‘Inexcusable’ Indifference to Extreme Poverty

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Frances Fox Piven is a political scientist and activist who has been writing about poverty, welfare rights and protest movements for nearly half a century. The Nation, where Piven has been a long-time contributor, calls her “legendary.” Recently, Piven has become well known to another audience. Since Glenn Beck placed her at the root of one of his famous chalkboard graphs, accusing her of plotting to “intentionally collapse our economic system,” Piven has been covered throughout the conservative blogosphere. We talked to Piven about rising inequality, poverty, and the condition of the safety net, as well as her sudden and un-intentioned notoriety.

Lauren Feeney: There’s been a lot of talk recently about growing inequality — how the richest of the rich just keep getting richer. But what’s going on with the poorest of the poor?

Frances Fox Piven: Poverty has been increasing pretty rapidly, at least since 2000, and then there was another big spike with the financial crisis. The official poverty rate is about 15 percent [but] I think the most reasonable estimate is that one out of three Americans are now poor. The official poverty line in the United States is set much lower than it is in other rich countries. That’s because it’s based on the cost of a market basket of basic foods multiplied by three to cover all other costs, and those other costs have inflated much more rapidly than food costs. I want to count people who in other prosperous countries would also be called poor.

We have another measure which we call extreme poverty — people who are living at half of the official poverty line — and the numbers in extreme poverty are increasing rapidly too. It’s a big problem, an inexcusable problem. Profits are increasing; the aggregate amount of wealth in this country does not in anyway justify having such a large pool of poor people and near poor people. We’re wiping out whatever progress has been made in the last half century in decreasing poverty.

Feeney: Mitt Romney recently said in an interview with Soledad O’Brien that he’s not worried about the very poor because they have a safety net. What’s the state of that safety net?

Piven: Dismal. It’s torn in many places.

There was something like a safety net put in place gradually between the 1930s and the 1960s — that included the program we call welfare, the food stamp program, Medicaid, WIC (a nutritional program for pregnant women and infants), unemployment benefits. By the end of the 1960s, these programs had expanded to the point that they provided at least minimal assistance to the majority of the poor. It was a ragged safety net, but there was a safety net. After the protests of the 1960s subsided, there were steady cutbacks in the main program that is welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children we called it then. The cutbacks took mainly the form of failing to raise the benefit levels to take account of inflation, so in real terms the benefits sank.

This was accompanied by an enormous outpouring of rhetoric blaming poor people — and black people and Hispanic people — for their own poverty. The culmination of all this occurred in 1996 when Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility Act, which essentially eliminated the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and replaced it with another program know as TANF. Under TANF, the states have been given much more license to refuse people, and the consequence has been that far, far fewer people get any assistance from TANF than they did from Aid to Families with Dependent Children. And this is of course called a success.

Feeney: My understanding is that, under TANF, there are work requirements, time limits, restrictions for immigrants, talk of drug testing ….

Piven: Finger printing, all sorts of things. They have criminalized the act of applying for or receiving government benefits. And people shrink from that, people shrink from the humiliation.

Feeney: If you pass the 60-month time limit on TANF benefits, is there any safety net for you?

Piven: Food stamps. You can still get food stamps. The truth is, we don’t even know how these people are surviving.

Feeney: By lumping everyone — or almost everyone — together, does the meme of “the 99 percent” overlook the problems of the extremely poor?

Piven: Well, not as much as the rest of us do. The encampments that the Occupy movement established did welcome the homeless, feed the homeless at their food kitchens; I think they behaved in a very ethical and inclusive way.

Something else is beginning to happen now. There are organizations of the poor, some of them who trace their origins back to the 1960s, and these organizations are very supportive of Occupy. This is not just a movement of college kids whose futures have been destroyed. This isn’t just a movement of workers who find their wages reduced. This should be a movement of all of the people who suffer the burdens of extreme inequality, especially the poor.

Poor and minority people in the United States have been singled out, basically since about 1980, as the targets for right wing and Republican rhetoric — tremendous amounts of castigation of the poor, as if it were poor people’s fault that things are going wrong in America. The argument has been that the big moral problem of the United States is that “those people” don’t get up and work hard, “those people” have babies out of wedlock, “those people” hang out on the stoop and drink beer…. It’s relentless. This kind of propaganda is mainly designed for the great mass of working people in the U.S. to quell whatever sympathies they might have for the poor, but also to instill fear in them of the risk of falling into poverty, the risk of having to depend on a government program or a handout. But the poor are also an audience for this kind of castigating propaganda. It has an effect — it makes people shrink into themselves, and that’s a very bad thing, because then they can’t be citizens, they can’t be political, they can’t protest the conditions under which they live.

If they — when they — link up with the larger protests, this will be an enormous boost to their sense of themselves, of their rights, and of their capacities to fight back against the policies that have brought them this low.

Feeney: Glenn Beck talks about you as though “Frances Fox Piven” were a household name. What’s he saying about you?

Piven: Richard Cloward and I wrote an article published in The Nation in 1966 called “A Strategy to End Poverty” which proposed a big mobilization by community organizers, social workers and poor people to get full benefits under the welfare system, because we had done research showing that the welfare system operated by denying people their legal benefits.

They got hold of this article and labeled it a blueprint for bringing down American capitalism.

I didn’t know that Glenn Beck was featuring me on his television program until my students at the City University of New York put a Glenn Beck chalkboard up on the door of my office which showed that Richard and I were at the trunk of what Glenn Beck called the “tree of revolution,” and the branches went off to include SDS, the financial crisis, Barack Obama — I mean, it was amazing. Then I began to pay attention and Googled myself from time to time, and realized something about the nature of propaganda in contemporary America — things are so confusing, you can tell people anything. The Tea Party believes this. I have gotten many, many hundreds of death threats. They put my address on the Internet. Then I decided, they are drawing on a tradition that goes back to the Inquisition — they must think I’m a witch, because how else could I be responsible for so much?

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