Much more interesting than Marion Barry and Yvette Alexander’s bill that would impose a five-year time limit on the receipt of public assistance for District residents is a statement that Barry made recently on Fox News. He said White advocates oppose this bill because they want to keep Blacks “enslaved” and “oppressed” by the welfare system. While Mr. Barry’s concern is legitimate, his statement is rooted in misperceptions of race and poverty. White advocates touting the cause of racial or social justice is nothing new. From abolition to the civil rights movement, Whites have been an integral part of mass movements for racial equality. Unfortunately, much of their advocacy is met with suspicion from some Blacks and disdain from some Whites.
I understand Mr. Barry’s dismay when he sees White advocates beating down the hallways of the council building to advocate for poor District residents, many of whom are African-American, and who also reside in his Ward 8. I, too, was perplexed when I became an anti-poverty lawyer in the District some three years ago and saw I was one of a few Blacks in the field. Another uniqueness that I bore was that I was the only one who lived in the same community with the people for whom I was fighting. I often pondered whether my authenticity as an advocate was bolstered by the fact that I not only looked like the people I represented but that I also chose to reside near them. Surely, a White advocate would not question why I chose to forfeit more lucrative opportunities to do this work. Unfortunately, Mr. Barry and others do not afford White anti-poverty advocates the same benefit of the doubt maybe because it is believed that, outside of the work they do, these advocates have no real connection with poor communities. Either way his comment that White advocates oppose time limits on welfare to keep Backs oppressed and enslaved is driven by misperceptions about race and those on welfare.
First, it is unfair to assume the intention of an anti-poverty advocate changes because of their race. Certainly, Mr. Barry would not have made that same comment if he saw advocates from the local NAACP opposing the bill. Second, and most important, Mr. Barry’s comment assumes that all parents who receive welfare have been on it for a long time and do not want to get off, therefore making welfare a crutch for poor people. Impoverished communities are not monolithic. Everyone is not on welfare for the same reason. One parent walks away from the family and another loses their job and another gets sick and now these families need welfare.
For these families welfare is a bridge to help them get over troubled waters. For others the situation could look different. A teen girl gets pregnant while in school and her mother already has other mouths to feed so she is on her own. Not an ideal situation but this girl may need welfare until she can find stable work. If Bristol Palin’s family had no money she, too, would be a candidate for welfare. These hypothetical scenarios reflect the reality that poverty is sometimes one paycheck or one bad decision away. Everyone who needs welfare is not out to “work” the system. That is not to say that no one abuses it but the clients I represent before policymakers like Barry do not mirror the “welfare queen” image from the Newt Gingrich era. They have jobs or are in school, they have kids in college, they are domestic violence victims and some have substance abuse issues. Welfare is a means to support them while they try to get ahead under difficult circumstances. None of them wants to “live” on welfare contrary to the stereotypes that perpetuate asinine policies such as the one Barry and Alexander has proposed.
Finally, imposing time limits will cut families off of welfare but it will not reverse poverty trends in the District. The welfare to work program is supposed to offer education and training to parents who need such services but it fails to do this adequately. Poor administration of the District’s welfare to work program results in low outcomes for families with multiple barriers to employment such as low literacy, mental health and substance abuse issues, and those are the ones who need the most help. I may support Barry and Alexander if they held the District’s feet to the fire and advocated for serious improvements in the welfare to work program before trying to impose time limits. My White colleagues have been saying the same thing to Barry since he introduced the bill but maybe he will take it more seriously coming from me—an attorney, advocate and one of his constituents who also happens to be Black.
Yaida Ford is an Washington, D.C. attorney and Ward 8 resident.