Talk about biting the hand that feeds you - and flies you, and puts you up in a nice hotel. When members of the appropriately named collaboration GROWL (Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership) found out about the across-the-ideological-spectrum Summit on Welfare Reform put on last month by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan - with funding from the Annie E. Casey and C.S. Mott foundations - they called to invite themselves onto the panels. It was too late, the organizers explained, and besides, this is a conference for the presentation of research papers on the impact of welfare reform.
But Casey and Mott offered the welfare activists "scholarships," providing airfare and accommodations for 40 of them in Washington, D.C. All told, about 90 welfare community activists came from 23 states. Among them was leftist academic/activist Gary Delgado, head of the Oakland-based Applied Research Center, which was the inspiration behind much of what happened at the conference.
Once they were among the 832 attendees, the growlers set out to be heard. When conservative Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution presented his report on how welfare reform had gotten families off welfare while increasing their incomes, the growlers hissed and heckled. The hissing grew into booing when the podium was occupied by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute - author of the controversial "Bell Curve," whose pronouncements include low intelligence as a cause of poverty. Murray's dull talk on how welfare reform has affected "family formation" (the verdict: too soon to say) was enlivened when about 75 protesters marched down the center aisle carrying placards denouncing Murray: "Murray Lies: Poor people have low I.Q.s," and "Murray's Views promote racism!" Rebecca Blank of the Ford School asked the protesters to stand with their placards along the walls, with limited success. Murray was heckled throughout.
Although most of the heckling during the two days was aimed at conservatives on the panels, the activists even targeted easy-going Cliff Johnson of the National League of Cities - who, after being shouted down, snapped that he would speak to the issues "in my voice, not yours." Former Children's Defense Fund senior staffer Jason Turner, now New York City Commissioner of Welfare and formerly the honcho of Wisconsin's most-successful-in-the-nation Welfare to Work program, was called "a killer," among other epithets. Plans to disrupt a talk by Turner's former boss Tommy Thompson, the architect of welfare reform in Wisconsin and President Bush's new Health and Human Services secretary, were dashed when Thompson canceled. The panels did include more liberal voices, such as Blank, Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). Contact: GROWL (510) 533-7583, www.ctwo.org/growl; Ford School (734) 763-2258.