Welfare Rights Groups Still Working for Change

by  Bernadette Janes

   The Empowerment Center Of Greater Cleveland and Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor are two organizations  working in the Cleveland area  to ensure the human rights of  Cleveland’s low-income  population. While at times their individual missions  may overlap, each has specific goals and the methods to attain them. With their outstanding dedication, persistent advocacy and unending service to low-income people, their presence is changing the lives of individuals and families  not only in the Cleveland area  but in the state of Ohio as well.

A Generation of Empowerment

   The Empowerment Center of Greater Cleveland began in 1966 with a unique drama.  A small group of welfare recipients decided to walk from Cleveland to Columbus to bring to the state government an appeal for improvement in the living conditions of people of low income and diverse ethnic backgrounds. They not only demanded that their peoples’ basic needs be met, but claimed that low-income people deserve to have a voice in the governmental issues affecting their lives. They wanted access to education, training, and the development of modern skills to help them acquire meaningful participation in their respective communities. In short, they wanted their human dignity affirmed.

   Like a small earthquake, their arrival in Columbus and their forthright package of demands created quite a stir in the capitol. Legislators could not avoid listening to their requests, and, despite the personal hauteur of Ohio’s powerful lawmakers, they could not help marveling at the intelligence of the determined little group. Then, as the news went out, people of other counties joined in. The group expanded, and named itself the Ohio Steering Committee, later changing it to the Ohio Welfare Rights Organization. As the movement gained renown and strength, it spread to other states, and soon the National Welfare Rights Organization was formed.

   Having been incorporated in 1970, the Ohio Welfare Rights Organization again changed its name in 1994 to The Empowerment Center Of Greater Cleveland, to emphasize the personal development of its clients, working toward the  elimination of inequality, and the intended inclusion of ordinary people in the shaping of policies by which they would be governed.

   Community organizing and the creation of new outlooks still reflect the Empowerment Center’s goal of increased access to the educational, cultural and political resources previously lacking in the lives of low-income people. Children are especially endangered by the loss of income support, which sometimes leads to the destruction of families. With family breakup, children are often put into foster care or even adopted away from their families. Mindful of that danger, the Empowerment Center works to educate and inform public officials as well as the general public about such regulations and governmental policies that hamper recipients’ efforts to rise above social conditions trapping them and their children in poverty and disadvantage.

   The Empowerment’s programs aim to guide clients to personal achievement, developing qualifications for higher-level employment, and to a new sense of self-suffiency and responsibility.  The Center’s computer instruction increases the range of job opportunities, while workshops and forums  bring participants a new awareness of important national political issues. Assistance in obtaining food stamps and discounted phone service are available to those who need them while going through this educational process, with neighborhood meetings for discussion and planning of future actions.

   Despite notable progress, conditions producing poverty have not yet altered enough to eliminate the need for assistance to Ohio’s low-income population.  However, with its Executive Director Tom Mendelsohn, its Board of Trustees and extensive professional Staff, the Empowerment Center Of Greater Cleveland has had some successes.  They think that these successes through time will significantly change conditions of life for low-income people, not only for those living today but for generations to come. Young people of the future will be able to take pride in how effectively the trudging feet of their forbears surprised the capitol of Ohio and brought a whole new way of dealing with problems of poverty and social exclusion.

STOP Working to Help Victims of Welfare Reform

   Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor is a member of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition, a statewide welfare rights organization. STOP began in response to welfare reform legislation under which low-income people faced a time limit to their eligibility for income support. The federal time limit was set at five years, but the state of Ohio cut its own time limit to three years.

   Welfare recipients are required to find employment and become self-sustaining within the three year interim. For those seeking education to improve their prospects, a complicated regimen was at first worked out whereby a minimum of school time would be counted against required working hours, but that plan did not succeed for very many students, and very few, if any, were awarded guarantees of state-funded four year college enrollments. As to the availability of jobs, a complicating factor at the time was that thousands of jobs were being transferred to other countries, under one of the early U.S. Free Trade Agreements, leaving welfare recipients seeking work in a vastly reduced job market. Even more problematic was the search for decent child care for mothers going to work at times required on day or night shifts.

   As time passed and recipients complied with work requirements, the maintenance of family stability became more and more difficult. Stop’s introductory pamphlet presents an analysis reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of July 20, 2003, of ten U.S. cities being compared on the effects of Welfare Reform’s requirements. In the report, Cleveland was named last in quality of life for children, whose lives were deemed harsher than those in the nine other cities named in the study. The three-year limit is also said to be one of the factors in the rise of infant mortality in the Cleveland area, nearly double the national average. These developments show that many people are still suffering from the loss of income support. Yet, results also seem decidedly mixed, since significant numbers of others have succeeded in their search for desirable employment.

   With these varied outcomes, Stop’s stated mission of education, empowerment and many-sided assistance to low-income families has proven to be having an impact and experiencing progress through its community meetings, its coalition building, and its ongoing process of preparation for better futures. A call-in number is available for quick assistance to anyone in need. and STOP pays special attention to those physically unable to work and those needing extra help such as continuing health care.

   Stop’s new Family Connection Center at 12001 Buckeye Road is a great help as a training facility for Stop’s Work Experience Program. Already a substantial number of women have passed the regimen, with good outcomes increasing as the Program becomes more widely known. Headed by Executive Director Priscilla Cooper and her Board of Trustees and team of officers, the Family Connection Center has received grants from the Gund Foundation, the United Black Fund, and the Ida B. Wells Foundation.  These funds help immeasurably with Stop’s ongoing rallies and citywide meetings.

   Yet, despite many successes, change for the great mass of the people comes slowly, with families still experiencing breakup, children still shunted to foster care, and the frightening rise in the mortality of infants. All this shows that much more needs to be done to bring real stabilization to Cleveland’s low-income families. Such are the conditions that both the Empowerment Center Of Greater Cleveland and STOP Targeting Ohio’s Poor work to reverse every day, to uphold the rights of low-income people to better their situations in life, and to offer their children more satisfying futures.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 79 December 2006-January 2007, Cleveland Ohio.