July, 2015: In honor of The Nation’s 150th anniversary, Frances Fox Piven has contributed a new introduction to the groundbreaking 1966 piece she wrote with Richard Cloward, “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.”
By the mid-1960s it was clear that the Black Freedom Movement had spread to the big American cities, carried along by the great migration of blacks out of the rural South. With that change, the movement also changed: it began to focus less on the overt denial of civil rights that characterized the Jim Crow South, and more on the persisting economic deprivations that kept so many of the new migrants desperately poor.
“A Strategy to End Poverty,” which I wrote with Richard Cloward, was influenced by the changing focus of the Movement. We tried to think through the institutional context in which the minority poor found themselves, from the distortions of the New Deal welfare programs that denied them assistance, to urban fiscal constraints and intergroup conflicts that paralyzed local governments, to the possibilities that locally-based movements could provoke reform by creating problems that reverberated upward in the federal grant-in-aid system. Our objective was not, as later critics of the Glenn Beck variety later charged, to propose a strategy to bring down American capitalism. We were not so ambitious. But we did think that the minority poor and their allies might create sufficient disturbance to force reforms in the American income support programs. And we were not entirely wrong.
In 1972 the Nixon administration moved to relieve the fiscal and political pressures on local and state governments that were the result of rising welfare rolls. (Indeed, for a wild moment Nixon even embraced the idea of a basic guaranteed income.) But the administration avoided the tainted Aid to Families with Dependent Children program that was the locus of the politics of the poor and instead federalized the programs that provided assistance to the aged, blind and disabled. Still, we continued to value “A Strategy to End Poverty” not because it had been proven right, but because we had at least tried to tackle the difficult strategy problems that an urban-based movement of poor people confronted in a centralized economic and political system.
This is of course the strategy problem of the movements for higher wages and restrained policing that are spreading in the United States today. Protest movements are necessarily local, whether in Ferguson or Athens, because that is where people are concentrated, where they form relationships and experience their grievances. But to score victories, these local protests have to create disturbances that threaten sometimes far away centers of economic and political power. That is how we sometimes win deep reforms.
This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.