After Poverty, Women Coach Others on Survival

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Diane Dujon (left) and Dottie Stevens

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–She was only 20 years old, a single mother who had been sleeping in her car with her 3-year-old. She had no money and no family support.

When the welfare case worker told her to get a job, she lost it, retorting that maybe the case worker ought to try sleeping in the car with a child and then hitting the pavement to look for work.

That was when Terri Hinton stepped in.

As a Survivors, Inc. advocate for poor women, Hinton, 37, keeps vigil at the Department of Transitional Assistance here. She hands out copies of the grassroots group’s quarterly newspaper, Survival News.

The organization and its publication take aim at issues concerned with poverty and welfare survival and seek to provide a voice for “low-no-income” women. The circulation is small, sometimes as few as 1,000 copies if that is all the budget will allow. But the goal is large: teaching women on welfare about their rights.

As she distributed newspapers at the offices of the Department of Transitional Assistance, Hinton found the 20-year-old fuming at her caseworker’s desk. Hinton interjected to tell the young woman that she and her child had a right to a place in an emergency shelter. She explained that the case worker was obligated to find a space for them both.

“The case worker gave me a dirty look, like, who are you?” said Hinton. “But that is the law.”

Once she was certain the young woman and her child would sleep in a safe place that night, Hinton left the welfare office.

“That’s what we do in my organization,” Hinton said. “We encourage each other to keep fighting for each other, and for the cause, for poor people. Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to keep up this fight.”

It Began With Two Women on Welfare

Survivors, Inc.–an organization of only two dozen women–took root more than 20 years ago when Diane Dujon and Dottie Stevens met at a University of Massachusetts-Boston program designed to help women on welfare earn college degrees.

At the time, Stevens and Dujon were enrolled in the College of Public and Community Service. Neither woman could have foreseen the relationship that would follow.

Stevens, now 63, was an eighth-grade dropout who had never had an African American acquaintance before she met Dujon, 58. She had studied at Boston’s Northeastern University before her money ran out. She had taken business classes, hoping she could become “a crackerjack secretary.”

Both signed up for a class called Basic Organizing.

“I thought it meant organizing an office,” Stevens said. “I didn’t have any other aspirations because I didn’t know there were any other aspirations to have.”

Both were single mothers living on public assistance. In the class, they researched poverty back to Elizabethan England. Stevens said that the more they learned about economic history, the madder they got.

“We realized it was not our fault that we were poor,” Stevens said.

“Every time we heard something we didn’t like, we’d be down at the Statehouse, protesting, finding out who was with us and who was not,” Dujon said. “We really got in to battling for economic justice.”

‘Poverty Works for Me’

Along with a deep friendship, they developed a catch-phrase: “Poverty works for me.”

The two women completed their bachelor’s degrees.

Dujon went on to earn a master’s degree and co-author a book about poverty called “For Crying Out Loud: Women’s Poverty in the United States.” Stevens studied law and, while still drawing welfare, placed her name on the Massachusetts gubernatorial ballot.

But they also continued working together and by 1986 they were using foundation money and donations to publish Survival News.

The paper’s unpaid staff of 12 to 15 women holds editorial meetings at kitchen tables, then distributes the free publication at laundromats, homeless shelters, community clinics and public assistance offices. Special sections are published in Haitian-Creole, Vietnamese and Spanish.

The two founders remain in business, Dujon said, because “poverty is flourishing. There are more people in poverty now than when we began.”

The number of such women is growing. In 2004, 37 million Americans lived in poverty–up 1.1 million from the previous year–according to the latest statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. The rolls will likely increase next year, reflecting the tolls of two devastating hurricanes.

Welfare numbers are difficult to track, according to Stevens and Dujon. But women remain much more likely than men to receive public assistance in large part because 90 percent of single parents are female.

Women lead the ranks of the poor, an analysis by the New York group Legal Momentum finds.

In 2003, the nonprofit research organization found the rate of poverty to be 39 percent higher among women than men. About 1 in every 8 women was poor, compared to about one in 11 men, the group concluded. Almost 60 percent of adults in 2003 who were extremely poor–meaning that their income was less than half the poverty standard–were women.

Fledgling Network

The group is part of a fledgling network in Massachusetts called Cutting EJ–the EJ is for Economic Justice–that hopes to pattern itself after the civil rights movement.

Its grassroots nature makes it difficult for Survivors, Inc. and others to measure their accomplishments.

With a minuscule budget and small staff, the Boston organization embraces a highly personal approach to ending poverty. It declares partial victory if one low-income woman obtains maximum benefits from the welfare system–and full victory if that woman moves out of poverty through employment and education.

“We already know that it is going to take hundreds of years to change things. We know that in our lifetime we are not going to end poverty,” Stevens said. “But we can chip away and make a difference.”

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” about the difficulty of living on low-income wages, said poverty is such an intractable issue that small-scale efforts such as Survivors, Inc. may be the most successful approach.

“I just remind you that the feminist movement started like that, around kitchen tables,” she said. “It seemed so tiny and a little bit crazy. I was there. People thought how weird and marginal, women meeting and sharing stories, just as they are doing now with this group in Boston.”

Elizabeth Mehren is New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

Survival News:
http://www.survivorsinc.org

Welfare Series: Law Drops Moms in Deeper Poverty:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1940

Women’s Poverty Deepens Amid Slow 2003 Recovery:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1968/

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