Director: Peter Kinoy, Pamela Yates
- 1997 Sundance Film Festival
Veteran documentary filmmakers Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy have shepherded this first-person account of one woman’s struggle to live on and off welfare. “She” grew up in the working-class community of Kensington, Philadelphia. When the factory work that had been the mainstay of many of the community’s families disappeared, she found herself unable to find work that would support her and her children and ended up falling into the social and economic abyss that is welfare. Poverty Outlaw is the story of the way she fought back and, along with a group of other welfare recipients, organized the Kensington Welfare Rights Union.
Very personal and perhaps naive on some levels, Poverty Outlaw is nevertheless an extremely eloquent depiction of the consequences of poverty and the system that degrades and penalizes those who find themselves entrapped in a cycle of despair, indigence, and need. It is primarily a chronicle of women who organize and fight against the debilitating circumstances of their lives and the appalling actions of government and its police agencies and justice system that undermine their cause. When the organizing group tries to take over the abandoned welfare administration building in their neighborhood to build a children’s center, rather than working with them, the Philadelphia agencies arrest them, put them on trial, harass them, and cut off their support. Over four years of actions, protests, demonstrations, lobbying of state politicians and city councilmembers evidence the immense obstacles that confront anyone struggling for social change. Especially futile is the appeal to Congress, but perhaps everyone is already aware of this.
Poverty Outlaw is the human drama of women ready to do anything and everything to keep their children and avoid the special penalties of being poor. While there are holes in its logic (one may question its definition of entitlement) and it doesn’t always avoid the pitfalls of melodramatic overstatement, Poverty Outlaw presents voices we must listen to. This is a problem that will only accelerate in the coming years as attacks on welfare from all sides continue and increase the desperation that has made this daring call to action so relevant to our times and so powerful.