In 1996, President Clinton proclaimed signed a bill that would end of welfare as we know it. As a result, New York State implemented the Work Experience Program (WEP), the largest unpaid work program in the country. All welfare recipients 18 and over were assigned a 35-hour/week job to credit off their welfare benefit at the minimum wage. Neither college classes nor job training counted towards the 35 hours at the time. The program was meant to provide work experience and a gateway towards full-time employment, but in NYC, only 6% of WEP workers were placed in jobs, and it is unclear how permanent those jobs were.
Stereotypes have plagued women on welfare for years: laziness, “welfare-queens,” more children for more money. Yet women at Hunter College, saw a different story. The students around them were driven, intelligent, and qualified for a sustainable job. But they were being forced into menial jobs and out of school just to keep their heads above water. So three professors and a graduate student formed the Welfare Rights Initiative. For years, staff and students lobbied in New York and Albany to change the law to allow class time to count towards the WEP work requirement. In 2014, they were successful and the law in NY State was changed.
Today America has a serious problem of income and opportunity inequality and huge differences in access to education. WRI is addressing those problems and addressing them directly. Their training program is turning out people (many are former welfare recipients) who are not only doing productive things with their own lives but also people who are trained and eager to engage on the issues of inequality confronting our country. WRI is producing active, informed, caring citizens whose goals extend beyond just getting their piece of the pie to the point where our common good and interests meet – something that we as citizen filmmakers feel is sorely needed.