ST. PAUL, Minn. (WOMENSENEWS)–A coalition of current and former welfare recipients joined thousands of peace activists Monday to march on the Republican National Convention, which opened with limited fanfare here as politicians sought to keep a lid on partisanship and celebration while storms raged in the South.

Under a bright sun and a warm breeze, about three dozen welfare rights activists–and dozens more of their allies–stood in the shadow of the Minnesota Capitol to protest spending on the war in Iraq, which they said has robbed the government of money for welfare programs and other social services that aid the poor, most of whom are women.

Since the war began in 2003, more than 4,000 lives have been lost and about $600 billion has been spent.

“They say cut back, we say fight back!” welfare rights activists chanted before embarking on a march through the streets of downtown St. Paul to the Xcel Center, where a scaled-back GOP convention opened for official business.

The welfare protest was organized by the Welfare Rights Coalition of Minnesota, which lobbies against cuts to welfare programs and for more spending on housing, education and child and health care.

The welfare protest was part of a larger anti-war march on the convention that was for the most part peaceful but saw some clashes between police and protesters. About 280 demonstrators were arrested by officers, who used tear gas and pepper spray to control the crowd, according to reports in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

“Unfortunately, on the question of money and priorities, it is clear our current government does not care about women or children or families or youth,” said Linden Gawboy, a member of the welfare coalition who helped organize the march.

Hurricane Impacts Gathering

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney canceled prime-time speeches Monday night to attend to Hurricane Gustav, which hit land just west of New Orleans on Monday morning. The storm was weaker than expected but left concerns about flooding.

In their place, First Lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, the wife of GOP nominee John McCain, took the convention stage to ask delegates to donate to charities supporting victims of the hurricane.

Meanwhile, news swarmed around McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who hired a lawyer to defend her against allegations that she improperly fired a state employee, according to news reports.

Palin also made convention headlines when it was revealed that her 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant. Palin said her daughter plans to marry the father-to-be.

Convention schedules for the rest of the week remained in flux due to the storm.

Protesters took the weather as an opportunity, however, to say it amplified their message.

Landing three years after Bush drew fire for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina, Gustav reminds voters that the Bush administration has overlooked domestic priorities, said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, an anti-war activist group based in Venice, Calif. “Our message is stronger than ever,” Benjamin said.

Targeting Party Nominee

For many protesters engaged in the march, that message was aimed squarely at McCain, the belle of the GOP’s planned ball here in St. Paul.

Emblazoned with buttons and T-shirts bearing the likeness of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, protesters assailed McCain because he has declined to set a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq and because he is a fiscal conservative who is not expected to support increases in federal spending on programs that aid the poor.

“We see the connection between the war and the billions and billions of dollars spent to maintain this unjustified war, and the unmet needs of poor and working people here and all over the world,” Minnesota Welfare Rights Coalition member Kim Hosner said in a statement. “Low-income people are angry and want to bring their message to the Republican National Convention.”

In 1996, President Bill Clinton teamed up with a Republican Congress to enact the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a law that required welfare recipients to engage in work-related activities to receive welfare payments. The law was reauthorized in 2006.

Proponents of the law cite a dramatic decline in welfare caseloads as evidence of its success. Nationwide, welfare rolls dropped 57 percent between 1996 and 2006.

They also say the law has helped low-income parents–especially single mothers–find stable employment and collect child support.

But critics say the law has exacerbated poverty, with more single mothers unemployed and without federal assistance.

More than 14 million women–or about 12.5 percent of the population–lived in poverty in 2007, according to data released Aug. 26 by the U.S. Census Bureau and reported by the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The rate of women in poverty was 42 percent higher than the rate of men in poverty, according to the center.

Economic Slowdown

The effects of poverty have been exacerbated by the shrinking economy, higher unemployment rates and the rising cost of fuel and food.

Economic downturns hit women the hardest because they earn less then men; are more likely to work part-time; are less likely to be eligible for unemployment insurance; are less likely to have health insurance; and are more likely to leave their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities, domestic violence or harassment.

“We see the injustice every day when we are at the welfare offices or in the food shelf lines,” Angel Buechner, a Minnesota Welfare Rights Coalition member said in a rally before the anti-war march commenced.

“We hear over and over that they are unable to help us because they do not have enough funds or enough food for everyone,” she said. “I’m tired of telling my kids every night before they go to bed that tomorrow we have to get up again and come up with some way to pay the rent and hopefully find somewhere we can get food for dinner.”

Neither presidential candidate has made overhauling welfare a top priority, although both have campaigned on improving the economy, which is ranked the top concern among voters, according to national polls. While McCain leads on the question of which candidate is best prepared to handle the war in Iraq, Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama has a 19-point edge on management of the economy, according to a Gallup poll released Monday by USA Today.

The peaceful protest drew about 2,000 activists, according to the Associated Press, from cities across the Midwest and beyond. Police in riot gear patrolled the rally.

Participants represented dozens of groups, including women-led organizations like Code Pink; Women Against Military Madness, an anti-war group in Minneapolis; and the Raging Grannies, a group of older women from Madison, Wis.

–Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief for Women’s eNews.

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