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Low-income people need self-advocacy skills, witnesses

Along with joining others in public policy advocacy to protect services for low-income people, Cathy McGinty, director of VOICES, said that low-income people also need to build personal advocacy skills.

“Companies make money on people who accept unfair charges and practices,” she said.

Monica Peabody of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition (WROC) in Seattle and Olympia also encourages developing self-advocacy skills for meetings with caseworkers at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). 

WROC plans to start a welfare witness program, which will train volunteers from churches and the community to accompany people on welfare when they meet with their caseworkers.  Their role is to listen, take notes and share the stories in their communities, like Witness for Peace has done in Central America.

“The presence of a witness changes the demeanor of a caseworker,” Monica said.  “The client should be treated that way anyway.”

Cathy shared two stories of personal advocacy at the recent Congress on TANF—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—at Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane.

One of her stories was about car insurance rates and another about cell phone charges.  Her self-advocacy saved her money.

When she was not working, she did not have insurance on her old car.  A law passed requiring insurance.  It put people who did not have insurance in a high-premium class for two years.  At the end of that period, she expected to have the market rate, but was put in a high rate because it was an old car. 

Cathy wrote the insurance commissioner to say the policy discriminated against low-income people.  She never had an accident or a ticket.  The insurance commissioner agreed.

“I could have accepted the policy and paid too much.  By standing up for myself, I paid the market rate,” Cathy said.

After she began using a new cell phone, she tried for months to find the number of minutes used out of the plan of 500 minutes for $30.  There was no response to her repeated inquiries, and no bill.  Then, after two-and-a-half months, she received a bill for $474. It was impossible to pay.  So she wrote the Better Business Bureau in Colorado, where the cell phone company’s headquarters was, and the BBB in Washington, requesting that the bill be adjusted to the monthly fee and roaming.  The bill was reduced to $93 for the three months she had the phone.

“We can do personal advocacy in many ways, advocating about problems related to medical care, child custody, nursing-home stays, long distance charges, bank account charges or welfare payments,” she said.

Cathy advised people to be prepared, keep records and have allies to prevent losing their temper and creating “a barrier you can’t get beyond” or even facing a felony assault charge for yelling.

She told people to call VOICES—Voices for Opportunities, Income, child Care, Education and Support—for volunteer allies to accompany them as witnesses when they feel they are treated unfairly.

“The key to personal advocacy is never to give up.  If you become frustrated, walk away so you can gather your faculties, resolve and more information. Then regroup, find allies and go back again,” she said. 

Monica said WROC teaches people to advocate for themselves with the DSHS.

“Advocacy does not end with gaining social services.  We have to do self advocacy all the time if we experience oppression—especially women, the poor, people of color and domestic violence victims,” she said.  “It’s hard to find strength to speak out when you feel the power imbalance.

People with power may seem mean spirited or wonderful.  We need to work to equalize the imbalance of power,” Monica said.  “When we seek food stamps or other help, we may feel someone else is in control of our access to food, health care or transportation.”

For people to regain control, she said, they need to know the laws.

Sometimes caseworkers are under pressure to lower their number of cases because funding is limited.  The law may say that a person should have $3,000 in services in a year, but all the funds in that budget category may not be available. 

“That is the fault of the policy makers,” she said.  “If policy makers want to reduce the caseloads, they need to assure that people working earn a living wage.”

The Welfare Rights Organization Coalition started in 1984 when a few welfare mothers started talking and learning about their rights. 

Monica became a single parent in 1990.

“I wanted to be at home when my child was young,” she said.  “I am thankful that WorkFirst had not started.  As a single parent, I had no one to help.  If I had had to work, find child care and raise my child, it would have been even harder.

“Mother work is work,” she asserted.  “It is important work.”

Monica went to college, has a career, owns a house and has been off welfare for 10 years.

It’s hard to see the system changes that no longer allow parents to rear their children and limits access to college.  It’s hard to see caseworkers and people on welfare struggle as the rules continually change,” she said.

Both VOICES and WROC also help empower low-income people by encouraging them to be on policymaking committees so that their perspectives are considered as policies are formed. 

VOICES has representatives on the Economic Services Committee and the DSHS Domestic Violence Committee.

“The presence of voices of low-income people with policymakers may look good, but sometimes those people do not know how the meetings work or how to be heard. Sometimes they feel intimidated,” she continued.  “It’s important to be present in more than name only—to make suggestions and be heard.

“Low-income people need to know they have a voice,” Monica said.  “They also need to use it and find allies to improve ‘customer service’ by caseworkers.

“Keep trying. Never give up,” she advised, adding her hope that the WROC witness program will help people continue self-advocacy.

For information on VOICES, call 532-6121.
For information on WROC, call (206) 324-3063 or (360) 352-9716 or visit

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - © December 2004