20th Anniversary of TANF Reforms Action

20 years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law that imposed work requirements and term limits on public assistance. He claimed to want to change “Welfare as we Know it” and we have seen the results. Community Voices Heard members, Safety Net Activist members, allies, supporters and elected officials gathered today to commemorate these “reforms” and to demand a better, more humane system. Over 25 public assistance recipients and their allies gathered outside the OTDA Office of Administrative Hearings, 14 Boerum Pl., Brooklyn, NY. We demanded an end to the Work Experience Program (WEP), increased allowances to reflect the cost of living, and more humane treatment at public assistance centers. On this “birthday” we are wishing for a new set of reforms to make a more just, fair, and humane public assistance system for all New Yorkers.

Key leaders shared their stories about how the public assistance system needs to change to truly help people get on a path to financial stability. Holding up three large “presents for a just future”, which represented the three demands, the speakers spoke of the successes on the city level in ending WEP, but the need to move the fight to Albany. We need to ensure our brothers and sisters throughout the state are paid fairly for their work and treated with dignity at public assistance centers. Others spoke about the need to increase the allowance to match cost of living and more humane treatment at public assistance centers. 

Following the speak-out, the contingent marched to Jay Street-Metro-Tech Station, which is a WEP site. Chanting along the route slogans like “We ain't no one's working slave. Everyone deserves a wage” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho. WEP has got to go”, the contingent was lively and passionate. There was a brief regrouping in front of the train station with more public assistance recipients sharing their stories and the presents for a just future were delivered.

Community Voices Heard has been working for 20 years to end the workfare – the work requirements to receive public assistance – particularly the Work Experience Program. The Safety Net Activists (supported by the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center) have worked to advance dignified and equitable treatment at public assistance centers.

We are both committed to joining with allies and supporters to create a social safety net that meets people where they are, treats them humanely and with dignity, and supports them on a path to financial stability through career pathways.


"There is perhaps no touchier public policy matter for me than public assistance; once upon a time I benefited from it. From a personal, and professional viewpoint, I know how effective it can be in providing a lifeline to those of us who happened to be in dire financial straits. Welfare reform can sometimes be characterized as a way to remove--or at least mitigate--those deemed parasitic to the system; concerning the families affected, this couldn't be further from the truth. Many public assistance recipients are hard working men and woman just looking to take care of themselves and their families, while trying to improve their lives. The stigma needs to be shed, and those in need should be embraced, and encouraged to improve themselves, not looked down upon." -- NYC Council Member Annabel Palma

"The so-called reforms of the past were rooted in cynicism. We should treat those in need as our partners, not as adversaries. New York City is a leader in this approach. With the support of Mayor DeBlasio and Commissioner Steven Banks, the City's phasing out of WEP sets an example for rest of the state and the nation," said Council Member Stephen Levin, Chair of the Committee on General Welfare.

"Every day, I think tomorrow might be the day I'm asked to move due to the rising cost of rent or the possibility that the family will age out of available public assistance programs," said Brenda Riley, member of the Safety Net Activists. "We seek and demand an increase in basic income that actively reflects the current cost of living in 2016."

"Mistreatment at Public Assistance Centers causes frustration and depression for many people," said Zeneida Mencia, member of the Safety Net Activists. "We want this to change in all of the Centers." [translated from Spanish]

“It is important to end WEP because unpaid labor is costly to the people of New York State. It takes away jobs from people that would otherwise have union jobs, which could support their families. It contributes to unemployment. It keeps people on public assistance.” – Ketny Jean-Francois, member leader and board member of Community Voices Heard.

“The time is now we need to end WEP throughout New York State. We need to see the increase in allowance to match cost of living and better treatment at all public assistance centers. We want justice now! We want the next twenty years of welfare reform to create a system based on human dignity and respect.” – Mia Bell, member leader and board member of Community Voices Heard.