The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO)
The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was a U.S. activist group that advocated for welfare rights–especially the rights of women and children. Active from 1966 to 1975, it was made up of hundreds of smaller local groups. By the late 1960s, its dues-paying membership was over 20,000 persons, mostly Black women. The NWRO demanded welfare payments that provided an adequate income, dignified treatment, justice and democratic participation.
The NWRO evolved from several different advocacy efforts in the 1960s. One was the organization of welfare recipients in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1963 by Mrs. Johnnie Tilmon. The second was a strategy outlined in a May 2, 1966 article in The Nation by two Columbia University professors of social work: Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward whereby welfare recipients could demand so much from agencies as to immobilize the welfare system. The third influence was the decision of Dr. George Wiley, a civil rights activist and former Syracuse University professor, to join forces and support a group of activists who planned a 155-mile march by welfare recipients and their supporters from Cleveland, Ohio and arriving in the state capitol, Columbus, on June 30, 1966. Dr. Wiley, on hearing of the planned march, organized rallies in twenty other cities.
Buoyed by the successful demonstrations, in August 1966, one hundred representatives from seventy-five welfare rights organizations in twenty-three cities met in Chicago and created the National Coordinating Committee of Welfare Rights Groups. This group selected Dr. Wiley as its director. With the assistance of representatives from civil rights groups, labor organizations, church and social work groups, NWRO soon became the national voice for welfare clients’ rights. The NWRO used confrontational techniques, legal action, lobbying and boycotts to advance or protect welfare clients’ rights. It has been regarded by many as a Black feminist movement.
The NWRO suffered financial difficulties in the early 1970s after Dr. Wiley announced his resignation. The organization closed its office, declared bankfuptcy and was disbanded in early 1975.
For further reading:
Demby, G. (2019 June 9). The mothers who fought to radically reimagine welfare. Code Switch. National Public Radio.
Encyclopedia of African American history, 1896 to the present. From the age of segregation to the twenty-first century (2009), vol. 3., p. 459. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nadasen, P. (2005). Welfare warriors: The welfare rights movement in the United States. New York: Routledge.
Thomas, R. M., Jr. Johnnie Tillmon Blackston, Welfare Reformer, Dies at 69. The New York Times, November 27, 1995, p. 26.
Tillman, J. (1972 Spring). Welfare is a women’s issue. Ms. Magazine. Republished online “From the Vault: “Welfare is a Women’s Issue” (Spring 1972)”
West, G. (1981). The National welfare rights movement: The social protest of poor women. New York: Praeger.