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The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was created in the mid-1960s to fight for greater assistance and control over welfare regulations. The group was active from 1966 to 1975; at its height in 1969 it had a membership of as many as 25,000 people, with thousands more participating in NWRO protests. The majority of the members were African American women.
In the 1950s, politicians and journalists drew attention to the rapid increases in the welfare rolls, especially among African American single mothers. Punitive laws were passed to decrease the number of recipients and the size of their welfare grants. Considering their poverty and out-of-wedlock birth rates, African American women were actually underrepresented on the welfare rolls. Nonetheless because many of them were concentrated in the major cities, in the public’s mind, the face of the typical welfare recipient was black.
Welfare recipients started organizing in the early 1960s in response to these politically motivated attacks. In 1966 civil rights activist George Alvin Wiley organized several demonstrations for the poor and brought together a number of local organizations into the NWRO. The organization had four goals: adequate income, dignity, justice, and democratic participation.
In 1969, the NWRO captured public attention when it targeted President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan. Meanwhile internal dissention arose between the mostly male middle-class staff and the mostly female welfare recipients regarding the strategies and goals of the NWRO. Wiley sought to expand the movement to include the working poor. Welfare recipients led by Johnnie Tillmon, on the other hand, tried to redefine welfare rights as a women’s issue and pursue a black feminist agenda.
Late in 1972, Wiley resigned and Tillmon was appointed as the NWRO’s new executive director. Three years later, in March 1975, the NWRO went bankrupt and the organization came to an end. Its legacy, however, continued as numerous welfare rights organizations struggled for extending welfare recipients’ rights at the local level.
Lawrence Neil Bailis, Bread or Justice: Grassroots Organizing in the Welfare Rights Movement (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1974); Guida West, The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women (New York: Praeger, 1981); Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2005).
University of California, San Diego