I first came across Frances Fox Piven’s work nearly thirty years ago, when I was a young journalist writing about poor families struggling to survive in the richest country in the world.

Then, as now, the United States was spending billions on new weapons systems while many Americans lacked basic necessities. Then, as now, vigorously second-rate politicians slandered the poor as lazy and morally degenerate.

Piven, then a political-science professor at Columbia University, had written extensively about the structural roots of poverty and attempts by the poor to organize politically. She and her colleague Richard Cloward argued that the poor have never been able to depend on government generosity, and that only when the poor unite and organize can they wrest concessions from the powers that be. Piven and Cloward’s writings provided much of the intellectual inspiration for the welfare-rights movement, which sought benefits for millions of desperately poor families.

Today, regrettably, it’s politicians who are united — in their attack on welfare. Packaging their crusade in homilies about self-reliance, both Republicans and Democrats insist that being dependent on the government is bad for the poor; that yanking teenage mothers off welfare is an act of mercy.

When the greatest personal sacrifice to which many elected officials can point is curbing their cholesterol intake, it’s hard to listen to them preach self-restraint. Certainly, the welfare system needs to be reformed if it’s to serve as a genuine bridge out of poverty. But that won’t happen as long as the poor are left to fend for themselves while the wealthy and the middle class are given tax breaks. Few politicians are tactless enough to label these breaks as handouts. But then, that’s why they’re called politicians.

As the following talk demonstrates, Piven doesn’t worry about being tactful when the subject is social justice. At sixty-three, she is still an impassioned advocate for the poor. Presently on the faculty of the graduate school of the City University of New York, she is coauthor of The Mean Season, New Class War, Poor People’s Movements, and Regulating the Poor.

Piven delivered this talk in March 1995 at the University of Southern Maine, in Portland. Originally titled “Women and the Welfare State,” the speech was recorded by Roger Leisner of Radio Free Maine. We’re grateful to Leisner for bringing it to our attention. (A free catalog of Radio Free Maine’s audio- and videotapes, “Voices of the Left,” is available from Roger Leisner, P.O. Box 2705, Augusta, ME 04338. Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope with seventy-five cents postage.)

— Sy Safransky


The Republicans told us there had been a revolution in American politics, and members of the press echoed their statements. But in fact, the electoral upheaval in November 1994 was no revolution. The Republicans won the Congress by a narrow margin: 51 percent of the vote. And the voting public was only 39 percent of the electorate. So what really happened was the Republicans’ share of the electorate went from 19 to 20 percent — more of a coup than a revolution. Still, as a result of that election, we are now witnessing proposals for massive changes in public policy, the most strident of which is the call for welfare reform.

What is being proposed under the title “welfare reform” is cuts in programs for the poorest and most vulnerable members of American society: nutritional programs and Medicaid programs and housing programs and programs for the aged, impoverished, and disabled. But the program that is most targeted for reform is Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a program for poor mothers and their children. Men can get benefits, too, but the overwhelming majority of parents on AFDC are women, about five million of them, with about nine million children. Each family gets an average of $370 a month in cash assistance and another couple of hundred dollars in food stamps. The cost of this program amounts to about 1 percent of the federal budget. If you include food stamps, it’s maybe 2 or 3 percent. Yet this small program has attracted the attention of a large number of politicians, who seem to be competing to see who can propose the most Draconian changes.

Governor William Weld of Massachusetts, for example, has pushed through a measure to virtually eliminate general assistance, which is a state welfare program, and also to limit AFDC benefits to two years. Next door to Weld, in Connecticut, Governor John G. Rowland recently proposed not only to eliminate entirely the state’s general-assistance program but to roll back AFDC benefits so that after a woman and her children were on welfare for four months their grant would be cut by 50 percent. After eighteen months, they’d be kicked off altogether. At the same time, the state would introduce punitive measures — fingerprinting women who apply for AFDC, for example — that are reminiscent of the sixteenth-century practice of branding paupers. This is in Connecticut, the richest state in the Union. The state of Wisconsin has pioneered a program called Learnfare, whereby a family has its benefits cut by as much as $150 a month if a child is habitually absent from school. The state hired the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to study the impact of the program, which was supposed to improve education and opportunity for the poor. Instead, the study found, it actually increased truancy. When the state of Wisconsin saw these results, it simply cut the university’s research contract and continued the Learnfare program.

In Congress, the Republican majority — with Democratic support — wants to turn all welfare programs into block grants, with funding fixed at 1994 levels: no cost-of-living increases, no increases due to recession or unemployment. The states would be given these funds, but not be required to supplement them to the extent they do now. (Only half of AFDC is now paid for by the federal government.) The states would be free to use the money in any way they saw fit, within the broad purposes of the legislation. The only limits would be to make sure the states did not give any money to a woman under the age of eighteen who has a baby out of wedlock, or any money to cover an additional child born to a woman on AFDC, or cash assistance for more than two years. Moreover, women who did not succeed in legally establishing the paternity of their child would be denied aid — including women who had turned to AFDC to escape domestic abuse.

Why is Congress doing this? The argument is that, however kind we may be, however good our hearts, the giving of monetary aid generates disincentives to constructive behavior. If young women know they can get welfare, they will drop out of school, not join the labor market, make no effort to support themselves, and be much more likely to have a baby out of wedlock. All of these charges — which were made by the Clinton team as well, before the Republicans grabbed them back — are said to be research based. Yet the charges ignore some basic facts.

Take the argument that, because of the availability of welfare, women don’t work to support themselves. To appraise this claim, we first have to look at the labor market, where unemployment has been rising for more than forty years, from an average rate of 4.5 percent in the fifties to 7.2 percent in the eighties, and is remaining high in the nineties. And those figures don’t count the people who are working at part-time jobs but want full-time jobs, or the people who are temporary workers but want permanent employment. Not only is there high unemployment, but there is little demand for unskilled labor, and especially not for workers deemed “unreliable” because they have small children at home. The wages earned by less-educated, nonsupervisory workers have been falling for twenty years. And the wages earned by those who are the least educated — who don’t have a high-school diploma — have been falling most rapidly. Twenty years ago, a male without a high-school diploma working full time earned twenty-five thousand dollars in 1992 dollars. But in 1992, that same worker earned only fifteen thousand dollars. A full-time, minimum-wage worker in the sixties could support a family of three at well above the poverty line. Today, that same worker would fall three thousand dollars short of the poverty line.

All of this suggests that there is a labor-market problem, not a welfare problem. Yet for twenty-five years federal and state governments have been inventing programs to push women on welfare into the labor market, programs with such acronyms as WIP, WIN, JOBS, WORK. They bring women into group sessions where they get pep talks about how to smile at a job interview and what to say to a potential employer. If the women don’t show up for these sessions, their checks get cut. After a certain amount of time, they’re made to go out and search for jobs. Studies show that the results of such programs are utterly trivial. In some studies, the people in the control group — that is to say, the people who haven’t had the benefit of work-training programs — do better in terms of earnings and labor-market participation than the people who are in the programs. And the studies don’t show what happens to a woman who doesn’t show up for the work-training sessions. On first offense, her check gets cut. If she doesn’t show up a second time — say, because her child has a fever — her check gets cut more. And if she’s absent a third time, she’s off the rolls for six months. Nobody studies the impact of these sanctions.

Of course, some women on welfare do get jobs, because in the real world, quite apart from work-training programs, women are constantly moving off the welfare rolls. But we’re not creating new jobs for these women; they get jobs that would otherwise have gone to someone else. Since the number of jobs hasn’t increased, it is like a game of musical chairs. And when you put pressure on these women, who are raising children, to go out and join the scramble for low-wage work, the aggregate effect is a reduction in wages in that part of the labor market. Increased competition for these unskilled jobs means that wages fall and working conditions deteriorate even faster.

Another argument in favor of welfare reform is that these reforms are intended to strengthen families. Of course, what proponents have in mind is two-parent families, headed by a man and a woman. However, it isn’t clear to me how taking women off welfare will make them more desirable and cause men to want to marry them. Instead, I think it will break up families in impoverished communities, because many of those families are headed by women who are having a tough time trying to bring their kids up right. They live in terrible neighborhoods, the kids go to rotten schools, and the mothers worry about even letting the kids out of the house. These women are all that’s left to maintain family and community life in these neighborhoods. Forcing them to scramble for low-wage work will destroy whatever families still exist in these communities.

Another claim made to justify welfare reform is that welfare encourages dependency, that when women can get welfare and food stamps, life is so good and easy they can sit on the stoop swilling beer without ever having to get up and do anything. Yet 71 percent of women who apply for welfare stay on less than two years. That data comes from the federal government, so the politicians making the charge know this. Of course, when women get a job and get off welfare, the job may not last, or it may not pay health-care benefits, and the kids may get sick. Life at the bottom is crisis filled. So these women may go back on welfare. Does that show dependence? I don’t think so. I think it shows that welfare is a lifeline for women who live in very unstable circumstances — unstable family situations and an unstable labor market. Politicians want to cut that lifeline.

The final charge, and the most urgent and obsessive one, is that welfare leads women to have out-of-wedlock babies. This claim ignores the fact that out-of-wedlock birthrates are rising, not only among the American lower class, but all over the Western world, among all classes. Politicians may rant and rave, but government is incapable of changing cultural trends of this kind. It is true that lower-class women are more likely to have out-of-wedlock babies. However, this is the result, not of the degenerative effects of welfare on the lower class, but of the fact that fewer lower-class women are getting married. Why? One reason is that there aren’t enough men capable of supporting a family. It is also due to the progressive destruction of lower-class men in American society, particularly African American men.

So if none of this makes sense, why are politicians doing it? I can think of three reasons. The first has to do with a historical pattern in capitalist countries, where governments have always gone to great lengths to keep welfare relief and unemployment insurance below wage levels. So as wages have fallen in the United States, welfare benefits have done the same. The food-stamp-and-welfare package has fallen in real terms by more than 30 percent since the early seventies, about the same percentage by which the minimum wage has fallen. This ensures that no one who could possibly work would find welfare more desirable.

The second reason is pure greed. There has been a mobilization of business in American politics in the last twenty years. Business lobbyists are crawling all over Capitol Hill collecting, as fast as they possibly can, all the sugarplums they can stuff into their mouths. One of the things they want most is big tax cuts, and they’re getting them, not only from the federal government, but from state legislators. How can lawmakers cut taxes, given all the talk about reducing the deficit? They do it by matching those tax cuts with spending cuts. But they don’t want to cut oil-company tax deductions or other corporate-welfare programs. They don’t want to cut programs that subsidize big farmers. They don’t want to cut mortgage-interest deductions. All of those groups have political muscle. So they have turned on the groups that have very little political muscle: they’re taking all the money out of programs for the poor. What can you call that except pure greed?

The third reason has to do with the cultivation of hate politics. David Duke, the neo-Nazi who ran for governor of Louisiana and almost won, made cutting welfare his main issue. Other governors picked up the torch: Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Weld of Massachusetts, George Pataki in New York, Michigan’s John Engler — they all are targeting poor women on welfare, who are, at least in the public mind, minorities. In fact, only 38 percent are African Americans, and another 19 percent are Latinas.

When Bill Clinton made his pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” his pollsters told him, “Oh, that’s good; that strikes a chord.” So he put his Harvard policy wonks to work developing a proposal for “welfare reform.” And all of us left leaning liberals held our breath and thought, “Well, maybe something good will come out of this.” Because we all know that the welfare program is rotten. It treats women badly. It humiliates them, it investigates them, and it keeps them very poor. Nothing can be more degrading in American society than being very poor. So maybe we would get work training and health care and child care as part of this “reform.” Instead, we got the same old formula: the two-year lifetime limit on cash assistance, with trivial training programs and child care. Clinton thought that by fingering minorities he would win a lot of Reagan Democrats over to his side. But what really happened was the Republicans outdid him, and thus began a bizarre competition to see who could dump hardest on welfare mothers. The Republicans responded with the Personal-Responsibility Act, which would have dismantled AFDC in favor of block grants and eliminated any federal responsibility for the poor. Clinton stayed in the competition, claiming the Republican proposals weren’t tough enough on the work issue; they didn’t go far enough.

Why this mad bipartisan competition to punish a group that is small, exceedingly vulnerable, and doesn’t cost much money? After all, the group includes nine million children, who are going to be with us for a very long time. How these children are raised, how they’re fed, how they’re treated by the larger community is going to have everything to do with whether they join that community or become its enemies. So why are the politicians doing this? I think it has to do with our anxious, discontented electorate. The voting public suffers from certain cultural anxieties — changes in sexual and family mores over the last twenty or thirty years have struck terror in the heart of Middle America. Over the same period, wages have been falling steadily for 60 percent of the work force, and the nation has been so polarized by wealth concentration that 1 percent of the American population now controls 40 percent of the wealth. Because of economic insecurity, Americans are working harder and working longer hours. And instead of working in automobile factories, they’re working in chicken-processing and garbage-recycling plants: ugly, dirty, hard work. Worst of all, they don’t know if they’re still going to be working in two years. And they don’t know if their kids are going to have jobs and be able to buy a house, or even a trailer.

Meanwhile, politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — are fixated on campaign contributions and the bond market and the business climate; they don’t want to deal with the problems of American workers, although they could try. FDR spoke to the American people about their sources of uncertainty; he named enemies and tried out different strategies. But not Clinton. Not Newt Gingrich. Their solution is to evoke the devils of American culture. Their solution is to construct a story about what is wrong with the United States. The main character in this story is a woman on welfare. And the story is about her downfall, her sin, which, of course, is the out-of-wedlock birth, a sin encouraged by welfare. As the story unfolds, she raises her kids, they turn into juvenile delinquents and drug abusers, and everything goes to hell. The source of moral rot in America is the woman on welfare and her sexual sin. We can attain redemption only by making her and her kids suffer.

This is a very American story. It’s about all the things that make us crazy as a culture: race, class, poverty, and especially sex. In all of the white-hot excitement created by this tale, we are distracted from the main political agenda, which is about cutting taxes on the affluent and stripping government of the capacity to regulate business. It’s about making it next to impossible for citizens to sue corporations for product liability. It’s about increasing military expenditures. It’s about changing the rules of American politics. It’s about taking away the federal government’s capacity to do what modern governments do, which is reduce the extremes of inequality, moderate economic instabilities, and curb the worst excesses of business. If this agenda goes forward, our government will not be able to do any of that. Those responsibilities will be left to the states, along with the block grants. Gingrich and his followers tell us this is good because the states are closer to the people. But really the states are closer to business, because every state government worries about capital mobility, the threat that business will move next door or down South. These terrified state governments will be left to regulate the American economy.

The stakes here are really enormous. We face the loss of a public sector that has been painfully constructed over the course of the twentieth century to make some provision, not only for poor people, children, and the disabled, but for regulating business, for keeping our air and water safe, for tempering economic instabilities and market cruelties. All of that is now in danger. The question is “Are we going to be able to do anything about it?” I have to say that, in the short run, I think we’re going to lose a lot. I think there are going to be Draconian cuts in welfare, in regulation, in programs upon which all of us depend. But it’s going to be a long fight. The issues will be kept alive by the palpable, visible destruction of people all around us. Our greatest advantage is this single fact: our opponents’ agenda is not driven by public opinion. They say it is, but that’s a lie.

So where will the resistance come from? Will there be resistance from politicized women? Not only poor women but educated, activist women? Make no mistake, the campaign against AFDC is a campaign against all women. They’re attacking these women, who are raising children and maintaining households, for not working. That’s an attack on our traditions. The work these women do is worthless, politicians say, but that’s the work our mothers did; that’s the work our grandmothers did; that’s the work that many of us still do. They say these women will be working only when they go out and flip burgers. That’s an attack on women’s work. It’s also an attack on reproductive rights, on our right to form families and be responsible family heads.

Think about this: when millions of women are taken off welfare, they’re going to suffer and their kids are going to suffer, but so will millions of other underpaid women with whom they will compete desperately for low-wage service jobs. Wages will go down; working conditions will deteriorate. The careers of better-educated women will also be at stake. When the women’s movement encouraged women to enter the work force, the media conjured images of skirt-suited women with attaché cases who worked on Madison Avenue. But in fact more women went to work in social-welfare agencies and other public or voluntary social agencies. This is not anything of which we should be ashamed; this is something of which we can be proud. This is decent work, especially when you compare it to what’s done on Madison Avenue. But now these programs are the ones targeted for big cuts.

But the most important reason of all for there to be a women’s resistance movement is that, if we work to create such a movement, then perhaps these women who are the main victims, poor women and working women, will become what many of us have always wished they would be: our sisters. Not only do they need us, but we also need them. We need them to build a women’s movement strong enough to change this dangerous political climate.