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.

CP: I saw a reference to a demonstration in Dearborn where thousands of people marched under a red banner and Lenin's portrait. And elsewhere, too, they were shutting down cities--the Teamsters strike in Minneapolis...

Piven: Yes. There was testimony before Congress by the mayor of Chicago, who told a committee that either they should send relief now or federal troops a little later. And so one of the first things that Roosevelt did in his first week of his tenure as president was to propose to Congress the National Emergency Relief Act. And everybody was in a panic, so within three weeks they were getting money out to the states. This emergency relief program expanded very rapidly, all over the country. It was a fairly generous program--much more generous than the AFDC program that was created later on--because it was a real emergency.

But very quickly thereafter, there were complaints about the program, especially from farmers in the West and in the South, because emergency relief was paying more than farmers were paying for their labor. So the program didn't last long. By 1935 the New Deal administration under Roosevelt was restructuring relief so that we would have a work program, the Works Progress Administration--no more relief for the able-bodied. They would get work.

CP: The welfare reform of the day.

Piven: Right. As for those who could not work, they would be turned back to the states. There was a provision in the Social Security Act which made federal grants-in-aid available for state relief programs to aid people in certain categories. People were defined as legitimately poor and legitimately eligible for assistance if they were defined as nonworkers. Orphans presumably should not work. Aged people, disabled people, presumably should not work. So the categories were the incorporation in contemporary law of the way in which the old poor relief authorities made lists as to who was able-bodied and who was legitimately a pauper. Of course one of the things that's changed in the last couple of decades is that we no longer seem to think as a society that women raising young children are doing useful work. So they are now part of the able-bodied, and they are susceptible to work enforcement.

There were people involved in the design of this legislation who did not believe that we should have these categories which refer to physical disability or family composition. They thought that the grants-in-aid should be made for state programs that were designed to aid simply the poor. But they didn't have a chance. You see, working people were poor, very poor, in large parts of the country.

CP: That's a point that hasn't been made much lately--that you can either support people based on a particular eligibility condition, or you can make aid available to everyone who is in need. That seems to be an important distinction.

Piven: It is a crucial distinction. Because if we made aid available to people on the basis of their need, then we would have a program that brought together impoverished old people, disabled people, the unemployed. It would be a large constituency. It would no longer be stigmatized by these invidious categories of being disabled or being a lone parent. It would be a lot of people, and it would have much greater political strength and greater ability to resist the incursions that we have been witnessing.

CP: So did the programs created in the 1930s shrivel up after a while?

Piven: Yes. The states moved very slowly and very reluctantly to actually legislate programs that would take advantage of federal grants for Aid to Dependent Children, as it was called then. In 1960 there were only 735,000 families on ADC in the entire country. And this was in the wake of a massive displacement of people from agriculture by machines. People were forced to migrate to the cities.

But in the cities in the 1950s, economic conditions were not good. We had high unemployment rates and what was called subemployment rates, where people didn't earn enough to bring them over the poverty level. And so a huge reservoir built up of people who were impoverished, many of them migrants, and people who were eligible for AFDC but were not getting it. AFDC agencies, welfare agencies, have multiple ways of rebuffing people--"come back tomorrow"--and moreover, it was hard for people to apply for AFDC because of the stigma associated with it. You can't overestimate the physical suffering people will endure rather than expose themselves to insult.  

So that was the situation as the black movement emerged, first in the South, and then spreading to the cities. That movement probably influenced people's sense of what they were entitled to, because in the early 1960s application rates for AFDC began to rise, and by the mid-1960s there were protests in the cities. The first Harlem riot was in 1964. By 1966 there was even a welfare-rights movement, with which I was deeply involved and which to me was amazing because it was a movement of women who were struggling to redefine who they were and what their rights were, and then to act on that redefinition. It was a movement of women trying to rise above the insults that had been heaped on their heads by their communities and by the welfare departments to say we have rights, we are mothers, we are trying to raise our children.

That movement was part of what caused the expansion of the rolls, though the main influence was the larger black movement. The rolls did not expand because people dropped out of work; the rolls expanded because more of the people who had been quite desperately poor were getting on--because, in other words, the black movement and the welfare-rights movement brought something like the rule of law to the AFDC system.

CP: One of the things that puzzled me is that the current rollback comes so long after the last expansion. Why?

Piven: Well, it's really been going on ever since 1973. There was a time in the 1960s when the regulations said that people had to be allowed to apply, they had to be given a certain amount of notice if they were about to be terminated, they had the right to a fair hearing, and so on. All that began to change in 1973. It wasn't a massive rollback such as we have now, but it had the effect that welfare reached a smaller percentage of the poor. Another very important change was that states resisted increasing welfare benefits to keep up with inflation. The welfare benefit level fell by 47 percent between the early 1970s and early 1990s, but the food-stamp benefit level compensated for that to some extent, so the total drop was about one third in real value.

But in the 1990s--what happened after the 1992 election particularly, although it had begun before that, was that welfare became a political football. Politicians discovered that beating up on welfare recipients was a good campaign strategy. David Duke ran a campaign in Louisiana based on punishing welfare recipients. And in '92 Clinton hit on it, talking about ending welfare as we know it, two years and you go off to work. He took what had always been a conservative issue and made it into his issue. And so in 1994 when the Republicans took over Congress, they took the issue back. They were not going to let Clinton get away with that. They've competed with each other ever since, in 1994 and 1996, on an issue which is a hate-politics issue. Welfare reform has been a euphemism for race hate, gender hate. And of course there's also this sex thing that Americans have--sex as sin.

CP: The idea that people are running around irresponsibly procreating, particularly young women...

Piven: That's all the Senate could talk about when they were debating this bill, the so-called illegitimacy issue. It doesn't really matter that it makes absolutely no sense in terms of the data that we have, which shows that the United States has much stingier relief programs and much higher rates--three to six times higher--of out-of-wedlock births among teenagers than Western European countries. And we can show the same thing within the United States, that more generous states do not have higher out-of-wedlock birth rates. But the facts don't matter.

CP: Welfare-to-work programs have been around for a long time, as you noted, and particularly in the last couple of decades there seems to have been a lot of experimentation in that area. What's the record of these programs?

Piven: Oh, they're a failure. Even the promoters now admit that they don't work. Success would be defined as people who go through the program being more likely to increase their income from work, and the numbers of hours they work, over people who don't go through the program--the control group. And by that measure the programs are trivial. There's a trivial difference and sometimes it's a negative difference, between people who are exposed to these job search, job-club, do-this-and-that programs, and the people who are not.  

So what do these programs do? They make it seem as though you have some sort of deep psychological cultural problem here, and we need to be working on these people so that they get over it. Well, there may be some people like that on welfare, but there are people like that all over the place.

CP: But the current accepted wisdom is that welfare recipients have lost the ability to get, as you say, over it.

Piven: That happens. People do get discouraged, disheartened, they don't have enough self-respect and so forth. But in the main, when people on welfare can improve their circumstances by going to work and can be assured that their children are getting responsible care and can also see a doctor, they go to work. They may go back on welfare later on because the jobs they get are unstable or because their child gets sick and they don't have any health benefits and they need Medicaid.

The point is, the federal politicians have been arguing that the fact that many people leave welfare and go back proves that there is some sort of addictive quality to receiving welfare. But I think it's more logical to think that welfare helps people--mainly women raising families alone--cope with very unstable circumstances. And if people have the chance to improve their material circumstances and improve their standing in the community, they take it. We would solve the welfare problem, it would just evaporate, if we made it possible for people to earn enough money to keep their families afloat, and gave them assurance that they could see a doctor if the child got sick, and provided daycare. Most women would go off welfare if we did this.

Some people would still be on welfare, but so what? What's the problem? What's all this carrying-on about? Supposing some women do stay home to take care of a child or a disabled aunt or a disabled mother--why is that not useful work in our society? Are we out of our minds? We are pushing everybody into the labor market. We're pushing old people into the labor market now by raising the eligibility age for Social Security. Why are we doing that?

CP: Why do you think?

Piven: I think we're doing it to break the back of labor. That's what I think. You can see it very specifically when you look at how they're deploying the women on workfare. In New York, they have some 50,000 women, and some men, on workfare. They get their welfare check that way. They're using them to do jobs in the public sector. Now, the public sector is the most unionized sector in the American economy. In New York, public-sector jobs have been cut gradually over a very long time. Those were unionized jobs, decent-paying jobs. And that work is now being done by welfare recipients who are made to wear orange vests, and they carry these huge garbage cans to pick up around the parks and the subways so they stay nice for the tourist trade. And the unions don't have the guts to stand up and fight the issue because they're too worried about their relationship with the mayor. They've been guaranteed that people won't be fired to be replaced by people on workfare, and in fact, all the jobs have been lost by attrition. So that sort of pacified the union leaders. It means that over the short term they'll survive as union leaders, they'll get re-elected. But over the long run, of course, the unions will just get emaciated.

And it's not just unions. It's just that that's where workfare is being used against the public sector, it runs right up against the only strong unions that remain. But one thing the new welfare law does is that it eliminates provisions that said that workfare recipients could only be used in work that had some public purpose. So in some states these workfare squads will be assigned to private employers. They're cheap, because welfare pays most of the bill. And think of how vulnerable they are--they're at the end of the line already. If they protest what's happening to them, if they protest the orange vests or the fact that they don't have the same protections as other workers have, they can be fired. And in their case, being fired means you get cut off welfare, and that means you have nowhere to turn.  

CP: At least here in Minnesota, there's been a lot of talk about how businesses can't fill job openings, especially low-wage jobs. And there are provisions in the welfare-reform plan in this state, and I think most others, that recipients may not turn down any job they're physically suited for. Are those two things connected?

Piven: Well, not necessarily in a specific sense. Welfare recipients are concentrated in cities like New York, where unemployment is high. One study showed that in every fast-food job that came open there were 14 applicants. So the cuts in welfare here won't do much to fill jobs that are going begging in Minnesota. But in general, yes, it will maintain the pressure on wages. Look at what they're doing with immigrants. No seasoned observer believes that stripping immigrants of Medicaid and food stamps, for example, is going to keep them out of the country. What it is going to do is make sure that those who come in are acutely vulnerable to the terms of the labor market.

Look at how politicians all talked about welfare and then they went and cut the food-stamp benefit for the working poor. What does that do? It keeps them nervous, on the edge, vulnerable. The particular cut that comes to mind limits the unemployed to three months of food stamps in any 36-month period. They're not going to hold out for a better job then, are they?

CP: You once referred to workfare and similar programs as rituals, symbolic rituals. If that's what they are, what do they communicate to the rest of us?

Piven: I think they communicate two things, and they're both centuries old. In the 15th century, we branded people who asked for assistance. Now we don't use a hot iron, but we give them these orange vests and set them up in teams. We turn them into pariahs, blame them for virtually every social problem in America. Politicians line up for their chance to stomp on them. That underlines the complete loss of social respect that is associated with being on welfare. And that tells people, "You better hang on to that job. Any kind of job is better than that kind of degradation."

The other part is--well, it seems so obvious that this effort to make relief into a very harsh program reflects the way in which the conditions of work have deteriorated for other people. For everybody, but especially the bottom third of the labor force. They're working longer hours and they're earning less. And so what do we do? We don't improve their working conditions, we make relief tougher. It's an old solution. And there are ironies in this too, because working people are very resentful toward people on welfare. They say, "Well, I'm working two jobs, and my wife can't stay home and take care of the kids. So why am I paying taxes so that someone else can stay home and take care of the kids?"

That's a real grievance. The irony is that when you make welfare harsher, when you impose time limits, when you require that you have 50 percent of the people on the rolls in work by 2002--when you do that, you make things worse for that guy, not better. You're going to push 1 to 2 million women who are on welfare into the low-wage labor market. They are not going to create new jobs, they are going to clamber for the jobs other people have. And in the process wages will go down and working conditions will deteriorate more. This guy who is complaining now will have a harder time holding on to his job, or one of his jobs.

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