Unordering Liberty: The Legacy of Frances Fox Piven

David Stoesz

Ardent activist and provocateur, Frances Fox Piven earned her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1962. From 1962 to 1972 she taught at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, where she collaborated with her husband, Richard Cloward, on a forerunner of the War on Poverty, Mobilization for Youth. From 1972 to 1982 she taught political science at Boston University, where she became an icon of the Left. Currently, Piven is professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York. She has held leadership positions in the American Political Science Association, the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the American Sociological Association. In addition to cofounding the National Welfare Rights Organization, she cofounded an organization promoting voter registration, a precursor of the National Voter Registration (“Motor Voter”) Act. Piven has received five honorary doctorates and more than a dozen lifetime achievement awards.

The arc of Piven’s career spans the War on Poverty, the Reagan revolution, and the rise of neoliberalism, events defining the decline of the Left and the rise of the Right in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1970s also marked a divergence in liberalism. On the one side there were the “Romantic” activists such as Piven and Cloward, who attempted to replicate for the minority poor victories that suffragettes, labor leaders, and civil rights activists had achieved for women, workers, and blacks decades earlier through organized marches and protests. On the other side, in stark contrast, stood the “Empirical” analysts, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Coleman, who were vilified for their research at variance with the received truth of the liberal Left. While leftist Romantics insisted that corporate interest exploited the poor, Moynihan and Coleman demonstrated that poverty was more nuanced, associated with increasing family disorganization and that the short-term benefits of anti-poverty programs eroded over time, respectively.

While the mass demonstrations advocated by Piven contributed to a short-lived welfare rights movement, ultimately data would triumph, conspicuously evident in the field experiments that provided the justification for the 1996 welfare reform. A decade later, Occupy Wall Street spluttered out at the very moment radicalized conservatives founded the Tea Party, elected Republican majorities to both houses of Congress, and bedeviled a progressive President Obama. Undaunted, Piven continues to advance a leftist agenda that emphasizes the role of organized labor and liberal academics in social affairs, even as the credibility of both has cratered. Despite an industrial era theory of social change that failed to incorporate the dynamics of the information age, Piven remains the doyenne of the literary Left, a liberati nostalgic for simplistic explanations of progress.1

The genesis of Piven’s oeuvre can be traced to “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” published in 1966 in The Nation, in which she and Cloward proposed mobilizing the poor in order to create “a political crisis” that would produce a guaranteed annual income, thus eliminating poverty: “Widespread campaigns to register the eligible poor for welfare aid, and to help existing recipients obtain their full benefits, would produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and fiscal disruption in local and state government.”2 Initially, Piven and Cloward viewed public welfare as contrary to the interests of the poor, but rather than call for eliminating it or instituting incremental policy reforms, they paradoxically suggest dramatically expanding the number of welfare beneficiaries.

In 1972 Piven and Cloward published their iconic text, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, which documented a dynamic relationship between public assistance and wages.3 As the demand for low-skilled labor increased, they maintained, welfare benefits dropped in order to force the disproportionately minority poor to work. This idea was not new; indeed, the “less eligibility principle,” holding that the status of welfare recipients must be below the lowest laborer, had been introduced in the British Poor Law of 1834.4 Piven and Cloward contended, however, that agricultural mechanization in the South created a chain of events that replicated the mass unemployment of the Great Depression. As blacks migrated to cities, they encountered discrimination, which caused unemployment; electoral retribution blocked, blacks resorted to civil disorder, which was defused by expanding the relief rolls. Having provided this historical justification for their 1966 screed that called for actions to collapse the welfare system and install guaranteed income instead, Piven and Cloward opposed palliative or incremental measures to improve the functioning of the dislocated, minority poor: “We are opposed to work-enforcing reforms.”5 Once the restive poor were pacified, “relief-giving can be virtually abolished, as it has been so often in the past” (emphasis in original).6 Piven and Cloward hoped to shatter the historic dynamic through which low-wage work oscillated with welfare benefits, creating a substandard income for low-income families, by mobilizing the poor in order to replace inadequate public assistance with a guaranteed annual income. Having rejected judicious measures to accommodate the minority poor as faux relief by the state, Piven and Cloward opted for continual mass protest.

Accordingly, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was organized in 1966 to attain equity for welfare recipients. Led by charismatic George Wiley, an American chemist and civil rights leader, NWRO grew to represent twenty-five thousand members at its apogee, and organized demonstrations in cities around the country. The momentum behind NWRO would dissipate with Wiley’s death, however, and the organization shuttered in 1975. Published two years after NWRO’s demise, Piven and Cloward’s Poor Peoples Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail continued to endorse mass demonstration as a means to achieve social justice for the welfare poor.7

With the election of Ronald Reagan as president, Piven and Cloward reversed course: confronted with an administration stridently anti-welfare, they embraced the welfare state. Perceiving conservative assaults on public assistance as inimical to the poor, in The New Class War: Reagans Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences, they defended public assistance; even if benefits were inadequate, they should be salvaged. “The emergence of the welfare state was a momentous development in American history,” they wrote. “It meant that people could turn to government to shield them from the insecurities and hardships of an unrestrained market economy.”8

The Reagan presidency provided a venue for conservative critics of public welfare, including George Gilder, Charles Murray, and Lawrence Mead.9 In response, in The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State, Piven, Cloward, and co-authors Fred Block and Barbara Ehrenreich reverted to trope:

The current ideological attack on the welfare state is a continuation of the repeated effort of the American business elite to limit the gains not only of the most vulnerable but of the majority of working people. In fact, the contemporary arguments against the welfare state are remarkably similar to those that have been employed decade after decade by business interests and their intellectual representatives.10

But to no avail—1988 witnessed the first conservative reform of public assistance, The Family Support Act.

The battle over welfare, begun in the 1980s and continuing through the early 1990s, found the Left on eroding terrain, primarily because it had, as Lawrence Mead prophetically observed, failed to conduct serious research on poverty.11 The welfare state’s assignment for addressing poverty fell to social work, which had reason to be skeptical of Piven and Cloward’s pronouncements. In Regulating the Poor, Piven and Cloward stated that professionalized welfare services adversely affected the poor: “The more professionally oriented the welfare staff, the lower proportion of the poor who got relief.”12 Furthermore, the social work profession was already having misgivings about poverty, rhetorical concerns about economic justice notwithstanding. In 1965, the inception of the War on Poverty, Social Work Research and Abstracts recorded twelve articles about poverty; in 1966 that number jumped to twenty-two. In ensuing years the number of poverty-related articles oscillated between twelve and three. In 1973, editors included “the poor” and the number jumped to eleven, but thereafter the number flatlined. Between 1974 and 1988, the number of articles on poverty averaged fewer than four per year.13

As social work abandoned poverty, it embraced postmodernism, which affirmed authentic narratives of oppressed populations, while negating empiricism as an artifact of patriarchal science. The postmodern fad in social work dovetailed with simplistic, neo-Marxist explanations of inequality, positioning whites over minorities, men above women, heterosexuals over homosexuals, the Global North over the Global South. Piven and Cloward’s stratification explanation of welfare through which “have-yachts” exploited the “have-nots” not only complemented the postmodern sensibility but also offered the frisson of civil disobedience. Postmodernism in social work would carry a penalty, however: just as the federal government was offering states waivers for demonstrated improvements in welfare reform, which required formal field experiments, social work had concluded that reform of public assistance was a diabolical plot by the Right. As a result, social work, despite having graduate programs deployed in every state and the District of Columbia, failed to capitalize on the tens of millions of dollars spent on welfare reform studies, funds lapped up instead by private firms: MDRC, Mathematica Policy Research, and Abt Associates.14

As a result of the welfare waivers, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program first nationalized with passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, had already been replaced in many states by 1996 when a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, organized according to the tenets of the Republican “Contract with America.” The work relief agenda most dreaded by Piven and Cloward had returned with a vengeance; instead of mass protest, most welfare recipients found the work supports, complemented by the Earned Income Tax Credit, preferable to welfare. A chagrined Left waxed indignant.

Post-welfare reform, Piven and Cloward’s credibility flagged; in 2001 Cloward died. A kerfuffle in 2010 revived interest in Piven’s work, when conservative political commentator, author, and media entrepreneur Glenn Beck included her among “the nine most dangerous people in the world” for planning “to overwhelm the system and bring about the fall of capitalism by overloading the government bureaucracy with impossible demands and bring on economic collapse.”15 Evidently Piven appreciated the attention to a cause relegated to the mists of history: “Maybe they thought I was dead,” she mused, “so that they would have a mythical villain.”16 Unfortunately, a few of Beck’s listeners e-mailed death threats to Piven, then seventy-eight, who responded defiantly: “I don’t want to give anybody the satisfaction of thinking they’ve got me trembling.”17

In retrospect, Piven and Cloward’s work posited an industrial era account of social change: while exploited groups have employed mass protest to attain a measure of justice, unions addressed economic inequality more specifically. Viewing welfare as an economic issue, Piven and Cloward applied civil protest as a means to collapse an inadequate and abusive welfare system and replace it with a guaranteed annual income. As the demise of NWRO attested, welfare recipients proved difficult to organize. Ideologically myopic, Piven and Cloward failed to recognize that the conduct of welfare recipients—out-of-wedlock births, generational dependence on welfare, dropping out of school—worsened their prospects, which the Right would characterize as “behavioral poverty.” Blind to the reality of social programs gone awry, Piven and Cloward ignored the pernicious effects of agents of the welfare state who would consign ever larger percentages of young minority men to the “school to prison pipeline.”18

Contrary to the strategy advanced by Piven and Cloward, by century’s end altogether different events unfolded. Welfare-to-work demonstrations evolved around the country, resulting in a compendium of research on employment of the welfare poor and culminating in the 1996 welfare reform. Paradoxically, on the eve of the law’s passage, Public Agenda, the trade association of polling firms, published results of a national survey, reporting that the general public, blacks, and welfare recipients themselves agreed with the primary (conservative) provisions of welfare reform.19

As Piven and Cloward were proven wrong about mass protest as a driver of welfare reform, they also erred with respect to unions. During the last decades of the twentieth century union membership declined, and unions of public sector workers came under attack. Republican governors in what had been the Democratic industrial heartland of America—Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois—pared down their state commitments to social services and raised questions about the liberalism promoted in their flagship universities. In counterpoint, 150 academic centers have been established that focus on conservative philosophy and market economics.20 In North Carolina, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted unanimously to shutter its Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.21 Bastions of the Left were not safe from public oversight.

Internationally, Piven’s popularity continues. Invited as the plenary speaker at the Social Policy Association conference at the University of Sheffield in 2014, Piven brought the audience to its feet as she complained about metastatic neoliberalism and spineless Democrats and celebrated the mass protests in Spain and Greece against “hyper-capitalism.” Speaking extemporaneously, Piven erred regarding subprime lending: “Even people who have paid off their mortgages have lost their homes,” she stated, although the mistake was scrubbed from the conference publication of her lecture. Piven found the Earned Income Tax Credit “an interesting programme” providing significant benefits to the working poor, but criticized its work-required refunds because they were derived from an inadequately progressive tax system. Her critique of privatization stopped at her finely appointed hotel room door: “I know that the hotel where we are staying at the University of Sheffield used to be called Halifax Hall. Now it is called Halifax Hotel and is run by a private company. It happens to be quite nice, and I am not complaining.”22 Errors, inadequacies, and contradictions notwithstanding, Piven appealed to the audience’s leftist impulses, concluding

[W]e have to begin to experiment with new forms of political action that go beyond the reliance that we developed on unions and labour parties. You and I may not be part of that action, and it may be other and younger people who lead the risings. But when they do, they will need our voices to explain and justify why and what they are doing. Our job will be to try to protect the protestors from the worst forms of repression. And we should do that because the planet and its people depend on taming the beast of the unregulated market.23

Once again, the Left’s rhetoric triumphed over reality.

The political economy of the prosperous nations is democratic-capitalism, a fact that those on the liberal/left end of the ideological continuum have begun to concede. Thomas Piketty a leftist economist, has written a magnificent analysis of economic inequality, which is also a cautionary tale for the welfare state: “The state’s great leap forward has already taken place; there will be no second leap—not like the first one, in any event.”24 The parameters of the American welfare state are unlikely to be exceeded: government expenditures at 35 percent of GDP and social spending at 60 percent of the federal budget.25 Rather than advocate disruptive tactics to expand the welfare state, the Left would better invest its energies in reforming that institution.

In the U.S., ongoing inequality has brought together unlikely collaborators to address specific domestic issues, for example, the alliance of the liberal Center for American Progress and the libertarian Koch brothers focused on prison reform.26 Former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in the British Parliament Ed Balls proposed “inclusive capitalism” to address “a toxic combination of too little growth and rising inequality,” including a point-by-point agenda to make America more equitable.27 What these ventures share is a preference for data, analysis, and innovation in social affairs, typical of the old Empirical analysts as opposed to doctrinaire platitudes of the Romantic activists. An old Washington saw has it, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” In recent decades the American Left has been sifting through the crumbs, thanks in part to Frances Fox Piven.

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