Welfare Rights, Wrongs and Attacks on Women: Michele Rossi speaks with Frances Fox Piven

Poor_People_s_Campaign_1968_Welfare_Rights_Organization_The_National_Welfare_Rights_Organization_marching_to_end_hunger._Photo_from_the_Jack_Rottier_Collection..jpg
 National Welfare Rights Organization 1968/Jack Rottier

Right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck has called her “one of the nine most dangerous people in the world.” DSA is proud to call her an honorary chair. Political scientist and sociologist Frances Fox Piven has inspired and angered political activists for decades. Almost 50 years ago, the Nation published an article by her and her colleague and husband Richard Cloward in which they argued that, with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, poor people should claim the welfare benefits to which they were entitled. The result would swamp the system and lead to something new, a guaranteed annual income, which would end poverty as we knew it. The Cloward-Piven strategy, as it became known, was seen as a way for powerless people to take advantage of disruptive moments to make more than incremental gains. Later, the strategy was expanded to include massive voter registration drives. Cloward and Piven, with George Wiley, helped found the National Welfare Rights Organization, which, for a few years, was the militant voice of heretofore voiceless welfare clients. Michele Rossi talks with Piven about the impact of Bill Clinton’s so-called welfare reform and its enduring impact on the poor—Ed.

Rossi: It has been almost 20 years since then-president Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as “welfare reform.” You were a prominent critic of the legislation, maintaining that it wrongly focused on the morality of poor women’s highly constrained personal choices and deflected attention from crises in the labor market. What consequences has the reform had for the women who were its target? And what has been its impact more broadly?

Piven: The passage of PRWORA meant the elimination of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had been the main cash assistance program for poor families with children. It was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which imposed time restrictions on the length of assistance as well as work requirements. In addition, it gave the states a big incentive to restrict aid, because they could use the block grant funds for other purposes. This, the states proceeded to do. Welfare caseloads plummeted, from about 14 million people in 1995 to a little over 4 million today. This has meant a doubling of households living in extreme poverty. Some three million children live in such households. 

Of course, the effects are also felt more widely. AFDC functioned as a kind of unemployment insurance program for people who were not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits because they worked irregularly or in jobs that were not covered. With that safety net gone, many millions of precarious workers are much more vulnerable to the harsh terms of work at the bottom of the labor market.  

Rossi: Hillary Clinton calls herself “a lifelong fighter for women’s issues.” Apparently, she does not see revisiting welfare reform as part of that fight. And neither do the prominent feminists and many other progressives lining up behind her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Why?

Piven: Hillary Clinton has a very mixed record on the issue of poverty, including the poverty of women and children. She began as a lawyer with Marian Wright Edelman’s advocacy group, the Children’s Defense Fund, and she later popularized the slogan “It takes a village to raise a child.” But in the 1990s, as the right-wing campaign against blacks and the poor escalated, she joined with her husband in trying to minimize the damage the Republican assault was causing Democrats by endorsing some of its principles. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 with the promise to “end welfare as we know it,” and when a Republican House put a bill that did just that on his desk before the 1996 election, he signed it, with Hillary’s support.

The problem is not just Hillary. The main argument for PRWORA was that welfare caused the poor to become “dependent.” Better to show tough love and cut out the checks, because then poor women would shape up, get a job, and begin the climb out of poverty. This conviction that wage work is always better than welfare is deeply ingrained, and it is shared by much of the Left as well as all of the Right. It’s time we reevaluated it, not only because it has confused our support for income assistance to the poor but also because contemporary labor market conditions make full employment at decent wages less and less likely. Maybe there will come a glorious day when investment will mean investment in a green economy, caregiving jobs, and so on. But in the meantime, we should not endorse policies that punish the poor.

Rossi: How should we understand the energy and enthusiasm coalescing around Bernie Sanders’s candidacy? Is this the beginning of a movement? 

Piven: The Sanders campaign is the continuation of a movement, not the beginning. It’s hard to be sure of the exact beginning. Was it the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol? Or Occupy? Or Ferguson? Or now Black Lives Matter? All these events are evidence of the scale and intensity of popular anger at escalating inequality and the abusive government policies that inequality makes necessary. And just as neoliberalism is bigger than the United States, so is the movement. Occupy drew inspiration from the Arab Spring, UK Uncut from Occupy. And the movements are spilling over into electoral politics, not only with the remarkable Sanders campaign here, but also with the defeat of the arch-conservative Stephen Harper in Canada and the ascendance of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party in Britain. 

It’s a good time to be a political activist!

Michele Rossi researches and writes about inequality, culture, and politics. She is a member of Philadelphia DSA. 


 

This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 17 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
· 3 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 11 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.