Our Endless War on the Poor

by Frances Fox Piven March 30, 2020

Editor’s Note: Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she has taught since 1982. She is 87 years old, and is an icon of social theory, as well as an antipoverty activist. She has been called  “the intellectual guru of activist progressivesby the New York Times. This historical essay was first published by The Progressive ( https://progressive.org/magazine/our-endless-war-on-poor-fox-piven/) and is posted here with the author’s permission.

From the earliest initiatives to relieve the condition of the poor in the late middle ages, the design of these programs has been dominated by the fear that even meager resources for subsistence would weaken the motivation of poor people to work. Hence the belief among ruling groups that such poor relief must always be stingy and distributed on punitive terms.

These principles were cruel, but given the harsh conditions of the laboring poor at the time, they were not irrational.

In the current coronavirus crisis, the role of the poor and especially low-income workers has been magnified.

Contemporary conditions, particularly in rich countries like the United States, are entirely different. Not only are the mass of working people much better off, but extracting more labor effort for economic growth worsens the problem of climate change. For the first time in living memory, reformers are talking about “degrowth” as a remedy for the dangers to the planet posed by constant growth.

In the current coronavirus crisis, the role of the poor and especially low-income workers has been magnified. They are the ones doing the difficult and now-dangerous work of tending to people in nursing homes and old-age facilities, keeping drug and grocery stores open, and caring for the ill.

It is past time to rethink our endless war on the poor.

The United States is by some measures the richest and most powerful nation in the world. It also boasts, if that is the right word, the second-highest poverty rate among developed countries, according to a 2017 ranking. (Israel has the highest rate at 17.9 percent. The United States is a smidgeon lower, at 17.8 percent, or about forty million people.) Our child poverty rate, as of 2017, is also among the highest in the world.

Since the eruption of the Occupy protests in 2011, the fact of widening inequality in the United States has become common knowledge and a part of our political discourse. The extent of poverty in the United States is less well-known, even though poverty is one likely result of the policies that produce inequality.

The fortunes reaped from steadily rising housing or health care prices are reflected in the high costs that working and poor families pay for them. Child care costs are another out-of-reach essential, particularly as access to government benefits is increasingly conditional on working for wages.

Meanwhile, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most workers have seen their wages stagnate or even fall as their fringe benefits or overtime were whittled away. Federal budgets under the Trump Administration have regularly delivered large tax cuts to the affluent while slashing programs that provide services or income support for the poor.  

To give just one example, some 700,000 people may lose food stamps under a new Trump regulation, and half a million children will lose free school meals. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage remains stuck at the level set in 2009: $7.25 an hour.

None of this is in the least surprising. American policies to support the poor have usually provided meager assistance, and that assistance has usually been conditioned on submission to rituals of degradation, much as was also once true in the European countries on which our policies were modeled.

American poverty policy was and is shaped within a political culture that denigrates the poor, just as it applauds—indeed, seems to worship—the affluent.

In fact, the English Poor Law Commission of 1848 articulated the principle that best explains these features of our poverty policies, the principle of “less eligibility,” meaning that no one who survives on the dole should be as well-off as even the lowest paid laborer. This principle can be regarded as a moral injunction, but it has the very practical effect of ensuring that relief for the poor will not have the effect of raising the wage floor.

Over time, and especially in the era of prosperity after World War II, European policies to relieve poverty improved greatly. But despite bursts of short-lived reform in the 1930s and 1960s, American policies to reduce poverty have remained harsh.

Some of the reasons are obvious. American poverty policy was and is shaped within a political culture that denigrates the poor, just as it applauds—indeed, seems to worship—the affluent. In the American mind, to be poor is not simply to have little in the way of money or material goods. Rather, poverty is tightly linked to a wide assortment of personal failures, from sloth to addiction.

People are believed to be poor because of their personal failings. However, research shows that the opposite is true: When household income increases, other problems like poor school performance or drug use tend to diminish.

The direction of causality is crucial here. When poverty is ascribed to dysfunctional behaviors, the recommended interventions will tend toward efforts to discipline the poor. But if the behaviors considered dysfunctional are in fact the result rather than the cause of poverty, there is a strong argument for more generous support.

And since dealing with poverty by distributing cash is infinitely simpler than dealing with, say, addiction, this should gladden our hearts.

But this is not what’s happening. Why not?

The argument that poverty can be solved by making people less poor by committing to providing all Americans with a universal basic income—as former presidential candidate Andrew Yang urged during the presidential campaign and politicians are providing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—runs smack dab into the argument that the poor are in danger of succumbing to a malady called dependency.

This, we are told, is what happens when people do not support themselves through wage work. The disease metaphor is enhanced by vivid portraits of lazy welfare moms with piles of unneeded groceries. Think of Ronald Reagan’s attack on the “welfare queen.”

Animus toward the poor is a longstanding element of American political culture. But it can intensify when politicians try to gain attention and support by decrying the indiscipline of the poor and the foolish generosity of our public policies.

The poor are not simply victims. They are also political actors, and sometimes very effective.

This has happened often since the 1980s, which saw the election of Ronald Reagan along with an energetic mobilization of business and political interests to reshape public policy. The anti-poor campaign was outlined in a memo written by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, and sent to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971. (Powell was nominated to the Supreme Court shortly thereafter.)

“Business must learn the lesson,” Powell wrote, “that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that, when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

The memo has become famous because it outlined what big business actually went on to do, as it took growing command of public policy in subsequent years. Employer resistance to unions intensified, business spending on lobbying soared, and corporate offices moved to Washington, D.C.

What unfolded was a historic conflict between capital and labor, and what was at stake was the range of policies to curb predatory capitalism that had been initiated in the twentieth century, particularly in the 1930s and 1960s. Many of the initiatives to roll back programs that protected workers singled out the poor—the immigrant poor, for example, or the disabled poor, or simply the welfare poor—for special scrutiny and penalties.

The poor are not simply victims. They are also political actors, and sometimes very effective. Poor relief programs in late medieval Europe arose in part from the tumult caused by the desperate poor during periods of bad harvest, for example.

Similarly, cyclical depressions in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused unemployment to rise to catastrophic levels, and when it did the poor, especially the urban poor, came together in mass rallies, marches, and mobs to demand assistance.

The Great Depression that began in 1929 was the most severe of these cyclical downturns, because it occurred when most Americans had left the farms for the city and industrial work, and when little existed in the way of an institutionalized relief system. Almost all contemporary American poverty policies were initiated in response to the disturbances caused by the protesting poor in the 1930s, a pattern that was repeated in the 1960s.

In June 1929, the index of industrial production reached its highest point ever, and a future of economic growth and prosperity seemed assured. Then came the panic of Black Thursday, when the stock market plummeted.

Almost immediately, unemployment began to rise, by one government estimate to 2.5 million persons within two weeks of the crash, then to four million by January of 1930. By 1933, a third of the workforce, or fifteen million people, were unemployed.

As unemployment grew, so did the protests, taking the classical forms of food riots and rent riots. Militant organizations like the Unemployed Councils formed by the Communist Party USA joined the fray, occupying local relief centers, organizing demonstrations, and lobbying for more generous government assistance.

Local fiscal resources to deal with the demands of the unemployed were quickly exhausted. The national government elected in 1932 responded, at first with emergency relief programs and thereafter with assistance programs created by the Social Security Act of 1935.

Something like this happened again in the 1960s, in the aftermath of the great migration of black people from the rural South to the cities of the South and North. This time there was an institutional vehicle to provide assistance, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program created under the Social Security Act.

But the program was deeply flawed. It required states and sometimes localities to foot a big part of the costs of welfare, and it gave enormous discretion to state and local politicians and bureaucrats to refuse assistance to those who applied, or to eject people deemed unworthy from the rolls. And since the impoverished newcomers to the cities were often black, and increasingly Latinx as well, there were political advantages to state and local politicians tied to white constituencies in refusing assistance.

So once again, cash assistance failed to reach many of the poor.

The larger racial politics of the era overwhelmed this restrictive assistance policy. By the early 1960s, racial minorities, largely newcomers to the big cities of the North, had grown in numbers and become a voter bloc that mattered in elections, including presidential elections. At the same time, the black freedom movement had also traveled to the northern cities where the black population was concentrating.

The shift from the Jim Crow South to the North also transformed the movement, as protests focused more on the harsh economic conditions that confronted black people in the northern cities, where lunch counters and buses were racially integrated. The response of the national government was to launch a series of programs which together came to be called the Great Society, and the centerpiece of the Great Society was the poverty program.

For a relatively brief time, these developments taken together transformed our national poverty policies. Black people in northern cities had electoral leverage with Democratic Presidents or presidential aspirants. At the same time, the combination of intensifying grievances and rising hope contributed to the anger and volatility of the black urban population.

Local groups sprang up in black (and brown) neighborhoods all over the country to take up manifold grievances of the poor, having to do with housing, welfare, employment, policing, education, health care, and so on. With the threat and sometimes reality of urban uprisings and property destruction in the background, these groups became politically potent.

If economic growth is so important, we must make sure all able-bodied adults are in the labor market, working.

They also had some resources. The poverty program opened storefronts staffed by residents or by VISTA employees, and the storefronts became centers of local activism, meetings, rallies, and protests. For a time during the 1960s and early 1970s, many cities were rocked by turmoil. And some of that turmoil was about poverty and the failure of income support policies, mainly AFDC, to assist the poor.

Angry local groups occupied welfare centers to air myriad grievances, while crowds sometimes gathered on the surrounding streets to reinforce the point. Unsurprisingly, welfare policy became much more generous under these conditions. Many more people were admitted to the rolls, and welfare benefits rose. Excited talk of a “welfare crisis” notwithstanding, this was an accomplishment in the straightforward sense that poverty levels in the U.S. fell substantially.

As the black freedom movement including its welfare rights component subsided, poverty policies became harsher. The rhetoric of elites became less inclusive and more degrading, the better to justify the growing meanness of our poverty policy. Welfare benefit levels fell, and new restrictions on access were put in place.

And then, in 1996, Bill Clinton, a Democratic President, made good on his promise to “end welfare as we know it” by pushing through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that led to the slashing of the welfare rolls, and the reiteration of our national drama of humiliating the poor.

This impulse to cruelty toward the poor has gotten a new life under President Donald Trump. First were the travesties at the U.S.-Mexico border, where children were ripped away from their parents and then heedlessly unaccounted for, placed in cages, and left in the freezing cold. Then there were the huge cuts proposed to Medicare and Medicaid, despite Trump’s repeated promises at his rallies to protect those programs.

The Trump Administration also unveiled a “public charge” policy that blocks entry to immigrants who are deemed likely to need some kind of government assistance. And it adopted changes in the rules governing access to disability benefits that make it much harder to gain access to benefits and harder also to retain them.

Trump’s efforts to divide Americans against each other have paralleled with his attacks on the poor.

But maybe, just maybe, we are on the cusp of a new era. Maybe there is the possibility of breaking away from the cycle of harshness and turmoil that has characterized poverty policy until now. The COVID-19 pandemic may make it possible to break with our traditions and value and reward low-wage workers, and indeed to rethink the role of work, given the reality of climate change.

Some years ago, Naomi Klein wrote a book titled This Changes Everything. She was right. The prospect of a warming and drowning planet raises large questions about bedrock elements of our communal life.

One such element is our axiomatic conviction that continuing economic growth is essential to our well-being. If economic growth is so important, we must make sure all able-bodied adults are in the labor market, working. But if this mandate ever made sense, does it still? Economic growth, after all, fuels climate change.

Also axiomatic to our communal life, and a twin to our belief in economic growth, is our obsession with accumulating possessions—the things that mindless economic growth produces. We Americans have become cargo cultists, and our compulsive purchases sustain the vast webs of warehouses and storage facilities that surround our cities. Even worse, the rest of the world is following in our footsteps.

And to complete the trap created by an insistence on economic growth and an obsession with consumer goods, there is our almost religious insistence on the imperative of wage work. Everyone must have a job, and the more hours spent working, the better. Just as economic growth produces the stuff that is sopped up by mindless consumer demand, it also produces the demand for workers whose labor is rewarded by wages that can be used to buy the stuff that ends up in a storage space somewhere.

Each of these beliefs supports the others. And each has become unmoored by the imminent prospect of climate change. But to act effectively on this new understanding of our condition, we need to change not only our policy agenda, but our culture, including our very fundamental beliefs about economic well-being.

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