In 1986, mothers on welfare in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) joined forces and became Welfare Warriors. Their goal was to fight for better welfare benefits and respect for families. The group planned to win changes in welfare to make it similar to the only U.S. guaranteed income for single mothers, Social Security Survivor’s Benefits. And they planned to educate the U.S. to understand that welfare is simply a form of child support to which all children are legally entitled — including children of single parents, children whose caregivers are unemployed, and more.
Welfare Warriors partnered with groups in the U.S., London, and other countries to help caregivers win respect and pay. They invented the word “motherwork” to remind everyone, including mothers themselves, that caring for a family Work is a job. Allies in Canada, Ireland, and Northern Ireland adopted the word.
Milwaukee moms gathered with activists in Europe to discover that every country in the European Union receives an allowance for their children from birth until they turn 18. Then they heard from Canadian allies that the U.S.’s northern neighbor also provides a check from birth to adulthood for every child.
These child allowances come with no strings attached and are not dependent on income or work. They are not poverty-relief programs. They are not associated with prejudice. They are also not available to politicians during times of austerity. Every family, rich and poor receives them.
After learning about child allocations, the moms created a mural to support their Mothers Organizing Center. The mural is located on Milwaukee’s main street. “Motherwork IS Work” “Fight for Guaranteed Income for all Children.”Both bus riders and pedestrians stopped to inquire about the message and steps to take.
Welfare Mothers Under Attack
Despite Welfare Warriors’ committed struggle, they were unable to win welfare pay similar to widow’s pensions. Politicians and media began to attack moms on welfare by 1990. Then the Clinton administration, along with bipartisan support from Congress, swooped down on victims of poverty in 1996, requiring moms on welfare to work yet one more unpaid job — this time unpaid work out of the home.
Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This program denies moms the opportunity to attend a college or university of their choice and gives them the right to stay at home with the babies. The state may limit the amount of time that they grant, ranging from two to five years. All states can pay for their welfare grants at any amount, but only five states pay between 40-60 percent and 60 percent of the poverty level. All other states pay 11 to 39 per cent of the poverty line. Worst of all is PRWORA, which requires mothers to work from their small welfare check (an average $390 per month) at PRWORA. 30 hours unpaid work each week — or 20 hours unpaid work and 10 hours of job searching.
Within TANF’s first year, Welfare Warriors protested at 26 Milwaukee companies that had become unpaid welfare work sites. For example, the group visited the CEO of Milwaukee’s Head Start program, Deborah Blanks. She explained that her agency had nearly 94 moms who worked in Head Start offices for no paid (and no Social Security credit) for 20 hours a week, as long they receive a welfare payment. She said that she didn’t make the law. She suggested that the moms should contact the federal government if they objected to, what the moms call, “the New Millennium Slavery.”
Imagine the devastating impact on the U.S. economy if millions of motherworkers were forced to work for nothing since 1997. The 13th Amendment forbids “slavery [or] involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” But Congress makes an exception for parents on welfare.
New Millennium is the Age of Unwaged Caregivers
In 1999, Welfare Warriors organized the 2000 International Women’s Day event with moms in Ireland, London, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Margaretta D’Arcy, an activist, writer and filmmaker in Galway, Ireland, proposed that the action announce the new millennium as the age for unwaged caregivers. She stated that feminists strive for equal pay for women while socialists strive for living wages. But not since Selma James’s International Wages for Housework campaignIn 1972, the first movement to address the issue was Unwage workers
Philly’s Global Women’s Strike proposed a great slogan for the campaign: “Invest in Caring, Not Killing,” since most U.S. funds are spent on warfare. Welfare Warriors added some lyrics to a song written by the Raging Grannies in Canada, called, “Women of the World Let Us Throw Off Our Chains,” (to the tune of “Put Your Arms Around Me Baby, Hold Me Tight.”):
All women of the world, let us toss our chains
Let’s enjoy some economic gains
OH, OH. March 8th we will strike
With all women we’ll unite
Motherwork should be a priority
Global funds for caring, not killing
OH, OH momwork for pay
Care for your family every day.
Honor the mothers in your life
Momma, sister granny, auntie and daughter, wife
OH, OH, join with the moms — strike for peace and pay today
That 2000 International Women’s Day event was a powerful launching of the worldwide fight for pay for caregivers.
Sawt el-Amel is an Arab group. Laborers Voice,Nazareth, Israel organized in 1999 to stop the spread of the unpaid welfare program. It had been in effect since the U.S. was invaded by Israel. This plan was modeled after the U.S. TANF catastrophe and targeted Arab families. This program is now known as The Wisconsin Plan.
Welfare Warriors and Nazareth activist organized joint protests in Nazareth, Milwaukee and against this scandalous unpaid program.
In 2005, after six years of protests, lobbying and lawsuits, Sawt el-Amel succeeded in closing down Israel’s version of the cruel Wisconsin Plan.
But in the U.S., moms still have to earn a small welfare check and do 20-30 hours of unpaid work as part of this unconstitutional attack upon poor families.
2007 was another great year for activist caregivers. Venezuela was the first nation to pay homemakers. Under Hugo Chávez’s “missions,” about 20 million poor people — from elders to mothers to students to babies — benefited from assistance. The government recognized women’s work in the home as a valuable economic activity. The Venezuelan constitution provided that the government paid 200,000 women 80 per cent of the minimum wage. There are plans to increase this number to half a million homemakers. The pay for each caregiver is $180 a month.Then, in 2015, the Global Women’s Strike in London, with Selma James, organized an International Women’s Conference on Caring, Survival, and Justice vs. the Tyranny of the Market.
Mothers around the globe spoke out to praise their inspirational actions to win caregiver pay. India was the most successful.
In 2021, every candidate for Kerala’s state parliament promised all homemakers in Kerala a monthly salary. The Indian Supreme Court also joined the fight for caregivers’ salaries. The court stated that:
When you consider the multitude of activities they take part in, it is not surprising that women dedicate so much time and effort to household work. They cook for the whole family, shop, clean up, and care for the elderly and children. They collect water and firewood. Women often tend to sow, harvest, plant, and tend to cattle in rural homes. The idea that homemakers do not “work” and do not add economic value to the household must be overcome…. Fixing a national income for homemakers … is a step towards the constitutional vision of social equality and ensuring dignity of life to all individuals.
The victorious party in Kerala continued to fulfill their promise to motherworkers a salary after the election. Unfortunately, members of parliament are currently trying to turn the homemakers’ salary into a poverty program for poor caregivers only.
The U.S. capitalist system of economics is still far behind other countries. We can still celebrate the achievements of other caregivers, and use them to show us how pay for unpaid motherworkers is possible.