Welfare reform through the ages: a talk with Frances Fox Piven

At a time when welfare-reform debate consists largely of differences in opinion over just how much should be cut, there's something profoundly refreshing about a voice like Frances Fox Piven's. She and her husband, Richard Cloward, have been called "perhaps the most original thinkers writing about public policy" in America; and indeed, their works are among very few analyses of the welfare system that help make any kind of sense of the current mess.

Regulating the Poor, published in 1973, makes especially chilling reading as it traces the history of welfare's expansions and contractions through some five centuries. Piven and Cloward ask questions no one else seems to bother asking, and reach some conclusions so obvious it's stunning no one else seems to talk about them. "The issue is not the relative merit of [work versus welfare]," they wrote, apropos 19th-century Europe. "It is rather how some people are made to do the harshest work for the least reward."

This year, Frances Fox Piven is taking a sabbatical from her job as a distinguished professor at the City University of New York's graduate school. We tracked her down in rural Duchess County, New York.

City Pages: One of the things that struck me about Regulating the Poor was the way it followed "poor relief" programs, as you call them, not just to the Great Depression, but way back. You write about how in 16th-century Lyons, France, the magistrates decided that the old system of church-based almsgiving to the poor was no longer enough. So they did a house-to-house survey of the needy, sent the sick to the hospital, and gave the rest "tickets for relief" to buy bread and coal. They even set up a centralized authority to administer all of this. Why this need to organize relief?

Frances Fox Piven: From the time the first poor-relief programs were presented, they were designed to cope with the disorder that desperate, poor people threatened to bring. At that point in the 16th century, the main factor causing mass poverty was the changes associated with the rise of agricultural capitalism, commercial agriculture. People were being displaced from their main source of subsistence, access to the land. The hardship they suffered was worsened if there were failed crops, and soon you had large numbers of dispossessed wandering the roads of Europe. And those wandering dispossessed created problems. Hunger brought epidemic in its wake, and people were afraid that poor people would bring disease. There were also protests, riots, because the poor thought they had some right to survive.

CP: You suggest that these things have a cyclical nature--that every now and again in history there's an expansion of relief, and then a contraction. And it sounds like, from the precedents you cite, as if the expansion usually comes after some kind of massive dislocation in the economy.

Piven: Yes. We call it, in something we're working on now, a rolling social contract enforced by riots. But it isn't the dislocation that leads to the expansion of relief. Rather, it's the protests that follow in the wake of dislocation. This is a very bitter history. You can't escape the conclusion that suffering and hardship is not what prompts the expansion of welfare relief. It is the trouble that the poor cause that precipitates expansion and somewhat greater liberality.

CP: So first you get displacement of massive numbers of people and eventually when they get miserable enough they riot, and only then do you have relief?

Piven: That's right.

CP: When did "welfare as we know it" get started in the United States?

Piven: From the colonial era, we had a local poor relief system that was brought over from England. People remembered these institutions and they reconstructed them in the United States. But then, in the latter third of the 18th century, there was a movement in the U.S. to abolish relief to people in their own homes. This was a time when people were being pushed into the new economy, into the manufacturing plants, which was a new and horrendous kind of work with long, rigid hours. Human animals resisted this new kind of discipline, and the abolition of poor relief made the resistance more difficult.

So that when the Great Depression came in the 1930s, we really didn't have an institutional way to deal with it. There had been an interval in the early part of the 20th century when states created widows' pensions, but that didn't make much of a dent because there was no money. And so in the 1930s there were protests in the big cities, huge protests, by people demanding relief. But the city charters actually prohibited outdoor relief. So all sorts of ad-hoc arrangements developed. They started giving out relief through the police precincts. There were soup kitchens for distributing waste foods from restaurants to the poor, and a lot of sort of wishful campaigns asking homeowners to hire the unemployed to cut their lawns and stuff. But basically there was nothing.

So when Roosevelt took office in the spring of 1933 there was a real emergency in the country. Politicians, congresspeople, were muttering that there was going to be a revolution.

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