Confusing Support and Autonomy for Welfare Recipients

Ideas and Issues

Greenville       Some months ago I was reading about the demise of a significant social service and advocacy organization.

A former executive director, David Tobis, who had also written a book about the organization and was one of its founders was quoted saying, “Movements start, they rise, they have influence and then they abate.  Parents are parents.  They are not administrators.”

What a peculiar quote attributed to him.  His comment on movements is commonplace, though not necessarily correct, but more to the point, his point on the very constituency that made up his organization, many of whom were welfare mothers, is so sweeping that it not only reads wrongheaded, but patronizing.  Of course, a huge number of parents are administrators of businesses, nonprofits, government, unions, and whatever might be named.  His real point is that he doesn’t believe the former recipients of this organizations’ services were ever capable of running the outfit.  Wow!

The Child Welfare Organizing project had made it twenty-five years, according to the New York Times, as “a group of mostly low-income mothers in New York City whose children had been taken away from them” but they “managed to turn their pain into policy.”  This is already a moving story of exceptional women, and by their record, capable of great things, since “they were credited with pushing for changes that helped steer the precipitous drop in the number of children in city foster care, now at about 9000 from about 50,000 in the early 1990s.”  For my money, hats off to these sisters and their protests and advocacy.  They won proposals in the legislature recently and, be careful how you’re quoted Brother Tobis, “two former employees now hold key positions in the Administration for Children’s Services, the city’s child welfare agency.”

The postmortem seemed to hint at a loss of focus by one executive director and a trip o Fiji and other drinks of the self-help programs out there where she was a fan.  But the real story seems to have had a lot to do with race, class, and gender, as sadly Tobis’ comment seemed to reveal.  Most the child welfare bureaucracy was white and male, and so were many of the administrators of the Child Welfare Organizing Project.  Switching to a black woman director who was a former recipient seems to have exposed the hard truth that they were not really full-fledged members of the club.

Sandra Killet, who was that former director, seems to have nailed it better in her overview.  She argued that the mothers were capable of both advocacy and administration but that “leaders of child welfare agencies should not confuse a need for support with a relinquishing of autonomy,” according to the Times summary of her remarks.  She added, “You don’t have to follow their lead.”

Perhaps you do to get the money, it seems, but she has hit the nail on head.  Confusing recipients of services with sheep to be lead, rather than adults with lives to lead, has been a critical mistake in dealing with welfare recipients and low-and-moderate income families for generations when it comes to government programs and funding.