WASHINGTON – Lawmakers were so busy Feb. 5 with the Enron debacle they had no time to hear from 300 poor people from across the country here to demand jobs or benefits to support their children.

But Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) provided a hearing room in the Rayburn Building where grass-roots lobbyists, most of them single mothers, staged their own hearing, cheered on by a standing room crowd that spilled into the corridor. A new coalition of 60 organizations – Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL) – mobilized the three-day pilgrimage.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), chair of the Progressive Caucus, told the crowd in both English and Spanish, “Your presence here demonstrates a growing movement across the country that the economic rights of the people will not be denied.”

Hearings were underway on President Bush’s new budget with $378 billion for the Pentagon, an increase of $48 billion.

“The U.S. is preparing to go to a permanent war economy against terrorism,” Kucinich said. “But we must protect against the terrorism of not having a job, the terror of no health care, of no education, of no hope for the future.”

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, placing a five-year lifetime limit on eligibility for welfare benefits. Many are now reaching that limit. TANF reauthorization is up this year.

Witnesses debunked the self-congratulatory claims that TANF has cut welfare rolls in half. Helen Nickens, leader of Grassroots Organizing (GRO) in Mexico, Mo., told the hearing that she, a mother of three, is forced to accept a minimum wage job, her monthly TANF benefits cut from $291 a month to $55 and her food stamp allotment also slashed.

“My car broke down … My rent and utilities increased and so did my stress level. I realized I was still living below the poverty line,” she said. “We need a welfare policy that locks the door on racial discrimination and poverty and opens the doors of opportunity for all people.”

Laura Barrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles said, “During the mid-1990s, the number of U.S. citizen children of lawfully present immigrants who received food stamps declined by more than one million. We are talking about citizen children.”

Barrera spoke of the struggle to obtain care for her daughter, who has two holes in her heart but was repeatedly rejected for surgery because the family lacked Medicaid. A charity finally covered the costs.

“Full restoration of food stamps, medical coverage and basic benefits to immigrant families is more than just fair treatment,” she said. “It is a principle of basic human rights.”

Maribel Soto, of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she is struggling to support three children under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s vaunted Work Experience Program (WEP).

“It is mandatory that I do WEP 35 hours a week to receive my benefits. That means I work for less than $2 an hour … It’s slavery and there are many people out there doing this.”

Upstairs, the corridor was packed with people hoping for a seat in the House Financial Services Committee hearing on the shredding of documents by Arthur Andersen, Enron’s accounting firm.

Robin Acree, director of GRO, the statewide poor people’s movement in Missouri, told the World, “They criminalize poor people in this country with so much hysteria about ‘welfare fraud.’ Corporate welfare is okay but welfare for poor people is not okay. Nobody wants to focus on the fact that 90 percent of those receiving welfare benefits are poor children.”