RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Fox Piven writes: "A moral economy for our own time would certainly take on the unbridled accumulation of wealth at the expense of the majority (and the planet). It would also single out for special condemnation the creation of an ever-larger stratum of people we call'the poor' who struggle to survive in the shadow of the overconsumption and waste of that top 1%."

Frances Fox Piven. (photo: file, unspecified)
Frances Fox Piven. (photo: file, unspecified)

The War Against the Poor

By Frances Fox Piven, TomDispatch

07 November 11


Occupy Wall Street: Take the Bull by the Horns


e've been at war for decades now - not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it's been a war against the poor, but if you hadn't noticed, that's not surprising. You wouldn't often have found the casualty figures from this particular conflict in your local newspaper or on the nightly TV news. Devastating as it's been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed - until now.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the concentration of wealth at the top of this society a central issue in American politics. Now, it promises to do something similar when it comes to the realities of poverty in this country.

By making Wall Street its symbolic target, and branding itself as a movement of the 99%, OWS has redirected public attention to the issue of extreme inequality, which it has recast as, essentially, a moral problem. Only a short time ago, the "morals" issue in politics meant the propriety of sexual preferences, reproductive behavior, or the personal behavior of presidents. Economic policy, including tax cuts for the rich, subsidies and government protection for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and financial deregulation, was shrouded in clouds of propaganda or simply considered too complex for ordinary Americans to grasp.

Now, in what seems like no time at all, the fog has lifted and the topic on the table everywhere seems to be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism. The protestors have accomplished this mainly through the symbolic power of their actions: by naming Wall Street, the heartland of financial capitalism, as the enemy, and by welcoming the homeless and the down-and-out to their occupation sites. And of course, the slogan "We are the 99%" reiterated the message that almost all of us are suffering from the reckless profiteering of a tiny handful. (In fact, they aren't far off: the increase in income of the top 1% over the past three decades about equals the losses of the bottom 80%.)

The movement's moral call is reminiscent of earlier historical moments when popular uprisings invoked ideas of a "moral economy" to justify demands for bread or grain or wages - for, that is, a measure of economic justice. Historians usually attribute popular ideas of a moral economy to custom and tradition, as when the British historian E.P. Thompson traced the idea of a "just price" for basic foodstuffs invoked by eighteenth century English food rioters to then already centuries-old Elizabethan statutes. But the rebellious poor have never simply been traditionalists. In the face of violations of what they considered to be their customary rights, they did not wait for the magistrates to act, but often took it upon themselves to enforce what they considered to be the foundation of a just moral economy.

Being Poor By the Numbers

A moral economy for our own time would certainly take on the unbridled accumulation of wealth at the expense of the majority (and the planet). It would also single out for special condemnation the creation of an ever-larger stratum of people we call "the poor" who struggle to survive in the shadow of the overconsumption and waste of that top 1%.

Some facts: early in 2011, the US Census Bureau reported that 14.3% of the population, or 47 million people - one in six Americans - were living below the official poverty threshold, currently set at $22,400 annually for a family of four. Some 19 million people are living in what is called extreme poverty, which means that their household income falls in the bottom half of those considered to be below the poverty line. More than a third of those extremely poor people are children. Indeed, more than half of all children younger than six living with a single mother are poor. Extrapolating from this data, Emily Monea and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution estimate that further sharp increases in both poverty and child poverty rates lie in our American future.

Some experts dispute these numbers on the grounds that they neither take account of the assistance that the poor still receive, mainly through the food stamp program, nor of regional variations in the cost of living. In fact, bad as they are, the official numbers don't tell the full story. The situation of the poor is actually considerably worse. The official poverty line is calculated as simply three times the minimal food budget first introduced in 1959, and then adjusted for inflation in food costs. In other words, the American poverty threshold takes no account of the cost of housing or fuel or transportation or health-care costs, all of which are rising more rapidly than the cost of basic foods. So the poverty measure grossly understates the real cost of subsistence.

Moreover, in 2006, interest payments on consumer debt had already put more than four million people, not officially in poverty, below the line, making them "debt poor." Similarly, if childcare costs, estimated at $5,750 a year in 2006, were deducted from gross income, many more people would be counted as officially poor.

Nor are these catastrophic levels of poverty merely a temporary response to rising unemployment rates or reductions in take-home pay resulting from the great economic meltdown of 2008. The numbers tell the story and it's clear enough: poverty was on the rise before the Great Recession hit. Between 2001 and 2007, poverty actually increased for the first time on record during an economic recovery. It rose from 11.7% in 2001 to 12.5% in 2007. Poverty rates for single mothers in 2007 were 49% higher in the US than in 15 other high-income countries. Similarly, black employment rates and income were declining before the recession struck.

In part, all of this was the inevitable fallout from a decades-long business mobilization to reduce labor costs by weakening unions and changing public policies that protected workers and those same unions. As a result, National Labor Board decisions became far less favorable to both workers and unions, workplace regulations were not enforced, and the minimum wage lagged far behind inflation.

Inevitably, the overall impact of the campaign to reduce labor's share of national earnings meant that a growing number of Americans couldn't earn even a poverty-level livelihood - and even that's not the whole of it. The poor and the programs that assisted them were the objects of a full-bore campaign directed specifically at them.

Campaigning Against the Poor

This attack began even while the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s was in full throttle. It was already evident in the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater, as well as in the recurrent campaigns of sometime Democrat and segregationist governor of Alabama George Wallace. Richard Nixon's presidential bid in 1968 picked up on the theme.

As many commentators have pointed out, his triumphant campaign strategy tapped into the rising racial animosities not only of white southerners, but of a white working class in the north that suddenly found itself locked in competition with newly urbanized African-Americans for jobs, public services, and housing, as well as in campaigns for school desegregation. The racial theme quickly melded into political propaganda targeting the poor and contemporary poor-relief programs. Indeed, in American politics "poverty," along with "welfare," "unwed mothers," and "crime," became code words for blacks.

In the process, resurgent Republicans tried to defeat Democrats at the polls by associating them with blacks and with liberal policies meant to alleviate poverty. One result was the infamous "war on drugs" that largely ignored major traffickers in favor of the lowest level offenders in inner-city communities. Along with that came a massive program of prison building and incarceration, as well as the wholesale "reform" of the main means-tested cash assistance program, Aid to Families of Dependent Children. This politically driven attack on the poor proved just the opening drama in a decades-long campaign launched by business and the organized right against workers.

This was not only war against the poor, but the very "class war" that Republicans now use to brand just about any action they don't like. In fact, class war was the overarching goal of the campaign, something that would soon enough become apparent in policies that led to a massive redistribution of the burden of taxation, the cannibalization of government services through privatization, wage cuts and enfeebled unions, and the deregulation of business, banks, and financial institutions.

The poor - and blacks - were an endlessly useful rhetorical foil, a propagandistic distraction used to win elections and make bigger gains. Still, the rhetoric was important. A host of new think tanks, political organizations, and lobbyists in Washington D.C. promoted the message that the country's problems were caused by the poor whose shiftlessness, criminal inclinations, and sexual promiscuity were being indulged by a too-generous welfare system.

Genuine suffering followed quickly enough, along with big cuts in the means-tested programs that helped the poor. The staging of the cuts was itself enwreathed in clouds of propaganda, but cumulatively they frayed the safety net that protected both the poor and workers, especially low-wage ones, which meant women and minorities. When Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office in 1980, the path had been smoothed for huge cuts in programs for poor people, and by the 1990s the Democrats, looking for electoral strategies that would raise campaign dollars from big business and put them back in power, took up the banner. It was Bill Clinton, after all, who campaigned on the slogan "end welfare as we know it."

A Movement for a Moral Economy

The war against the poor at the federal level was soon matched in state capitols where organizations like the American Federation for Children, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Institute for Liberty, and the State Policy Network went to work. Their lobbying agenda was ambitious, including the large-scale privatization of public services, business tax cuts, the rollback of environmental regulations and consumer protections, crippling public sector unions, and measures (like requiring photo identification) that would restrict the access students and the poor had to the ballot. But the poor were their main public target and again, there were real life consequences - welfare cutbacks, particularly in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and a law-and-order campaign that resulted in the massive incarceration of black men.

The Great Recession sharply worsened these trends. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the typical working-age household, which had already seen a decline of roughly $2,300 in income between 2000 and 2006, lost another $2,700 between 2007 and 2009. And when "recovery" arrived, however uncertainly, it was mainly in low-wage industries, which accounted for nearly half of what growth there was. Manufacturing continued to contract, while the labor market lost 6.1% of payroll employment. New investment, when it occurred at all, was more likely to be in machinery than in new workers, so unemployment levels remain alarmingly high. In other words, the recession accelerated ongoing market trends toward lower-wage and ever more insecure employment.

The recession also prompted further cutbacks in welfare programs. Because cash assistance has become so hard to get, thanks to so-called welfare reform, and fallback state-assistance programs have been crippled, the federal food stamp program has come to carry much of the weight in providing assistance to the poor. Renamed the "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program," it was boosted by funds provided in the Recovery Act, and benefits temporarily rose, as did participation. But Congress has repeatedly attempted to slash the program's funds, and even to divert some of them into farm subsidies, while efforts, not yet successful, have been made to deny food stamps to any family that includes a worker on strike.

The organized right justifies its draconian policies toward the poor with moral arguments. Right-wing think tanks and blogs, for instance, ponder the damaging effect on disabled poor children of becoming "dependent" on government assistance, or they scrutinize government nutritional assistance for poor pregnant women and children in an effort to explain away positive outcomes for infants.

The willful ignorance and cruelty of it all can leave you gasping - and gasp was all we did for decades. This is why we so desperately needed a movement for a new kind of moral economy. Occupy Wall Street, which has already changed the national conversation, may well be its beginning.

Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is the author, along with Richard Cloward, of "Regulating the Poor" and Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven? The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate" (The New Press). To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Piven discusses Glenn Beck's bizarre fascination with her click here, or download it to your iPod here. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+65 # Vonney 2011-11-07 18:13
Superb essay, Ms. Piven, and so right on target. Back in the 70s after my husband abandoned me and our three little sons in the middle of the Flint Hills of Kansas, I had no choice but seek assistance from the state. I picked myself up by the bootstraps and borrowed money to get me and those boys through 4 years of college. In those 35 years since, I have pleaded the case of the "welfare mom" and been made fun of at every turn. I can still hear Rush Limbaugh inserting the phony inflection in his voice as he ranted and raved about the "pooooooor". I asked for no sympathy. I only wanted a chance to make a decent living and live a normal life with my children. It wasn't meant to be. I have experienced and learned much over these years. When one is a single mother, she is treated worse than a leper. Only the leper can usually get free medical care. I have lots of hope for the OWS movement and wish them much success. People like me are tired of all the talk. I would love to see some positive action in favor of the poor.
+20 # jon 2011-11-07 21:23
Superb essay, Ms. Vonney !!

And good on you.

(as they say "down under")
+5 # NanFan 2011-11-08 09:14
Agree! Brilliant essay, and the best ending ever, for Occupy Wall Street (Amercia, the World) is, indeed, ONLY the beginning. The conversation, the non-violent protests, are out there. The bureaucrats are trying their damnedest to hold us down, to make ALL of us truly poor.

But the response we are seeing in these Occupy movements is really more of a response to the "poverty of spirit," the "poverty of democracy." To REALLY get moving on a plan to change our corporate governance/gove rnment, we must have a plan for HOW to change it...and I've said it before...we are NOT poor enough, unfortunately and literally to formulate a real plan for change, as Gandhi did with his movement to raise up the poor of India (the 99.9%) to overthrow the governance of the interloper Brits (the .01%)!

Look for more from me on this. It's time for a plan, a way to get the people on the fence to realize that NO ONE who's running our government at this point in time is worth voting for for president and most of the U.S. Congress.

We need an "Occupy Party!" And we need it now.

+40 # fredboy 2011-11-07 18:14
I, my brother, sister, and parents rose from poverty despite the roadblocks, derision, scorn, and viciousness we encountered.

We have all dedicated our lives to helping others rise, through education, responsible and frugal living, and determined hope.

I believe those who often castigate those less fortunate do not understand the huge attitudinal blockade they form, casting intentional hatred at others. May Karma one day drag their collective asses out back and explain the matter to them.
+25 # maddave 2011-11-07 18:52
Dr. Piven is an intelligent, beautiful, woman, but I sincerely believe that she is reading too much into the situation . . . which I see as:

Massive, greedy, type-A egos in Corporate America's Boardrooms are engaged in a huge board game in which the ever illusive prize is "more power". You and I are the game pieces, and money (power's alter ego) is how they keep score.

These people - probably sociopathic at best - have declared "no holds are barred" and consider winning to be everything. They are at war only amongst themselves. (When elephants battle, ants and other lesser beings get trampled.)

The facts are that the players simply do not care who gets killed, hurt or ruined - large or small - just so the game proceeds and their greedy, egocentric quests for power continue uninterrupted.

Certainly it's out of fear of losing or alienating election campaign contributions that there is no hand on the throttle and any elected official who dares try to regulate the financial melee does so at his own risk.
+4 # jlohman 2011-11-08 10:01
Yes but let's not forget the role of money in politics -- campaign bribes! -- where our politicians share the booty for their role in making it all happen. Campaign bribes is this country's #1 problem, and will remain until we get public funding of campaigns.

Jack Lohman
+24 # pernsey 2011-11-07 19:59
Instead of cutting the things that actually benefit the people who pay taxes. Why dont they cut corporate welfare, and all the other money the govt. uses to prop up big businesses? Cut the pay for govt officials, and cut all the war waste too!
+20 # Paul Scott 2011-11-07 20:08
As I lived through the whole damn thing this is probably as close to the true story of what really happened as it gets.
+20 # worldviewer 2011-11-07 20:12
Financiers make key decisions about the economy which makes them the DE FACTO STEWARDS OF OUR ECONOMY--NATION AL AND GLOBAL. But too many of them have cared only to enrich themselves without seeing the consequences on society as a whole and on each individual. They have neglected their fiduciary responsibilitie s.
(see for e.g. Wikipedia: "In a fiduciary relationship, one person, in a position of vulnerability, justifiably vests confidence, good faith, reliance and trust in another whose aid, advice or protection is sought in some matter. In such a relation good conscience requires the fiduciary to act at all times for the sole benefit and interest of the one who trusts.")

Just one example--forecl osures. They didn't think of the destabilizing effect of having so many people lose their homes, the effect on neighborhoods of having so many empty houses and the empty houses with no one to take care of them. House builders didn't build affordable housing--so lenders sold people homes they couldn't afford, with adjustable rate mortgages guaranteeing many would be forced to default. THE BANKS BROUGHT THIS DISASTER UPON THEMSELVES--AND THE WHOLE NATION. and people with the lowest income suffer the most.
+14 # Capn Canard 2011-11-07 20:39
Frances Fox Piven has been a warrior for the workers of the world her whole life... what have I done? Time to get busy ...
+13 # 2011-11-07 20:46
Frances, you have written a very important editorial. It is knowledgable, heart-felt and needs to be read by every American citizen. Thank GOD for the Occupiers who have courage to protest WS and the government for bringing on this financial, moral and spiritual crisis we are all encountering. The Occupiers are demanding change and saying they will not leave before something is done about the gross inequities caused by greed and corruption and the kind of values that places power and possessions above human beings. It's time our politicians moved from sophistry to authenticity in their political speechs and placed a higher value on integrity than anything else.
+8 # Michael_K 2011-11-07 21:51
Actually, Billy-Jeff Clinton started the War on the Poor in earnest. He's the one who made being unable to support a child, let alone oneself, into a Federal Crime... From there, certain States, like Ohio, have leaped into the next illogical conclusion, imputing incomes to people where jobs were systematically eliminated, eliminating any mens rea from their automated prosecutions, sending people to prison, after appearing before judges who are remunerated BY STATUTE by the child support agency appearing before them, and - in many cases - that same County Child Support Agency is actually farmed out to a private contractor which is often the County Prosecutors... I have watched friends and acquaintances be prosecuted for felony non-support in a scenario that can only be described as a mixture of Kafka and Dickens! I am constantly bewildered, shocked and appalled that there hasn't yet been any bloodletting and burning down of courthouses!
+17 # futhark 2011-11-07 22:15
The ethical problem is treating human beings as if they were inanimate instruments for economic advancement of the wealthy, machines to be used and discarded according to their monetary worth without regard to their social and personal lives.

If promiscuity is to be raised as an issue, then the economic promiscuity of the 1% needs to be brought into focus and the cruelty with which they treat those whose economic activity creates the wealth they fritter away in sybaritic lifestyles. It is obscene that working men and women are exploited and discarded so casually, while the filthy rich keep demanding greater and greater advantages.
+4 # HerbR 2011-11-07 22:51
As usual and as ever, "Gut Gesagt !!"
+12 # Texas Aggie 2011-11-07 22:58
Louis Brandeis: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we can't have both."

This is so true, and it needs to be repeated and rerepeated. I realize that a large percent of the population either doesn't understand what a democracy is, or, because of their fascination with a strong father model, prefers a police state to a democracy. That Bush was able to push the unitary executive as far as he did lends itself to the latter hypothesis.
+8 # Texas Aggie 2011-11-07 23:02
And now lets hear from the Great White Whale about how Ms. Priven is bringing communism to the US. May he die in pieces.
-13 # Robt Eagle 2011-11-08 11:42
OK, so we equalize the wealthiest of our society and take away their wealth by taxing the crap out of them. The money is then spent on the poorest to feed them and clothe them and house them for one year...what do you do the next year? Folks, supporting the poorest by tearing down the wealthiest is not fiscally responsible. How about educating the poorest about controlling their population growth and after two children they stop getting increases in welfare. How about educating the poorest that eating only carbs will cause diabetes and then they will only get limited medical care, so eat properly or suffer worse financially. How about educating the poorest as to making the correct decisions so that they can get themselves out of the hole they are in. The solution isn't taking away from the wealthiest, it is educating the poorest to do the right things in society. But hey, blame the rich if it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy!
+5 # Ken Hall 2011-11-09 10:58
I don't think people resent others having wealth. What people do resent is the avaricious rich using said wealth to rig the system for their own benefit, thereby taking wealth and well-being from others. The earth is a finite resource system, a zero-sum game, if the rich have it all there is nothing for the rest of us. I don't need or want much personally, I'm able to get along just fine, but it is criminal and immoral that such a large number, over 20%, of US kids go to bed hungry. Read Brandeis' quote cited above by Texas Aggie. Unfortunately it has come true, we don't have democracy in the US. Most all politicians dance to the tune the rich play for them. We have a full-blown plutocracy, and we 99%ers want democracy to work for everyone, not just the 1%ers. As an aside: Your comments about the poor not being able to figure things out, of reproducing indiscriminatel y, of basically being to blame for their condition, are unabashedly elitist and just plain silly. The system is rigged to work well for the wealthy and to take from the rest of us, if you identify with that and want to be like them you're welcome to it. May it make you feel warm and fuzzy.
+9 # aburns 2011-11-08 12:46
To Robt Eagle,
Please note, I'm not sure which political party you tend to support, but if you look closely--it is very easy to see----that it is the Republicans who want to take the pubic education system and just junk it by privatizing it. Not a good idea. One of the ways they are doing this is attacking the teachers and demonizing the unions which support the teachers. Charter schools---anoth er way to get the public's attention away from the public schools, teachers and unions. The only hope the poor have is the public education system. You might want to read Dr. Piven's new book---Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven. It is very enlightening.
+2 # gussie 2011-11-09 08:20
Excellent and so refreshing to hear more women's voices take
an equal stand in the press.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.