Photo credit: Marquezeagles/Wikimedia Commons

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This month, Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, a bill that seeks to address longstanding economic, educational, local government and health care needs that have become desperate during the pandemic. Even though it was missing key elements – a $15 federal minimum wage, and a lower cutoff for eligibility – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, called the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) “the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades.”

And it is. The bill increases access to health care by lowering the cost for millions. It raises the income limit for federal subsidies for Affordable Care Act coverage and dramatically increases funding for Community Health Centers – a War on Poverty innovation. It expands unemployment insurance, provides housing assistance for tens of millions facing eviction, restores funding for Food Stamps and expands the Women and Infant Children Nutrition program.

Finally, it promises to do what has not been done since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty and backed up the promise with a host of programs that were both problematic and highly effective: to cut child poverty in the United States in half.

But what the ARPA may not do is actually empower poor people to make their own decisions. This is something that we know can happen — because fifty years ago this month, in Las Vegas, Nevada, it did.

In March 1971, a diverse army of welfare rights activists staged two demonstrations and civil disobedience actions on the glittering Las Vegas Strip. Organized and led by Clark County Welfare Rights Organization President Ruby Duncan, a 37-year-old African American single mother of seven, the demonstrators were accompanied by an extraordinary group of allies drawn from multiple peace and liberation movements. Marching with the Welfare Rights Organization were activist priests and nuns from the Order of St. Francis; Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who had replaced the assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Hollywood legends Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, just days before they were to begin their “F the Army” tour of American military bases in Vietnam; and Benjamin Spock, the anti-war pediatrician.

With cameras flashing, the marchers stopped before a giant plaster statue of Julius Caesar that welcomed guests into the iconic Caesars Palace hotel and casino on the west side of the Las Vegas Strip. There, Abernathy orated in thunderous tones: “Caesar, give unto the poor what is theirs!”

Kids poked each other in the ribs and cracked up, while a mob-connected hotel official came up behind Duncan and whispered assurances into her ear that no one would be shot. Secure in that knowledge, scores of mothers and kids streamed into the gilded casinos inside Caesars Palace – then, as now, perhaps the country’s most over-the-top monument to conspicuous consumption for the masses. The hotel and casino’s designer purposefully removed the apostrophe from “Caesar’s” when naming the venue, to project the idea that any man who enters should feel like a king.

That night and the next day, newspapers and TV broadcasts from Vegas to D.C. displayed images of hand-lettered signs held up by skinny armed children, floating shakily over the red velvet and golden craps tables. “Nevada Starves Children,” read the most photographed sign.

These Black activists, like many working-class women, were caught between seasonal wage labor and the welfare system. Black single mothers who had come to Las Vegas originally to work in the Strip hotels not only drew the attention of politicians in Washington and Nevada, they showed how capitalism and the welfare system worked together to keep working women poor.

Rather than keep female workers on staff during seasonal downturns, casino owners laid these women off and put them on welfare, while bureaucrats made them fight for benefits they were entitled to. Welfare also kept the workforce in place for when they were needed: as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward explained in their 1971 classic Regulating the Poor, welfare became a way to sustain a low-wage reserve army of labor.

Public assistance certainly kept workers in Vegas during seasons when the hotels had little work. But, as the organizer Duncan often said in answer to people who argued that women had more children to increase their assistance checks: “Yes, welfare is a great lifestyle – if you’re dead.” Poor families needed aid in times of no work. But the women she knew wanted jobs that paid enough to enable them to support their children, decent housing and affordable, safe childcare. As Duncan summed up their political vision: “What any mother wants for her own children, we guarantee to all children.”

When the women took their fight to the Strip, at the height of the era of Rat Pack glamor, casino gambling came to a screeching halt for the first time since mobsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel introduced legal gambling to America after World War II. The activists demonstrated their ability to dam the river of cash that flowed 24-7 from Las Vegas to Nevada state government coffers, supporting a range of public services. Customers fled. “They were grabbing their furs and closing their cash registers,” marcher Essie Henderson exulted.

“Plus,” Mary Wesley recalled happily about the marchers sitting down in the Strip as cars piled up in both directions, “we stopped traffic all the way to Los Angeles.”

The Strip protests on March 6 and 13, 1971, were simultaneously energetic, rebellious performances and acts of desperation. Two months earlier, a majority of Nevada recipients of public assistance had their benefits slashed or cut off entirely.

George Miller, Nevada’s welfare director, made this move after attending a “welfare summit” convened by California Governor Ronald Reagan who was campaigning for a second term –  as he had for his first – on the backs of poor moms and kids. Promising “no more pay for play,” Reagan had convened the summit to test the feasibility of mass welfare cut-offs. Miller volunteered to do a dry run in his small state, where it was much less complicated than it would have been in California, Illinois, Massachusetts or New York, which were home to most of the country’s “welfare” recipients and had strong Democratic parties.

But Nevada families on public assistance lived on a knife’s edge. The cuts left some children so hungry that public health nurses reported lesions and soft bones that result from deep and sustained undernourishment – symptoms of rickets.

As the situation worsened, Duncan met with National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) leaders Johnnie Tillmon, Beulah Sanders, and George Wiley (father of a current candidate for mayor in New York City, Maya Wiley). They advised Duncan to “hit them in the pocketbook.” Driving up the Strip afterwards, the idea of shutting it down with a march struck Duncan like a bolt of lightning: “This is the pocketbook,” she realized, “This is the main vein.” Aided by Legal Services attorneys and former casino pit bosses, Jack Anderson and Mahlon Brown, the women also filed lawsuits against the state’s welfare authority.

The women’s bold direct-action tactics on the Strip won the public relations battle. The state’s Democratic governor, Michael O’Callaghan, urged the women to stop acting out, stop sitting in and, instead, begin working the system. So they did that too. The women ran voter registration drives, attended county and state Democratic conventions, and earned the right to attend the 1972 and ‘76 Democratic National Conventions. And with the help of Legal Services, in 1972 the women formed Operation Life Community Development Corporation.

They also won their lawsuits: federal judge Roger Foley ordered Nevada to reinstate the women’s benefits. In Goldberg v. Kelley (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that public assistance could not be terminated without a fair hearing because it was an entitlement of citizenship, “not a gratuity.”

But they didn’t take O’Callaghan’s advice to stop demonstrating. The mothers continued to mount public actions, even occupying O’Callaghan’s home at one point. They staged read-ins in the libraries of white neighborhoods to protest the fact that there was no library in the city’s largely African-American Westside. And they held an eat-in at the Stardust Hotel: 600 hungry children, accompanied by Duncan and Wesley, marched into the luxe dining room, ordered steak and salad, and refused to pay because “children shouldn’t go hungry.”

Equally as important, they sought control over the system that ruled their lives. Over the next twenty years, the mothers operated an array of anti-poverty programs under a slogan that bears reflection 50 years later: “We Can Do It and Do It Better.” By this, they meant better than credentialed government professionals, and better than the state welfare workers who were paid by taxpayers to run “midnight raids” at the women’s homes in the hopes of finding signs that a man who would render them ineligible for public assistance lived there.

Operation Life became a humming engine of change on Las Vegas’s Westside. With volunteer labor, they rehabbed the abandoned Cove Hotel, a hot spot from segregation days, where Black performers Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and Eartha Kitt spent nights jamming after working the Strip hotels, which hired them to perform but would not house them. The Cove reopened as the Operation Life Community Health Center in the 1970s. The women who ran it treated the highest percentage of eligible poor children of any federally-funded pediatric clinic in the nation. With federal anti-poverty dollars, Operation Life hired poor mothers to deliver social services to their community and, in so doing, supported them in escaping the welfare system. The mothers also lobbied and sued to bring food stamps and the WIC program to their state, as one legislator said, “dragging Nevada kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.”

What Nevada mothers achieved was not unique. With the help of the Welfare Rights organization, poor mothers in 17 states sued and lobbied the federal government to release monies for food stamps, WIC, school lunch and children’s health programs. To the extent that the War on Poverty was successful, it was because of the work and protests run by poor, single mothers of color.

After Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, he promised deep cuts in social service and community development programs, promoting Nevada’s Miller and other conservative welfare bureaucrats to regional Health and Human Services directorships with a mandate to disempower activist groups like Operation Life. Across the country, community activists, especially women of color, were pushed out of positions running WIC programs, health clinics, and housing programs. As Wesley put it, “We were smart enough to bring the programs in, but too dumb to keep running them.”

Still, the programs remained because they became essential to tens of millions of Americans. When George W. Bush attempted to zero out funds for community development block grants after Hurricane Katrina, it was moderate Republicans who fought that and won. The low-income areas they represented could not function without them.

The American Rescue Plan Act restores and even expands funding to many crucial programs launched during the War on Poverty’s early years. But, unlike the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, it does not include a mandate for “maximum feasible participation by the poor themselves.” Nor does it include the living wage that low-wage workers have been fighting for in the streets, statehouses, and boardrooms since 2012.

The vast expansions the bill brings in child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credits promise the biggest cuts in child poverty in fifty years. But to truly honor the women of Operation Life and the national welfare rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, community organizers, academics and radical policy experts will need to push for a renewed faith in the wisdom and lived experience of poor mothers as the true experts on poverty and what needs to be done to alleviate it.

We can do it and do it better, the women of Operation Life argued. Let’s empower them to try.

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Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. 

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