‘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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  • BigGov=Tyranny

    This is propaganda! Go the internet and do your own research and make your own mind up. Don’t be a useful idiot! This is a start http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXVt_nfk5rY

  • critical thinker

    I do my own research. Many people who watch PBS are independent thinkers, and are curious and encouraged to be critical thinkers.

    BTW: “Propaganda is intended to make us accept or approve something without looking closely at the evidence.” Real evidence is not wild speculation, ranting, and a chalk board. That’s propoganda.
    “Propaganda is intended to make us accept or approve something without looking closely at the evidence.”

    Real evidence is not wild speculation, ranting, and a chalk board. That’s propoganda.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1245387827 Jesse James

    This is truth….  we hear it everyday.

    Right wing radio personalities, many business executives and politicians fuel this rhetoric.  They want the people of this country to look down, to see the people under you as leaches.  All the while, the wealthy are above you, out of your view stealing everything they can get their hands on.
    Herman Cain said.. 
    “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    Critical Thinker do some research on detroit and the war on poverty and tell me these quotes from Frances Piven are not propaganda. Do you know who perfected propaganda? I put that link to beck so liberals might listen to the rights view point and check the facts. The war on poverty has been an utter failure! I am sick of so called free thinkers blaming the one percent. Our oligarchy was created by big government and big business!

  • Jieni4

    I would love your address! But not for death threats…I would send you cookies or bubble bath as a thank you for your thoughtful article and for not labeling people like  me (a poor woman) as lazy or stupid or irresponsible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Linda-Rolf/100000571423135 Linda Rolf

    I think a lot of Americans don’t care about extreme poverty in our nation.  How can things get better in the majority of people only care about themselves and not what is good for society?

  • Doc

    I just wish Beck’s Pea brain would finally break down from being wrong about so many things. The country would be better off without him and Limbaugh spewing toxic lies to promote the corporate welfare state. There is a simple truth, if all of America does better, we ALL do better. The top 1% should be nervous, sooner or later, there is nowhere to go but down.

  • Jieni4

     I am super sad for you. Lots of folks thought Hitler was right too.

  • TexasBill

    “Our oligarchy was created by big government and big business.” You say that as if you thought it was a bad thing, yet you cherish the one percent who are such a major part of it. 

    Let me guess: Behind the “BigGov=Tyranny” handle, you’re really the White Queen from “Through The Looking Glass,” right? Well, maybe not the White Queen; she believed six impossible things before breakfast while you apparently only embrace mutually exclusive things.Beck is, has been, and always will be, a loser who found success in peddling a potpourri of paranoia and prevarication.

    I know about Detroit: I am originally from Detroit. I know about the “white flight” to the suburbs that began decades ago. I know about a city that was once the fourth-largest in the United States and the automotive capital of the world that now isn’t even large enough to claim an extra penny sales tax with a company that proclaims itself the world’s largest automaker by claiming production of cars made by, sold by, and bearing the names of companies GM doesn’t even own. Yes, Detroit has created many of its own problems: Kwame Kilpatrick is the poster child for inept corruption and a product of a city with a workforce and tax base decimated by years of corporate management deciding it was easier to downsize and offshore than compete.

    The war on poverty? What war? How can a war succeed when half your generals are actively working to gut your attack? It wound up being the equivalent of sending our troops into harm’s way armed with popguns and slingshots.

    Beck’s twisted logic makes Piven and Cloward out to be agents of the great liberal conspiracy to bring about the  downfall of America because they dared to tell their fellow Americans how to tap resources that were legally theirs to tap. In other words, they were trying to help the war on poverty achieve its goals.

    By all means, check the facts. Just be sure they are facts and that you have all of them.

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    I see you took the blue pill. Ignorance is bliss!

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    Mr. Bill how can anyone from texas think big government is the answer. The so called war on poverty has spent over a trillion dollars on poverty yet poverty rates keep rising. I was raised poor and worked my butt off to get ahead owned my own business and home then lost everything due to the housing collapse which was caused by big government. The banks were like drug dealers take the money take the money. I had no ideal what a mortgage back security was. I do know that all that bad debt is backed by we the people and we the people are affectively bankrupt! I believe big government,big business,big unions have bankrupted us. I understand the left and right view points both sides have valid points. True free market capitalism, limited government,individual responsibility, and education is the solution.

  • FranG

     What if you’re wrong, and we’re right? Ever stop to think of that?

  • S Whether

    Republicans want the Congress–not the Presidency
         Republicans are changing the country state by state        Law by law—                               while the Democrats  sleep.       

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    WOW! I cant believe my comment was deleted. I was encouraging people to look at both sides of every issue and make their own mind up! 

  • http://www.parentsdatingparents.com/this-week-in-poverty-me-mom-and-reagan/ This Week in Poverty: Me, Mom and Reagan – Dating for Parents Dating, Single Parent Dating

    […] Income Tax Credit Benefiting Working Poor Cut in Half “‘Inexcusable’ Indifference to Extreme Poverty,” Lauren […]

  • http://billfisher.blogspot.com/ Wfisher206

    Glenn Beck is really a smart guy but he plays a stupid demogogue on TV.

  • Anonymous

    When one reads all the comments and listens to so many opinions across the whole social spectrum of America today, studies the facts of our economic situation,  studies the social/psychological problems created from our commercial culture that has conditioned the citizen to think that everything is but a personal choice, that life revolves around individual preferences, and, when one directly  knows the collusion between the Financial Industry and Congress (not big government, but the representatives the people have elected; Congress;  not nameless bureaucrats: the  people’s  elected choices  are the ones who write the laws that decide who gets what and who gets tax breaks, subsidies…), one does come to the conclusion that America is tearing itself apart with such ferocity that we as a nation and as a civilized society have no credible future.
                 Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Limbaugh et al. are not in any way journalists, they lack  the personal and professional standards  demanded to a sincere commitment to facts; their commitment  and responsibility is to one thing:  money, not to tangible solutions and tactile answers that keep the nation going, but that which will stir up the passions of their followers; their only purpose is but to rouse a particular audience and to them send them off like rabid animals fuming and ranting at the world that they do not understand and who have no desire  to understand: for that would  require true effort and real work on their part to be more than just angry beasts. It is easier by far for the corrupted, vexed and choleric soul  disconnected from God who feels  hatred for  the life Providence has made, to instead of  personally changing  to be  better as a human, to go out and kill his neighbor or seek out some one else he has deemed less worthy of life to destroy than to admit his own angry, jejune self is at the real heart of the problem. Unfortunately,  the role that today’s Right has become; dreaming they have the right and need to  be  capitalistically rich and blaming the poor that they are not. Wasting time and emotion and mental activity on blaming people instead of working to see and to solve real problems.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to read your comment that was deleted. Please send it to beretco.op@hotmail.com

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    I have good evidence my community minded friend FranG is correct in her empathy for those poorer than she. Imagine a whole town inhabited only by Glenn Becks, Hannitys and Limbaughs. That could never work because they live off their victims.

    BG=T is an invalid equation because it ignores the wealth and income gap, and the enormous power accrued among the 400 wealthiest American based families. It excludes the truth that the USA remains a wealthy nation but the majority of us are labeled debtors. Debtors to whom? Why to these same 400 families who hold the note on our national debt, on our educations, on our cars, our houses, our industries and our commercial outlets. The drag of the interest they demand is a tax on us all like no other.  It’s true, absolutely true, that Francis Fox Piven and I want to attenuate the income stream of the wealthy. We are not jealous people. We are content to live comfortably and modestly, making our own way. But we do understand that we can’t be secure or free as long as so many exist without reasonable access to the basics of contemporary life. 
    It is the Oligarchs who demand Congress and President Obama (virtually a hostage) curtail our Constitutional rights and freedoms. They do so to protect their corporations, their profitable wars, their frauds, and their income streams. They are preparing to kill over even ill-gotten intellectual property they constantly seize. 

    To demonize government, or the possibility of government is to reject justice and fairness and the rule of law. It is to advocate for rule by the powerful, the ruthless and the criminal.
    Thus echoes the cry of “Let ’em die” like thunder in the debate hall. Moyers and Piven have given their all against such hateful nihilism. We of empathy agree, “No one can easily become or remain extremely wealthy, or extremely poor, in a fair and just society.”
    Selfish thoughlessness be damned!

  • Anonymous

    Tramadol is the blue one.
    Glenn Beck wants you to take it.

  • Anonymous

    He should self-deport.

  • Anonymous

    Warning: Thinking every issue has only two sides is a symptom of mental instability.

  • Anonymous

    Are you still restricted to the training wheels internet?
    Someday you’ll balance and surf like the wind.
    Is your computer slowing down?
    I’m Duke Ford, and if you’ll call me I can put a geek in your computer to delete unwanted porn, manage your budget, and make political choices for you. 
    For $99.99 a muth, you’ll never have to think again.
    Call now. It’s something Glenn Beck wants you to do.

    And now back to Glenn Beck.

  • Anonymous

    *a muth is a 17 day billing period invented by Glenn Beck

  • Anonymous

    Hitler was Time magazine’s 1938 Man of the Year.

  • Anonymous

    M&C- Thanks so-o-o much for this page on the unjust persecution of Frances Fox Piven.
    Poverty and war are the only real issues. I’m ag’in (against) both.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s you and I care enough about poverty to actively object.

  • Anonymous


  • Acre185

    I thought we were all in this together. There are many points of view and the truth is out there, a little in each. We, as a country need to decide what we want for a safety net, as there but for the grace of God go I.

  • BigGov=Tyranny
  • BigGov=Tyranny

    Woodrow Wilson indirectly taught hitler the art of propaganda. http://www.swans.com/library/art7/ga120.html

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    One of these days your going to hear a very loud pop! Dont worry its just your head emerging from your alimentary canal.

  • arcticslinky

    Limbaugh said it first! Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc. are all BULLIES. As someone who was bullied from a young child until highschool age I know them when I see them. Only in America and third world dictatorships do bullies make millions of dollars sreading their hate. The wealthy steal way more than the people put into jails and they are honored for it because it’s white collar crime and white collar criminals don’t go to jail(unless someone of  their own class wants to bring them down). They’re the CEO’s, the “job creators”, the “captains of industry”, the “elite”, the ruling class. As for Hermain Cain he’s a boot-licker or a *ss kisser…take your pick. If the tea party types don’t wake up soon, they will when they join the ranks of the very poor. Of course they can always try to pray it away…

  • Anonymous

    Your life experiences may not correspond to mine, so advising me based on your stages of development is futile. I’ll be in Switzerland leading an acting workshop for two weeks (return April2), so I’ll be mum ’til then.

  • Anonymous

    The debtclock indicates time has run out for Empire and crony capitalism. They were so-o-o greedy they lost at their own game. We Moyeristas are among those responsible for fashioning a new fair and just world. With Oligarchs they worship and serve gone immature minds will need to drop their game controllers and do something productive.

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    Swing by greece and stay awhile you will feel right at home. I will be clinging to my bible and guns.

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    For those of us living in the real world ” We The People” understand your notion of a fair and just world is a fallacy. Life is not fair and it will never be fair and it has never been fair. We the people will get this country back on the right track. Limited government,Free market capitalism,Individual responsibility,Individual liberty and the freedom to choose.

  • Anonymous

    You’re entitled to your money religion I guess, no matter how self-destructive.

  • Anonymous

    Right wingers who like to imagine that their wealth is somehow deserved conveniently forget how much government largess has benefitted them!

    We wouldn’t need so much “Big Government” or require such a huge safety net if government hadn’t put into place taxation and other policies that benefit the extremely wealthy at the expense of everyone else.  For example, subsidizing luxury home building drove up house prices so much that no one could afford to buy a home without a 30 year mortgage at percentages so high that the government had to give mortgage tax breaks to make them salable.  The high price of housing drove mothers into the necessity of working outside the home, most often at less desirable and less well paid jobs.  Now, many are foreclosed.  

    Another example:  eliminating import duties and subsidizing the export of American jobs abroad to provide cheap, sometimes slave labor for businesses.   This has flooded us with cheap imports and driven down wages, which creates poverty, especially since our high cost of living (see example one) makes it impossible for American workers to compete with those in China, India, etc.  And the working poor are mostly mothers, who depend on food stamps to feed their children.

    Third example:  reducing the progressive income tax and business taxes and failing to tax speculative investments.  These policies have driven wealth upward, and taken it out of the wallets of everyone else.  Don’t forget that there is only a finite amount of money, and sending it to the rich means there is less to go around for the rest of us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.kippel Steven Kippel

    How do you propose we send money back in time?

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.kippel Steven Kippel

    Nobody thinks “big government is the answer.” That is propaganda.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.kippel Steven Kippel

    The government didn’t force the banks to make a single loan. To blame the crisis on the government is to blame the earth for obesity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.kippel Steven Kippel

    The problem Greece has is an ineffective taxation method. Most of the country avoids paying the taxes they owe. Italy also has this problem, and they’re in a similar boat.

  • Bestirling

    In no other country on earth is there such an ENORMOUS disparity between the
    rich and the poor as in the United States.   This is disgusting and shameful.  As a Christian nation this is inexcusable to ignore and degrade the poor.  We have not learned to share as
    Christ would have advocated vehemently.  We are big hypocrits and shall be judged harshly as a country.

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    I know for a fact banks were forced to make bad loans. This web site has some excellnt information about how the banks and goverment got us in this mess. http://billmoyers.com/content/glass-steagall-dodd-frank-and-the-volcker-rule-a-primer-and-resources/ http://articles.businessinsider.com/2009-06-27/wall_street/30009234_1_mortgage-standards-lending-standards-mortgage-rates

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    I don’t know where to start. Its to late tonight next time.

  • BigGov=Tyranny

    the point is we are bankrupt! This is a link to the official government web site. go there and do the math

  • Detroit matto

    This is paranoia mixed with your propaganda!

  • BigGov=Tyranny
  • C Larsen1

    YES!!  You are right, these violations do go back to the Inquisition ~ which we can now equate to genocide.  And remember that root of the word heresy means “choice.”  We, as women, have been violated, tortured and killed for century’s for simply making a different choice… and ironically,  it is only through non-compliance with the dominant thought form that we can achieve any kind of economic, environmental and/or social stability…

    So – YES!! Be a Witch!!  Reclaim our birthright and re-write the distorted Christian story.  We are women, we are witches, we are healers and we are aligned with the life giving property’s of the earth… 

    Economics is not science – it’s something that we just made up – and it doesn’t work… if it did, we could have predicted and forestalled the most recent economic collapse…and if it had any real value,  it would not have abandoned our most vulnerable…

  • This is the time

    Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney are puffed-up toads.

  • Anonymous

    Key word: Actively.

  • Rishicash

    Errr…Christian nation? Was that a recent earmark? By what measure are we a “Christian nation”? Because the majority of the citizens are Christian? That make a “Christian nation”? That could be said on any South American country. Would you consider those “Christian nations” too?

  • Rishicash

    “I thought we were all in this together.” How quaint! Where ‘ya been the last few decades? :)

  • ShaunMarie

    Lindi – I don’t know that it is so much that they “don’t care” as much as they cannot bear to look at it…. when you are a step away from death’s door, you whistle past graveyards. By blaming the poor for their plight, I think people feel that it cannot happen to them (as they lack all those character faults they believe the poor own…)

  • ShaunMarie

    Grady – what does that even mean? The working class and lower classes have always tended towards more generosity than the rich. Those in the “lower depths” are opening their homes to stranded relatives at an increasing rate; more kids are moving home, more families are doubling up, those of us who can are doing what we can. To accuse someone who is concerned about this issue of not being “active” is just…. plain arrogant, wrong-headed, mean. In the 80’s, (the first upheaval) – I took people in off the streets, and gave them work when I could. In this second upheaval, I no longer live in the US, but I do try and give work when I can (even though I am struggling to get by) – I give to food banks, I run kids programs where the fees are at a sliding scale (so kids who cannot afford it can still participate). I don’t think or believe I am more generous than other people either… I think I am a few steps off the lowest rungs, and help when and where I can and I think most people in my position try and do the same.

  • ShaunMarie

    …Most of Italy doesn’t, under any delusion you have, avoid paying taxes. The tax rate here starts at 23%, is regressive (meaning I pay the same as my landlord – who happens to be a prince…), and I pay 28% in what would be in the US SSI. In addition to this, I pay a 21% VAT tax on all goods and purchases. The tax agency here is privatized, and has the full power to be judge, jury, and executioner – and they are as aggressive as holy hell. Are there people who avoid taxes here? Sure. There are also businesses seized and shut down daily by an out of control tax office who decides what the business “should” be declaring (whether this is based in any reality or not) – costing untold numbers of jobs. Don’t talk about what you know nothing of.

  • SkippingDog

    It’s easy to be a Tory when you have a warm home and a full belly.

  • Jeffrey Isaac 2

    Frances Fox Piven is both misguided and destructive. Glenn Beck is largely correct.

    The biggest flaw in this article/ thesis is that it repeatedly fails to suggest a means for the poor to permanently improve their lives. Instead, it incorrectly points to income inequality and insufficient social welfare as the problem.

    Knowledge has been the key to wealth and power throughout the history of mankind. Today, access to knowledge is attainable to more people at the lowest socioeconomic level than at any time in the history of the world. Anyone with Internet access has more information available to them in an instant than the president of the U.S. approximately 20 years ago. This is a major game changer and is vastly ignored or underestimated.

    Rather than create a poor or a lower middle class that is dependent on social welfare we should be focused on enabling them to get educated and do the hard work required to lift their lot forever.

    Access to a college education is now free online, (excluding the degree). There are countless free TED videos by experts that are short and concise on almost any conceivable self help topic.

    We live in a new world with new tools enabling those whom apply themselves to change their lives and those of their children forever. Her message is both destructive (class warfare) and misguided (wrong solution). Never before has the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” carried more weight.