Chapter 4: The Battle of Newburgh
Apr 12, 2023
Season 6 | Episode 4

Chapter 4: The Battle of Newburgh

A controversial 1960s battle over race and welfare policy in New York state laid the groundwork for today’s federal welfare policies.

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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The team

Krissy Clark Host and Senior Correspondent
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Marque Greene Assistant Producer
Grace Rubin Assistant Producer
Michael May Editor
Chris Julin Scoring and Sound Design