In 1986, moms on welfare in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joined together and named themselves Welfare Warriors. Their goal was to fight for respect and improved benefits for families on welfare. 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.
To win respect and pay for caregivers, Welfare Warriors worked with groups in the U.S. and London to promote recognition for the unpaid work of all mothers, especially single moms. They invented the word “motherwork” to remind everyone, including mothers themselves, that caring for a family is work. Allies in Canada, Ireland and Northern Ireland adopted the word.
As Milwaukee moms organized with activists in Europe, they were astonished to learn that children in every European Union country receive an allowance from birth until they are adults. 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 have no strings attached, and no work or income requirements. They are not poverty programs. There is no prejudice associated with them. Nor are politicians tempted to eliminate them during times of austerity because every family, rich and poor, receives them.
After learning about child allowances, the moms designed a mural for their Mothers Organizing Center. Facing a main street in Milwaukee, the mural says, “Motherwork IS Work” and “Fight for Guaranteed Income for all Children.” Both pedestrians and bus riders have stopped to ask about the message and steps for getting involved.
Welfare Mothers Under Attack
Despite Welfare Warriors’ committed struggle, they were unable to win welfare pay similar to widow’s pensions. By 1990, moms on welfare faced escalating attacks from politicians and media. 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 right to go to a two- or four-year college and the right to stay home with babies. It imposes a lifetime time limit of two to five years, depending on the state. All states may pay any amount for their welfare grant, with only five states paying at 40 to 60 percent of the poverty line. All other states pay between 11 to 39 percent of the poverty line. But worst of all, PRWORA requires mothers to work off their tiny welfare check (an average of $390 a month) at 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 94 moms working in Head Start offices for no pay (and no Social Security credits) 20 hours a week for as long as they receive a welfare check. She told us she did not 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 destructive impact on the U.S. workforce with millions of unpaid motherworkers forced to work for free 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 Becomes the Age for 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 said feminists fight for equal pay for women, and socialists fight for living wages. But not since Selma James’s International Wages for Housework campaign in 1972 has any movement addressed the unwaged 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.”):
Women of the world let us throw off our chains
Let us have a taste of economic gains
OH, OH, March 8 we will strike
With all women we’ll unite
We want motherwork made a priority
Funds for caring, not for killing globally
OH, OH, motherwork for pay
Invest in caring everyday
Celebrate the mothers who are in your life
Momma, sister, granny, auntie, 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.
Meanwhile, an Arab group, Sawt el-Amel: Laborers Voice, in Nazareth, Israel, began to organize in 1999 to stop the 30-hour unpaid welfare program, which had spread from the U.S. to Israel. Arab families were the targets in this plan, which was modeled after the U.S. TANF disaster. This program became known as the Wisconsin Plan.
Welfare Warriors and Nazareth activists organized joint protests in both Nazareth and Milwaukee against this scandalous unpaid work 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 must still work off a tiny welfare check doing 20 to 30 hours of unpaid work in this unconstitutional attack on poor families.
In 2007, activist caregivers celebrated another victory. Venezuela was the first country 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. Under Article 88 of the Venezuelan constitution, the government paid 200,000 women 80 percent of the minimum wage, with plans to reach 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 from around the world spoke of their inspiring actions to win pay for caregivers. India was the most successful.
In 2021, every candidate for Kerala’s state parliament promised all homemakers in Kerala a monthly salary. And the Indian Supreme Court joined in the battle for wages for caregivers. The court stated:
The sheer amount of time and effort dedicated to household work by women is not surprising when one considers the plethora of activities they undertake. They cook for the entire family, shop, clean, care for children and the elderly. They fetch water and firewood. In rural homes, women often do sowing, harvesting, planting, and tending cattle. 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.
After the election in Kerala, the victorious party followed through on their promise to provide motherworkers salaries. Unfortunately, members of parliament are currently trying to turn the homemakers’ salary into a poverty program for poor caregivers only.
The U.S. capitalist economic system remains far behind so many other countries. But we can celebrate the victories of other caregivers and use them as examples of the real possibility of winning pay for unwaged motherworkers.