It all started when Christal Wood tried to get an internship at a law office, but couldn’t because in order to keep her welfare benefits she had to work at a non-profit. She didn’t get that internship but she sure is learning the legal system.
The out-of-work, single mom and law school graduate is representing herself against the state and its team of three attorneys. Wood accuses Washington of engaging in involuntary servitude. She says the government’s Work First program violates the 13th amendment because in order to get her welfare benefits she has to work at a non-profit, or look for work 35 hours a week.
“You either work or you don’t get this money,” she said.
Wood says the program keeps women in a cycle of poverty — dependent upon their meager welfare checks as they struggle to find work and feed their families. But attorneys for the state argue there’s nothing “involuntary” about it at all. They say no one is forcing people to sign up for welfare — now called “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF), but those that do must comply with the rules.
“It’s not involuntary servitude because it was her choice to apply and receive TANF,” said Assistant Attorney General Lianne Malloy. “She could leave at any time.”
The bigger issue is if Wood wins her case and Work First is deemed unconstitutional, the state would likely lose $360 million in federal welfare funding — impacting some 70,000 Washington families.
“Which translates to fewer benefits, if any, for the families”, said Malloy.
If that happens, Wood said the state should take up her side and sue the federal government.
“We have the right to equal protection” Wood said. “What that means is, the state, when faced with a situation like this, should protect its citizens from an involuntary work program.”