Justice  /  Book Review

When the Welfare Rights Movement Was a Powerful Force for Uplifting the Poor

The War on Poverty comes to life in a new book that explores how welfare mothers in Las Vegas built an organizing juggernaut that transformed lives.

The story centers around the Clark County, Nevada Welfare Right Organization (CCWRO) head Ruby Duncan, a mother of seven who was forced onto welfare when she became disabled. Like others in similar straits, Duncan was initially ashamed of having to go on the dole. But as she and her neighbors parsed this reaction, they quickly realized that it was more shameful to let children go hungry than it was for parents to demand food, shelter, healthcare and job training from the state.   

Like the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), the CCWRO was bold and unapologetic. In the early 1970s, for example, when budget cuts were proposed by state lawmakers, the women brought a group of kids into casino restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip and told them to eat their fill. In addition, as the book title reports, they also stormed Caesars Palace, then one of the largest and most lucrative casinos in Sin City. 

Their efforts got a boost from powerful allies. Entertainers Sammy Davis, Jr., Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland; feminists Flo Kennedy and Gloria Steinem; and civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy marched with them. The local chapter of the League of Women Voters was another ardent and consistent supporter.

Their resistance paid off: By the mid-1970s, doors began to open and grant money began to flow into CCWRO (which the women renamed Operation Life, or OL) coffers. This enabled them to purchase and renovate the abandoned five-story Cove Hotel, where they set up recreation programs for youth and created a library, health center and a Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program. In concert with Legal Services lawyers, they also began to lobby both Congress and the Nevada state house for policies to benefit low-income people.

It was a heady time. For more than 20 years, CCWRO members — most of whom had not finished high school — worked as Operation Life’s grant writers, administrators, and program coordinators. As they told everyone within earshot, their economic status qualified them to develop and run economic justice projects. “We can do it and do it better,” they repeatedly declared. 

And they did — at least until Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office.

As a presidential candidate, the actor-turned-politician used the real-life story of a Black woman in Chicago who had engaged in serial welfare fraud to depict welfare recipients as lazy, Cadillac-driving, Welfare Queens. This rhetoric, however absurd, ushered in a series of punitive “reforms.” The upshot was the curtailment of programs that had empowered poor women and their families. Pared down food stamp allocations and cash assistance further eroded the idea of benefit entitlement.