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Against the Poor



  Spring 2008

Book Review
Storming Caesar’s Palace
by Annelise Orleck
Published by Beacon Press in 2005

 They were 12 Black single mothers. They lived in shacks on the outskirts of segregated southern towns. They worked as sharecroppers on cotton plantations, much like their great-grandparents did in slavery times.

            In the 1950s these moms and their children got on trains and moved to Las Vegas. There the moms got jobs as cooks and maids in hotels and casinos. But Las Vegas was also segregated. Even famous entertainers like Sammy Davis and Lena Horne could not live in the city or eat in casino restaurants. The moms and kids lived in shacks. Many had no electricity or indoor plumbing.

            Hotel and casino work paid a little better than cotton picking. But the jobs were seasonal. The moms were often laid off in October. They were not rehired till May. And there was no welfare.

            Aid to Families with Dependent Children was created as part of the Social Security Act of 1935. But Nevada refused to accept federal welfare funds for 20 years! In 1964 welfare in Nevada provided each family $213 a month. In 1967 this was reduced to $25 per child in 1967.  This cruel cut pushed the moms into action.

            In that year, the mothers of Westside Las Vegas learned about the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). It was created and led by welfare moms. NWRO went head to head with housing departments, schools, welfare offices and government officials to get better food, shelter and medical care.

            The Westside moms organized the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization (CCWRO) in their neighborhood. They traveled to their state capital several times to lobby for welfare rights. They challenged the constitutionality of the welfare cuts. They held sit-ins and demanded job training and childcare. But they were facing  hard hearts and bigotry.

            On March 6, 1971, the Westside moms realized that they could bring about change by  targeting the casinos.  If tourists learned that angry moms and children were staging massive demonstrations in the streets of Las Vegas, they might  stay home. The moms won the support of actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, United Farm Worker’s leader Caesar Chaves, Dr. Benjamen Spock, antiwar activist Dave Dellinger and thousands of welfare rights activists from every state of the union and Canada. They marched together on the strip beginning at Circus Circus.

Eight abreast, they marched past multi-million dollar hotels and straight into Caesar’s Palace. They stopped all gambling in Caesar’s Palace and forced the Flaming Casino to close its doors. The Westside moms vowed to march on the Strip every weekend till Nevada reinstated all the benefits that had been cut. On March 19, Judge Roger Foley ruled that Nevada’s mass welfare cuts were illegal. Everyone who had been cut was reinstated and got retroactive payments.

            In 1972 a county investigator found a $12 million surplus in the welfare department. This was accumulated by denying aid to eligible children and the medically indigent. The Westside moms and kids got on a bus and headed for the state capital. This time they demanded food stamps—which Nevada refused to fund. This was senseless cruelty because all foodstamp costs were covered by the federal government. The moms then backed up their demands for foodstamps by holding eat-ins at Las Vegas restaurants.

            In the summer of 1972, the Westside moms created a community social service agency run by and for the poor. They called it Operation Life. It was housed in an abandoned five-story hotel. Its owner leased it and another building to the Westside moms for one year rent free, with an option to buy both properties. The community donated materials and labor to fix up the buildings.

Clark County promised funds for a 24 hour childcare center. Juvenile Services funded a haven for children awaiting foster care. Juvenile court funded a program to combat juvenile delinquency. Legal Services, Nevada Consumers League and Food for All rented offices in the building. The National Employment Law Project in New York offered to help develop employment a referral service. The federal office of Economic Opportunity subsidized a daily hot breakfast program for 200-500 Westside Children. The Campaign for Human Development paid salaries for Operation Life Staff. Food Advocates, a California think tank, promised to develop a food bank and Food Stamp distribution center, should Nevada ever adopt Food Stamps. Operation Life opened in Sept 1972.

            In 1973, Ruby Duncan, the head of (CCWRO) and other advocates spent three months lobbying for food stamps and raises in AFDC benefits. They pointed out that the welfare department’s failure to spend its allotted budget had cost Nevada $3.5 million in federal matching funds. If Nevada took what the federal government offered, Nevada could double the AFDC grant per child. And they could expand programs for the medically indigent, elderly and blind. They could also pay for both commodities and Food Stamp program. All of this could be done for $5 million less than the Welfare dept. was budgeting.

Food Stamps would benefit supermarkets. It would mean an increase of $1 million in food sales per month. In April 1978, Nevada became the last state in the country to offer Food Stamps.

            On Aug. 27, 1973 the Operation Life Health Center opened its doors. It was the only clinic in the country run by and for poor families. A team of doctors, nurses, dentists and optometrists treated 60% of the state’s eligible children. Moms without high school diplomas got training to do health screenings.

            In Dec. 1973, the moms opened the West Las Vegas library in Operation Life. In June 1974, they received a $10,000 donation to open a swimming pool in the building. By 1980, the organization employed over 100 people. Most were former welfare moms. In the 1980s, Operation Life received grants from the US Dept. of Housing and the city of Las Vegas to construct new housing for low-income families.

            This is the inspiring story of how 12 women with little education and less money were able to take on the mighty welfare department and win. They won the support and help of the moms in their community.  And they managed to get help from the rich and famous. Using creative actions and dogged persistence, they kept Operation Life going for over 20 years. They worked tirelessly to improve not only their situation, but that of hundreds of thousands of poor people in their state.

Adele McCrank
Milwaukee, WI

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