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1965 — the Welfare Rights Organization, Oakland

The national welfare rights movement


The welfare rights movement at its peak had an estimated national following of between 30,000 and 100,000.  The movement is one of the most understudied movements of the postwar period.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that the activists were mainly, poor, black women, and their white supporters were not the media-savvy, sometimes glamorous women of the feminist movement.  By the mid-1960s women on welfare were asserting their political and economic rights, shaping welfare policy, at least temporarily. 


In the span of a few short years, the movement changed the face of social policy, established legal protections for welfare recipients and helped shift the political dialogue about government responsibility and economic justice.

Although the welfare rights movement did not achieve many of its primary goals, its victories are, nevertheless, astonishing given the obstacles it encountered, the resources it lacked, and the internal tensions in the movement that had to be negotiated.

Elly Harawitz and the Welfare Rights Organization (WRO)

This small but energetic Bay Area group was organized by Elly Harawitz, a 25-year old social welfare student at U.C. Berkeley, and grew out of her personal experiences with Mrs. Harper, an Oakland mother of seven whose welfare benefits were abruptly cut off because her residence had been judged "unfit" by the Welfare Department.  Harper's house was deemed "unfit" because it had suffered a fire which destroyed the roof.  Elly went with the woman to the Welfare office, where a social worker told her that Mrs. Harpers' welfare check was being withheld to "provide this woman with incentive."

The WRO provided legai aid and counseling to individuals either cut off or ignored by the Welfare Department and worked to provide food and housing during the period in which the person's case was being negotiated with Department bureaucrats.  The WRO worked out of a small, unassuming office two blocks from the Department, and its work was partially subsidized by UC Berkeley's work-study program.

Some of the women working with Elly were two white women: Ginny Proctor, a community activist and Phyllis Haberman O'Donnell, former Chair of the Bay Area DuBois Club, and Mert Maxey, a vital, energetic black Oakland mother of young children.


Mothers and their children enter the County of Alameda County Welfare Department to apply for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).


Welfare Rights Organization (WRO) activists outside the County Welfare Department.  Mert Maxey, center, Elly Harawitz on the right.  


Welfare Rights activists Ginny Proctor (wife of Youth For Jobs organizer Roscoe Proctor) and another WRO activist on right.


Waiting room of the Alameda County Welfare Department office


AFDC recipients were either single mothers or wives of unemployed men.

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