NPR The Uncertain Hour
Chapter 4: The Battle of Newburgh
In 1961, the city manager of Newburgh, New York, declared war on its poorest residents by proclaiming, without evidence, that the city was overrun by welfare cheats.
“We challenge the right of chiselers and loafers to squat on the welfare rolls forever,” said City Manager Joseph Mitchell. He blamed generous welfare benefits for attracting new poor Black migrants to the small city.
In response, city officials launched a campaign of harsh crackdowns on welfare recipients that included surprise police interrogations, rigid eligibility restrictions and forcing able-bodied men to work to receive a welfare check. But were these new rules designed to reduce welfare fraud or target members of the city’s Black community?
After a national controversy erupted over Newburgh’s welfare rules, the city found itself at the center of a policy fight that’s still playing out today. It’s a moment in history when the belief that certain people need to be forced to work expanded its influence in our country’s system to help poor people.
Producer Peter Balonon-Rosen takes us back to Newburgh to retrace its war on welfare and examines how race became central to a battle over welfare policy.
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"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."