Poverty in a Gilded
Fuentes Interviews Frances Fox Piven
1971, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote Regulating the Poor:
The Functions of Public Welfare, a definitive study of welfare policies
in the United States. Their radical approach cast public-relief programs
as forms of social and labor market control, served up at times of unrest
and mass organizing and retrenched during upswings in the economy. This
analysis of 30 years ago was an uncanny predictor of the 1996 demise of
welfare and the rise of punitive measures such as workfare. Since then,
Piven and Cloward have published five other works, including Why Americans
Don't Vote (1988) and The Breaking of the American Social Compact (1997).
Their latest collaboration, Why Americans Still Don't Vote, will be published
this September by Beacon Press. Piven currently teaches at the Graduate
Center of the City University of New York.
In the three decades since you first wrote about the poor, what have
been the most significant changes in the nature of poverty?
For one thing, there are more poor Americans today than there were in
1970, so poverty has worsened in the United States. And extreme poverty
has worsened in the last few years as the number of people living at half
the poverty level has grown.
The official poverty line is $13,000 for a family of three. The poverty
line was invented by a woman named Mollie Orshansky, who worked for the
federal government in the '60s. She estimated the cost of a basket of
basic foodstuffs, multiplied it by three, and added estimates of what
rent, transportation and other necessary things cost.
Now, we still do that, take the cost of a market basket and multiple it
by three. But what has changed are rents and medical costs, for example,
which have inflated more than food has. So if you want to match the real
poverty level today, you'd have to multiply by five. It would have to
be $19,500 to meet the real need, and that raises the number who would
be [counted as] poor if you adjusted line. The most alarming trend is
the increase in the number of poor children. Even with a roaring economy,
one fifth of children are poor.
In the '80s, the term "feminization of poverty" became the catchphrase
to neatly identify the exponential growth of poor women heads of households.
What's the current trend?
The new phrase is "the working poor," the discovery that even though a
two-parent family is working some 300 hours more a year than they did
20 years ago, they're still poor.
The working poor explode the myth that the answer to poverty is always
and simply a job, don't they?
We've witnessed serious changes for people at the bottom of the labor
force. There are many more temporary or contract workers, and all workers
are worried about their jobs, making them less able to use their bargaining
In Evansville, Indiana, Crystal Love works an all-night shift as
a dishwasher, then returns home for a few hours of sleep, rising
around midday to spend time with her two children.
Credit: Jodi Hilton
What Richard and I have argued for three decades is that there's a relation
between income support programs and public policy. When income support
is more generous workers have more leverage and are not as worried. When
income supports expanded in the '70s, they were the most generous in their
history. But since then, they've been rolled back. Culturally and symbolically,
the most important has been the rollback in welfare programs.
The campaign against welfare has created heated rhetoric about the damage
welfare did-leading people into dependency, encouraging young women to
have children out of wedlock-and held women up as images of derelict people.
The rollback makes people more miserable in a material sense and also
makes the status of being a pauper much more horrifying.
It's a campaign that bubbles. It never disappeared from American political
culture. There were always efforts to attack welfare recipients and welfare,
usually on the same grounds: that welfare caused poverty, that welfare
caused laziness, that welfare caused sexual immorality. The same sorts
of arguments were made in England in the 1830s.
But these arguments became much more shrill and loud in the 1990s, primarily
because President Clinton jumped on the bandwagon. Welfare practices also
became much more degrading. In New York, when they first introduced workfare,
they made the welfare recipients who were assigned to carry garbage cans
around the city and pick up trash wear orange Day-Glo jackets, which bears
an eerie similarity to the branding of paupers at the close of the Middle
Or to prison work crews, which often wear orange jumpsuits and do road
work. I'm sure that many workfare participants do feel like prisoners.
Welfare recipients are in an excruciatingly difficult position. On the
one hand, they are very politically and culturally vulnerable. And there
is a tendency for them to accept, at least on the surface, the definitions
deployed against them. They need support to assert what they also believe,
which is that the work they do, taking care of their children, and sometimes
disabled family members, is worthwhile. And when everyone is against them,
they shrink from those arguments, and instead tell reporters that they're
really glad for workfare.
At least those are the quotes reporters use in their stories. How do
you rate media coverage of poverty and related issues?
I don't think there is any coverage. If you watch television, the issue
has completely disappeared and that's where most people get their news.
It's because the poor are quiet, and when the poor are quiet nobody pays
attention to them. The reason they're quiet is that they were so isolated
by the campaign against welfare, which was also a campaign against poor
women. And people sensed their own vulnerability. The other reason they
were quiet is that the attacks on welfare had been occurring sporadically
for 25 years. I suppose that a lot of women had come to believe [the dismantling]
would never happen, although the program had been steadily worsening in
those years because grant levels were whittled away by inflation. They
didn't know whether to believe it.
The reason for the relative lack of activism among poor women in the last
couple of decades is this sense of vulnerability and isolation. Under
those conditions, when you feel the political system has really turned
against you, women opt for individual strategies of survival. But maybe
that will change.
In Regulating the Poor, you identified cycles of government
relief programs that waxed and waned in response to civil unrest and protests,
with welfare regulations becoming more stringent during cycles of relative
economic prosperity. It certainly seems we're at the pinnacle of the draconian
stage with the kind of workfare rules that operate in New York, for example.
New York is pretty terrible, but it's true across the country. It's even
worse in places like Mississippi, where welfare recipients are thrown
into the chicken and catfish processing plants and the welfare department
is paying most of their wages. When I was down there about a year and
half ago, the manager of a catfish processing plant announced to the press
that he was happy to say the welfare department had assured him they would
not give welfare to anyone who was fired from the plant. The welfare department
is working hand-in-hand with low-wage employers.
I think we are at the pinnacle-or the trough-of the repressive cycle,
and there are some signs that women are coming together and organizing.
It's happening in localities. The big change in welfare law is that the
federal government defaulted on responsibilities it had acquired over
50 years for supervising state and local administration. Much of the organizing
at state and local levels involves women trying to get modest improvements
that would, for example, allow them to go to college or finish high school.
Now they can do that, but there's a one-year limit. Also, they are trying
to organize against the cut-off. And they've had some modest success in
New York organizing against workfare. They want jobs, not workfare.
When everybody else is quiet, poor women are reluctant to be out front
because they're so exposed and vulnerable. But a lot of things are happening
now. The campuses are really boiling. There were the big demonstrations
in Seattle and Washington, D.C. The street demonstrations in New York
over police brutality. In that kind of environment, women take courage
and think they can find allies.
It was interesting that during the April protests in Washington against
the IMF and World Bank, global poverty was one of the key issues activists
If you puzzle over whether there's an issue that unifies these diverse
protests, the issue you come to again and again is the economic injustices
generated by corporate domination. Students on campuses quickly connect
labor conditions of people working on their campuses-the janitors-with
their sweatshop campaigns. The moral connection is very similar. They
also see how sweatshop labor in the Third World is used against the American
poor, especially the working poor.
You can't talk about poverty without talking about wealth, and today
that is pretty much all that we hear about: soaring incomes for all. Who
wants to talk about poverty?
We've been through periods like this before in the United States in the
1890s and the 1920s, when dominant images of the American economy and
society were golden images of champagne and jazz, the lush life of the
Fitzgeralds. But at the same time that was happening in the '20s, for
example, entire industries were devastated by downturns in employment
in the coal and textile industries. Lots of people were desperately poor
even in the Roaring '20s, but nobody paid attention. That changed overnight
with the crash of 1929. People tried to organize coal workers in the '20s,
but they didn't succeed. Once the cultural understandings of what was
going on were reversed, they succeeded big time. It's true we haven't
paid much attention to poverty in this particular gilded age, but it is
Annette Fuentes is a
contributing editor of In These Times.
In These Times ©
Vol. 24, No. 14