations about Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s shady financial dealings are a snapshot of the bizarre world the rich inhabit. For over a year, he collected $4500 per month from a fellow republican, but he cannot show what he did to earn his $60,000. Welfare Rights’ Angel Buechner declared, “A man who casually pockets $4500 in one month then has the nerve to slash away at the survival income of poor families who are forced to stretch that amount for 10 months. That is unbelievable.”
WRC’s Birgid Machenik noted, “The rich people want the money for themselves. They are very wrong, they are very selfish – they have it all already and yet they want even more, they are very greedy.”
This year, the Welfare Rights Committee has gathered thousands signatures from welfare recipients and other low-income people. Almost every day, WRC members stand outside the doors of the county welfare offices, talking to people, passing out information, letting people know about upcoming protests and signing people up to participate in the battle. Besides having small teams doing outreach, WRC held group leafleting days, complete with signs, bullhorn and speeches.
One of the things that comes with the territory of organizing in the low-income community, and that is more intense this year, is people losing their phones and their housing. “A lot of phones are disconnected pretty fast. Addresses change all the time. But we’ve been at this for over twelve years, and we connect back with folks eventually. For the people we can reach, we keep calling and inviting them, because we know that our lives are pretty hectic right now just trying to survive. We never give up,” said Kim DeFranco.
According to Deb Howze, “The southern Blacks back in the day had to organize – starting with the students, trade unions, churches and agricultural workers forming a united front to help organize people to come together for one cause, to help improve their educations, for the right to vote and to stop the killing of the black people by whites who at the time was lynching people. Just like then, it’s the same now but in a different way. We, the Blacks of America, can’t afford to relax, letting things go by as if nothing is going on. The welfare all around America is showing that the effects of its cuts are cutting people into pieces – and now the people of color are crying out for help. I can go on and on about the struggles of our community and how women are under the attack in this unjust world of ours – the question is the same. We must build and educate the people for the movement. Until then, we will continue to be under attack and poor – and time has proven that.”
Allison Smith, a new member said, “Hopefully we can all still keep doing it, no matter what. No matter how they try to break us down, we can still stay together, because somebody’s got to say something, somebody’s got to be the voice. So many people, they don’t, they can’t or they won’t. So somebody’s got to do it. I hope I can keep being one of those somebodies.”
The Welfare Rights Committee believes in taking action. According Allison Smith, “This is the first time I’ve ran across anybody that actually did something besides just sit around and talk. It’s the perfect place to be if you’re tired of just complaining or hearing other people complaining. Actions are great, I like engaging with other people and getting our issues out there so people can hear it.”
The summer and fall organizing is getting the Welfare Rights Committee in gear for what promises to be a busy legislative session in 2004. WRC is now laying plans to undo the cuts. “We’ve said it for years,” said WRC’s Kim Hosmer, “just because it’s law doesn’t make it right.” WRC believes that when laws make people homeless, hungry and desperate, they have to be struck down.