Welfare Is a Human Right: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty With Annelise Orleck

Storming Caesars Palace, by Annelise Orleck. (Courtesy)

In 1966, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, a group of bold, creative and angry Americans formed the National Welfare Rights Organization. Their goal was to expand economic opportunities and ensure that hungry mothers and their children not only had access to nutritious food, healthcare, job training and a livable income, but also received the respect and dignity that was their birthright.

In Las Vegas, the Clark County Welfare Right Organization (CCWRO), the subject of Annelise Orleck’s recently reissued Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (and the subject of Hazel Gurland-Pooler’s PBS film of the same name) fomented a movement that brought low-income mothers and kids together with celebrities and mainstream political organizations to demand equity.

For several decades, a group of fearless CCWRO organizers ran programs under the auspices of Operation Life. Their contention that programs for the poor are best run by the poor made them an example for others and catapulted them into national prominence.

But Storming Caesars Palace is more than a history of CCWRO’s ascent and more than a profile of savvy activists. It is also an insightful guide to community organizing, highlighting the pitfalls and peaks that typically accompany efforts to change the status quo.

Annelise Orleck spoke to Ms.’s Eleanor J. Bader in early April.

Eleanor J. Bader: How did you learn about the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization?

Annelise Orleck: I was still working on my first book, “Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965,” but was already looking for my next project. My partner and I visited Maya Miller, a Las Vegas activist who had been a mentor to my partner. This was 1992 and while there, Maya and attorney Marty Makower recounted the history of a remarkable Las Vegas anti-poverty movement they had been part of, founded and led a group of poor single moms from the Delta, mostly Louisiana.

I became intrigued and asked if anyone had written about the women’s efforts. Maya said she didn’t think so, and then, in one of those historians’ dream moments, she said that she had a basement full of documents that no one had looked at. A years-long effort to comb through Maya’s papers followed. Before I quite realized what was happening, Maya called movement leader Ruby Duncan and told her that I was interested in writing a history of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization, later named Operation Life.

The next thing I knew I was traveling to Las Vegas to meet Ruby; she brought a group of six or eight women to this first meeting. These women became the protagonists of “Storming Caesars Palace.” All told, it was a 13-year project.

They demanded to know why a state that took tax revenue from gambling and prostitution was considered morally acceptable, but mothers trying to feed their kids were called cheaters. They were fearless.

Bader: Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?

Orleck: I’ve always been interested in poor people’s movements. I loved the CCWRO’s insistence that poor women are experts on poverty and can run their own programs better than so-called professionals. And they did! At one point the clinic they established screened more low-income children than any other government-funded clinic in the country. I was also interested in how the women’s lives were changed by being part of a resistance movement.

Many of these women had been ashamed about needing public assistance. There was so much stigma. But exposure to the ideas of the welfare rights movement’s national leaders—Johnnie Tillmon, George Wiley and Beulah Sanders—made them realize that they were being stigmatized by a rigged system. They began to call the state of Nevada on its hypocrisy. Nevada was, at the time, the only state in the country that had legalized gambling and sex work, so the women didn’t simply make demands for a more generous and humane aid system. They skewered Nevada’s attempt to claim the mantle of morality, to say that it was fighting “cheating” and “welfare fraud” on behalf of taxpayers. They demanded to know why a state that took tax revenue from gambling and prostitution was considered morally acceptable, but mothers trying to feed their kids were called cheaters. They were fearless.

Bader: Before we talk more about the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization and Operation Life, let’s talk about the establishment of welfare itself.

Orleck: Welfare began under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the time, the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party controlled important Congressional committees. FDR knew that to win support for social welfare programs, he needed a broad-based coalition so programs were designed to allow individual states to have control over eligibility standards and regulations. The result was that the country allowed 50 different federally-funded programs to aid the poor. 

In most cases, rules for Aid to Dependent Children, later Aid to Families with Dependent Children, were designed to benefit local elites, not poor families. For example, states were allowed to kick people off the rolls when workers were needed to pick crops—or to make beds in the hotel casinos. Welfare gave local employers access to a cheap labor force, providing just enough assistance in slow periods that they could lay people off as needed. States also had the right to accept or reject federal aid programs such as Food Stamps and WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program for new mothers and infants. Welfare moms sued to force the federal government to release funds for those programs and bring them to the 17 states that did not have them. 

We wanted job training and they were giving us tips on how to find a man.

Bader: How have government ideas about welfare provision changed over time?

Orleck: In 2003, the second Bush administration began channeling federal anti-poverty dollars into something called the Healthy Marriage Initiative. The Initiative was aimed explicitly at Latinx and African-American women, and was supposed to increase the number of two-parent families and reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births. It was funded at $1.5 billion and had the support of right-wing groups like Focus on the Family and the Heritage Foundation. The initiative gave money to every fly-by-night and shady film-flam marriage counselor who happened to know a state welfare administrator. As women I interviewed told me, it did nothing to ameliorate poverty. “We wanted job training and they were giving us tips on how to find a man,” they reported. 

The initiative came after the 1996 Passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a fulfillment of Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to ‘end welfare as we know it’. That bill repealed Section 4 of the 1935 Social Security Act which guaranteed a minimum subsistence to the country’s poorest children. After PROWRA, there were no guarantees—just a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits.

In the years since 1996, activists have pointed out that we need to look at the hidden ties between domestic violence and welfare. High percentages of women applying for benefits are fleeing abuse and we need to factor that in when we seek to frame new legislation addressing the needs of poor mothers and kids.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Biden and Sanders campaigns, breathed new life into a tattered social safety system. Parents were given an expanded Child Tax Credit and food aid, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps, which boosted benefits for every recipient. Both programs have now ended and millions of Americans are facing what has been called “a hunger cliff.” Emergency medical aid has also been curtailed.

Bader: You mentioned that the women felt shame about needing public assistance. Why have stereotypes about welfare recipients as lazy freeloaders been so long-lasting?

Orleck: The women in the CCWRO were keenly aware that some people were deemed deserving of help while others were labeled undeserving. Movement leader Mary Wesley admitted that she was gripped by shame at having to receive aid, but NWRO leader George Wiley helped her understand that she was entitled to welfare, that she and her family had been victimized by a racist and sexist system. Her father had paid taxes all his working life, she said, but he was murdered by the Klan before he ever got to collect Social Security.

They also learned about the 1970 Supreme Court decision, Goldberg v. Kelly, a ruling that said that public assistance is not a gratuity but an entitlement of citizenship. The idea that the important work mothers do had economic value further helped the women push past shame and gain perspective. 

When they were warned to stop their “violent” protesting, they responded by quoting Coretta Scott King, that “violence is a hungry child.” 

But there was backlash. During Ronald Reagan’s years as California governor, (1966-1975), he played on stereotypes of poor, single Black mothers as unscrupulous and used coded racist language to fuel anger. He popularized the term Welfare Queen and conjured the image of Black welfare recipients driving their pink Cadillacs through the ghetto. These images would later be used by Nevada prosecutors who charged Ruby Duncan and Operation Life with fraud after they received federal dollars to run a medical clinic, job training, a community newspaper, solarization, crime prevention and other programs.

Bader: One of the strategies of Clark County Welfare Rights Organization was to build the broadest possible coalition. They drew in celebrities to support their marches as well as supermarket owners to help them lobby the state legislature to accept food stamps. How were they able to do this?

Orleck: When they marched down the Strip in 1971 and organized “eat-ins” in casino restaurants to protest food stamp cuts, they were accompanied by civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy. Entertainers including Sammy Davis Jr, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland marched with them as did feminists Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy. Having famous faces at the front of their marches was a strategy to keep from getting shot at or beaten. Poor women’s movements did similar things as far back as the 1909 shirtwaist makers’ strike when participation by NYC elite women—the so-called “mink brigades”—lessened police violence.

The food stamp struggle came after the Strip march. Several states, including Nevada, refused to provide food stamps to hungry people despite federal authorization for the program. Ruby and other CCWRO members went to supermarkets and got owners to lobby with them, pointing out that store profits would rise if people had access to benefits. It was a successful tactic that gives you a hint of how creative these women were.

They also got the Hotel and Culinary Workers’ Unions in their corner. Almost all of them had been union members when they first came to Las Vegas and were working as hotel housekeepers. Still, for a long time the unions casinos accepted unspoken workplace segregation in Las Vegas. Black workers were relegated to back-of-the-house positions in the kitchen and in housekeeping, while white workers got higher paid “front of the house” positions as dealers, food servers or cocktail waitresses. 

By the 1970s Ruby Duncan and others in the movement pushed the casinos to hire Black workers in higher-paid, visible jobs and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Administration ordered the casinos to sign consent decrees.

In addition, the women of Operation Life pushed to open up traditionally male jobs and were able to get women hired as parking valets and card dealers. They also succeeded in pushing the city and state to hire women for sanitation jobs and on highway crews that had previously been reserved for men.

Bader: Did NOW and other feminist groups support the welfare rights movement?

Orleck: At one point, Ruby was on the national board of NOW and she brought NOW activists into the welfare rights movement and vice versa. She and the other Operation Life women were particularly motivated to organize around reproductive justice. Many of them had had to fight for access to birth control and abortion in their early years.

One of the most important feminist allies of the welfare rights movement was the National League of Women Voters. They supported NWRO’s contention that mother work had economic value and trained the women to lobby on their own behalf.

NWRO president Johnnie Tillman wrote an article, Welfare is a Women’s Issue, for the Spring 1972 issue of Ms. The article called for valuing mothers’ work and argued that if households had to pay a cook, a therapist, a teacher or tutor, and a person to do laundry and clean, it would require a lot more than the piddling amount welfare provides. She made it clear that mothering deserves a living wage.

Bader: During the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of federal money was made available to grassroots community groups in response to protest and lobbying by poor mothers, including local chapters of the welfare rights movement. Though it was for much less than the women thought they needed to live, in 1969 Richard Nixon proposed a Family Assistance Plan to replace welfare with a guaranteed income for all Americans. What happened to these funding streams and where is the idea of a guaranteed income today?

Orleck: The idea of a guaranteed annual income has come up several times over the last half-century. As you said, Nixon introduced the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), but the NWRO opposed it. Johnnie Tillmon, NWRO’s president, later said she thought activists made a mistake in doing so. While FAP provided far too little, it would have established an important principle. The allocation, she later realized, could have been increased. Unfortunately, once the plan failed, that was it. The idea briefly resurfaced during the Carter administration and now is once again being proposed and tried on the municipal level, but a national annual income guarantee has little or no chance of passing in this political climate.

As for taking government money, of course, the idea of accepting aid is a double-edged sword since what can be given can also be taken away. That’s what happened in Las Vegas. In the end, the money that Operation Life members applied for and received to provide healthcare, run a library and offer other social supports to the community, was pulled and given to more traditionally credentialed organizations. This raises an important question: Who is qualified to run programs? Most of the CCWRO activists had not finished high school. But they believed that poor mothers are the real experts on poverty and could run poverty programs for poor families better than the so-called experts. For more than 20 years they did so.

Attacks on social welfare programs are near constant and history seems to be repeating itself.

Bader: Operation Life was eventually forced to close down due to funding cuts and a change in national priorities. Can you say more about the shift?

Orleck: Operation Life made it through the Reagan years and the first Bush presidency. Despite this, beginning in 1980, it was obvious that the mood of U.S. lawmakers had shifted away from belief in expanding government aid. There was a relentless right-wing assault on community-based organizations and organizers like Ruby were repeatedly portrayed as corrupt and ineffective. The programs that Operation Life started were subjected to one fraud audit after another even though they found next to no irregularities. One audit found only a four-cent discrepancy in the books! But the group’s image was stained. 

Even today, attacks on social welfare programs are near constant and history seems to be repeating itself. When the latest round of SNAP cuts was announced, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that the cuts were literally going to take food out of the mouths of hungry children. This is the same thing Ruby Duncan said more than 50 years ago. It’s distressing but the women of the CCWRO created a vibrant movement that stood up to those who were willing to let poor children starve. Now, as the women of Operation Life have said many times, a new generation will have to pick up where the welfare rights movement left off and make “good trouble” of their own. In many ways, that is exactly what Gen Z organizers in the movement against police brutality, the #MeToo movement and the fight for unions and a living wage have been doing for the past decade.

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .