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.
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