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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Welfare Activist Speaks Out on Struggle

Many years ago, as a 28 year-old single mother of four, Dottie Stevens was forced to apply for welfare as the last means to prevent her family from becoming homeless.

“It was humiliating, but I had no other choice. I was not encouraged,” said Stevens on the experience of applying for welfare assistance.

In the early 1980s, while she was struggling to support her family, Stevens took a basic organizing class at UMass Boston. The class afforded her and some of her classmates, who were also welfare mothers, the opportunity to research welfare laws while earning credits towards a degree.

Stevens and her classmates took the research they had done and created a radio documentary entitled “Workfare: Anatomy of a Policy.” The documentary won a National Media award.

Stevens said she discovered that citizens have a right to live above the poverty line. The fact that Stevens has struggled first hand with these issues gives her a strong perspective on the work requirements of modern welfare.

“Raising for four children on your own is full time job. You have to work on it 24 hours a day,” she said told the crowd gathered at event hosted by the Advocacy Resource for Modern Survival (ARMS) Center, called “Welfare: Then and Now.”

Stevens has used the organization skills that she learned here at UMB to attack this problem in an educated way.

“I use the three-pronged approach. I work through the courts, the legislature, and the streets,” said Stevens, who has struggled with the welfare system throughout her life.

The event last week was in the Point Lounge on the third floor of the Campus Center, consisting of two speeches, one by Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), and one by Stevens herself, a human rights activist and graduate of the College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) at UMB. Stevens has also been involved in the publication of a newspaper called Survival News … the voices of low-income women. The newspaper works to increase awareness of the rights of women living near and below the poverty line.

Harris opened with a speech that introduced the audience to the history of welfare as a federal policy in the United States. Her work at the MLRI requires her to understand the legal issues of poverty in America, and particularly the state of Massachusetts, she said. Harris detailed the origin of welfare as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Chronicling the evolution of welfare since the early 20th century, she described the deficiencies of the program as over-restrictive, excluding black women in some states and mothers who had never been married. Harris explained that in the 60s and 70s the AFDC was repealed by Congress and new federal mandates preventing states from blocking access to welfare based on racial discrimination.

In February of 1995, welfare programs began to undergo reform. The concept changed from being an aid to families in poverty to being a temporary assistance for poor parents until they find work. Welfare is now officially called Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC). Since 1995, more rules concerning welfare eligibility have been constructed and more restrictive work requirements have been designed.

Harris distributed a handout that broke down the most recent TAFDC work requirements. Parents with children ages two through five are required to 20 hours per week. For children ages six through eight, parents are required to work 24 hours per week, and for ages nine and older it is 30 hours per week. There are some exemptions for people with disabilities and for those who have “good cause” (lack of available child care, lack of affordable transportation, etc.). However, not all welfare recipients are aware of their rights, so some who would be exempt from the work requirement have their welfare benefits reduced or taken away anyways.