Fall 2009 Vol. 6.1
Interview with Francis Fox Piven
Claudia Grinnell
Frances Fox Piven is a Canadian-born Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). Her career is long and distinguished. She’s the recipient of numerous awards, has combined scholarship with activism, and is the author of many important books. Most notable is her 1971 classic Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. It’s a landmark historical and theoretical analysis of how welfare policy is used to control the poor and working class. She co-authored Poor People’s Movements (1977), which analyzed 20th century protest movements, and argued that organization-building is less effective than mass disruptive power. Her other co-authored books include The New Class War (1982), The Mean Season (1987), The Breaking of the American Social Compact (1997), and Why Americans Don’t Vote (1998). She campaigned against welfare cutbacks in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, she edited Labor Parties in Postindustrial Societies, a collection of essays on the impact of globalization on Left political parties. Her 2004 book The War at Home is a sharp indictment of the Bush administration’s neoconservative agenda and argues that elements within the Republican Party skillfully exploited the public’s fears in order to further a radical domestic agenda. Her most recent book, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2006), argues that ordinary people exercise real power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope; defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives; and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.
   turnrow Assistant Editor Claudia Grinnell interviewed Frances Fix Piven in the spring of 2008.

turnrow: Professor Fox-Piven, you have been called the intellectual?architect of the 1960s welfare rights movement. Looking back, now,?about 40 years later, what are some of the lessons learned and?strategies deployed from that time you’d consider important vis a vis our current strategies in the war against poverty?

Frances Fox Piven: Our initial plan, sometimes called the “crisis strategy,” called on activists to enlist people in an effort to claim the welfare benefits to which they were entitled. We took for granted that poor people could be mobilized with the material incentives of untapped welfare benefits. We were right, and also wrong. Material incentives worked, at least in the heady political climate of the 1960s. But in retrospect, I suspect we didn’t fully appreciate the poignant struggle for dignity, for self-respect, that was also a component of welfare rights protests.

turnrow: Comparing then and now: is it “colder” out there today? In other words, are large sections of society today deliberately turning away from the plight of the poor?

F.F.P.: Well, at this moment it is still much colder, in the sense that the issues of poverty have not been forced onto the nation’s political agenda, as they were in the 1960s. But a number of ongoing developments in American politics lead me to think the temperature will rise. One such change is simply growing awareness among Americans that the policies of the Bush regime, and earlier regimes as well, have contributed to accelerating inequality. Another is the growing lack of confidence in the competence of the Bush regime. And still another is growing disaffection with war and the costs of war. These shifts in public opinion were registered in the election of 2006, when the Democrats took both the House and the Senate, and also did well in the statehouse races. What is significant about all of this for poverty politics is not simply that Democrats are likely to be more benevolent than Republicans. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not. What is more important is that in combination these changes in the political context will help both to legitimate the grievances of poor people in America, and also to give them some political leverage.

turnrow: To what degree will the escalating deficit and the downward pressure on the dollar (some call it the “demolition of the dollar”) function as a tax (in form of debt-service) on mostly the already?squeezed middle and lower classes? Or, put differently, in terms of?political leverage, to what degree will the “global” economy put ever more shearing forces into the US economy?

F.F.P.: True, the American economy is increasingly integrated with an international economy, and it is deeply indebted to lenders from?abroad. So, perhaps what is generally thought of as an era of?prosperity, of increased productivity and increasing profits, will?come crashing down. But middle class Americans did not fare well?during the upside of this
economic cycle. Profits rose, productivity?rose, but wages have been stagnant, and at the bottom of the income?distribution, poverty increased. The economic well-being of most Americans is determined at least as?much by politics, the politics that determine economic distribution,?as by the overall state of the economy.

turnrow: What sort of opportunities, if any, do you see for global, transnational movements to combat poverty, or for poor people to come together transnationally, and create some sort of impact on the global economies?

F.F.P.: I think globalization has increased the potential for popular?power. Moreover, lots of people around the world think so too,?judging from their efforts to actually exercise power. One way is?simply that globalization involves far flung and complex networks of?cooperation that can easily be disrupted by dissidents. The Ogoni?people of the Nigerian delta can, for example affect world oil prices?when their protests against environmental depredation interfere with?the pumping of oil by the multinationals. Another way is that now?the whole world really is watching, and this both makes the repression?of particular local protests harder, and makes far flung alliances?more likely.

turnrow: And, of course, new technologies—internet blogs, for example—allow for?more immediate connections and coverage that is not picked up by?mainstream outlets. . . ?

F.F.P.: You’re right, of course, the internet makes a big difference because information circulates so easily and so widely. The internet also makes possible different kind of
popular mobilizations, less hierarchical, more horizontal. And the internet also creates new vulnerabilities for the targets of popular mobilizations, since it is itself a fragile and easily disrupted system.

turnrow: Let’s switch gears, just a little, if that’s all right with you. Has?the “face” of poverty changed over the years? Have recent statistics?about the increases in “deep” poverty surprised you?

F.F.P.: Many of us predicted that welfare “reform” would produce increases in deep poverty. People unable to meet the new and elaborate “workfare” requirements were to be “sanctioned” with benefit cuts, and a substantial number of those people would slide into
deeper immiseration.
       Meanwhile, and this has to do with your other question about whether the face of poverty has changed, the circumstances of many people who do work, and especially lone mothers, have worsened because earnings at the bottom have shrunk. The real value of the minimum wage has shrunk. The one bright spot in this is the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which does provide subsidies to the working poor.

turnrow: Let me ask you about “middle class Americans”— you mentioned earlier that “middle class Americans did not fare well during the upside of this economic cycle.” With the subprime meltdown and various economic indicators pointing down, chances of more and more Americans sliding into the dark side of the American Dream have increased. Do you sense a broad-based awareness among?people that they too may have count themselves among the poor?

F.F.P.: Well, people don’t readily call themselves “poor.” There’s almost a stigma attached to the word. But growing numbers know they can’t afford health care, and housing costs use up half their income, for example. Then there’s the problem of debt, especially credit card debt, because that’s a main way people try to stay afloat. So, I think economic issues could well emerge as very important for the ostensibly middle-class.

turnrow: Would you venture a guess how these economic issues might play out? Are we looking at something like Argentina’s struggles in the 1990s and early 2000s?

F.F.P.: You are a romantic! Think of how drastic the collapse of the middle class in Argentina had to be before middle class people took to the streets! Still, who knows, things could unravel here too, and to the best of my knowledge, protest movements surprise everyone, especially academics. That said,?I was thinking mainly of the slow erosion of income and living standards among many middle class people, and that is less likely to provoke street protests than what happened in Argentina.

turnrow: (laughing) You know, you are the first person ever to call me a romantic. I like that better, a lot better than some of the other labels—cynic and postmodernist among the kinder ones! I think this is a wonderful place to bring the interview to a close, Professor Fox-Piven. I appreciate your time and thank you for a thought-provoking interview!