The National Urban League and Social Welfare Policy: A Historical Perspective

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A Brief Overview

Open its history books, research its archives, peruse its annual reports and journals, attend its annual conferences, review its research, and it will be clear that the 90-plus-year-old National Urban League and its local affiliates have devoted themselves to improving the social and economic condition of African Americans through fair and equitable access to employment and economic justice. The motto of the League's first logo, "Not Alms, But Opportunity," best captures its guiding philosophy. From its inception, the Urban League concentrated on securing access to education, skills and the basic services that helped individuals get jobs. It has conducted its own research and pioneered in the training of black social workers. It operated a whole host of programsvocational training, manpower training and development, youth employment, housing and community development, and social services. It has on numerous occasions recommended to congressional committees and presidential administrations alike how to improve the social and economic conditions of not only African Americans but all Americans who live in poverty. From the days of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to America's urban centers early in the 20th century, to the digital age of information technology the National Urban League has fought for economic justice. (National Urban League, 1980, 1985;1 Hamilton and Hamilton, 1997).2 This is the perspective that undergirds the Urban League's participation in the ongoing debate about America's welfare policy.

The Family Support Act of 1988

The National Urban League played a major role during the welfare reform debates and legislation that led to enactment of the Family Support Act (FSA) in 1988 (National Urban League, December 1988).3 During the first term of the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s, major cuts were implemented in social welfare programs, particularly in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. In response, the League conducted public hearings in 16 cities around the country that documented the tremendous hardship imposed upon AFDC recipients and other working poor as a result of the budget cuts implemented by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 (OBRA) (National Urban League, May 1982).4 In 1984, the League formally adopted a policy calling for full employment and offered specific recommendations to achieve it (National Urban League, September 1984).5 In 1986-1987, a League policy research and analysis initiative on welfare reform and collaboration with another important national community-based organization, Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (O.I.C.), produced two specific bipartisan legislative proposals that were introduced in both houses of Congress in June 1986, and reintroduced in 1987 (Bergeron, Dixon, Glasgow, April 1988).6

While no congressional action occurred on these bills, they provided a policy prism, if you will, through which to evaluate the House and Senate welfare reform bills then under consideration (Bergeron, Dixon, Glasgow, April 1988).7 The Urban League-O.I.C.-related bills focused on the role community-based organizations (CBOs) needed to be given in helping long-term AFDC recipients make the transition from welfare to permanent and unsubsidized employment. Four of the seven guiding principles, which underlay the League's policy recommendations for welfare reform (National Urban League, April 1987),8 were incorporated in the 1987 House-passed bill, the Family Welfare Reform Act (H.R.1720) (Bergeron, Dixon, Glasgow, April 1988,8 National Urban League, December 1988);10 (Note 1).

Unfortunately, the 1988 welfare reform effort in Congress ended with a final bill that the Urban League could not support. The League believed that the Senate welfare bill (S. 1511) failed to meet the League's basic principles (National Urban League, October 1987)" and when a conference committee reconciled the House and Senate versions, the League found the final product more reflective of the Senate bill that leaned toward the more punitive and inadequate White House perspective (National Urban League, December 1988). …