The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was founded by former Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) activist George Wiley. By January 1965, Wiley had become disillusioned with CORE’s conventional approach to civil rights and left the organization. He formed his own activist group, the Washington, DC-based Poverty Rights Action Center (PRAC). Just as PRAC began to establish itself, Columbia University professors Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven began promoting their “flood-the-welfare rolls, bankrupt-the-cities” plan (the so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy) in the activist community. They tapped Wiley to lead what they hoped would grow into a nationwide movement.
In August 1966, the representatives of welfare-recipient groups from two-dozen cities met in Chicago to form the National Coordinating Committee of Welfare Rights Groups (NCC), which in February 1967 authorized Wiley’s PRAC to create a membership card for all NCC-affiliated groups. Soon thereafter, PRAC staffers drafted a constitution that was adopted by NCC and 67 local welfare-rights organizations. Thus was born the NWRO, which held its founding convention in Washington during August 25-27, 1967. Richard Cloward played a key role in the group’s formation.
In its early stages NWRO did not pursue Cloward and Piven’s strategy of flooding the welfare rolls with new people, but focused instead on organizing current welfare recipients into pressure groups. The organization’s first crusade was to lobby against the work-incentive provisions contained in the Social Security Amendments of 1967. Toward that end, NWRO members staged a number of high-profile demonstrations, one of which was a sit-in at the hearing room of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. gave positive recognition to NWRO’s work in early 1968, the organization’s leadership was able to get an audience with the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare that summer. Foundation money soon began to pour into NWRO’s coffers, enabling the group to expand its staff and media presence, which in turn caused its membership rolls to swell. Leftwing activist groups also helped fund NWRO; in his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky notes that the organization received more than $500,000 from the National Council of Churches between 1968 to 1971. Government money, too, was funneled to NWRO; for instance, a $434,000 government contract in December 1968 was intended to help the organization monitor the Work Incentive Program, which sought to make welfare recipients less dependent on government assistance. Moreover, NWRO received free office space from the Legal Services division of the Office of Economic Opportunity.
By this time, NWRO was adhering closely to the Cloward-Piven Strategy. The group pushed for a guaranteed living income, which it defined, in 1968, as $5,500 per year for every American family with four children. Wiley introduced the battle cry, “Fifty-five hundred or fight!,” raising it the following year to “Sixty-five hundred or fight!” To drive home the urgency of this demand, Wiley and his followers invaded welfare offices — often violently — bullying social workers and loudly demanding every penny to which the law “entitled” them. The New York Times reported in 1970: “There have been sit-ins in legislative chambers, including a United States Senate committee hearing, mass demonstrations of several thousand welfare recipients, school boycotts, picket lines, mounted police, tear gas, arrests — and, on occasion, rock-throwing, smashed glass doors, overturned desks, scattered papers and ripped-out phones.”
Wiley and his welfare radicals terrorized social workers all over the United States, but their greatest success came in New York City, where arch-liberal mayor John Lindsay knuckled under to every NWRO demand. New York’s welfare rolls had already been growing by 12 percent per year before Lindsay took office in January 1966. That year, the annual growth rate jumped to 50 percent, and by the early 1970s one person was on the welfare rolls in New York City for every two who were working in the city’s private economy. As a direct result of its reckless welfare spending, New York City was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1975. Nor was this phenomenon unique to New York. NWRO managed to squeeze tens of billions of dollars from state and local governments across the United States. Between 1965 and 1974, the number of single-parent U.S. households on welfare rose from 4.3 million to 10.8 million.
Crucial to NWRO’s success was its modus operandi which bore many resemblances to a “franchising” business model. The organization encouraged local activists to set up independent chapters in their communities. Each chapter became a profit center in its own right, generating money from its own local operations. NWRO made money by teaching people how to exploit the welfare system via shakedown operations, and charging those beneficiaries membership fees in exchange for that education.
Fueled by its multiple income streams, NWRO chapters sprouted up from coast to coast. At its height, in 1969, the organization claimed a dues-paying membership of 25,000 people, most of whom were black women, and 523 separate chapters across the United States.
In the early days of the Nixon administration, NWRO continue to enjoy access to high-ranking government officials. In February 1969, for instance, the group’s leaders met at the White House with Nixon advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare with Secretary Robert Finch.
Before long, however, the federal funds that had driven NWRO during the Johnson administration began to dry up, as did the American public’s patience for the sort of violent tactics which the organization promoted. As money tightened, NWRO’s leaders began turning on each other. White activists were driven from leadership positions by black extremists. Wiley himself came under attack for his middle-class background. A poor-people’s organization should be run by poor people, the insurgents declared. Pressure grew to fill every leadership slot with welfare recipients rather than professional activists.
Wiley left NWRO on January 31, 1972 in order to start a new group called the Movement for Economic Justice, which was likewise devoted to income redistribution. He was replaced as NWRO leader by the activist Johnnie Tillmon, known for her controversial 1972 essay, “Welfare Is a Woman’s Issue.” Published in Ms. magazine and elsewhere, the piece complained that the American welfare system unfairly placed women under the scrutiny of government authorities.
In March 1975, NWRO went bankrupt and closed its doors permanently. But its concept of the radical franchise chain, whose operations can be duplicated in any community, continues to inspire imitators to this day through such entities as the Public Interest Research Groups and, most notably, ACORN – which was founded by onetime NWRO organizer Wade Rathke. ACORN and its front groups today are the leading practitioners of the Cloward-Piven Strategy that George Wiley pioneered. Former NWRO activist Mark Toney credits Wiley with “introducing the first organizing model that was consciously designed to be replicable anywhere in the country.”