Guest Post From abby jean: francis fox piven

abbyjean is a feminist with mental illness(es) living in sunny Southern California. She’s particularly interested in how race, class, spoken language, and other identities intersect with disability issues. She loves research and science and policy and hates it when people use junk science to justify bad policy. She also loves music and enthusiastic dancing. She has no real blog but posts a lot of clippings and such at her tumblr.

francis fox piven, who i utterly adore, has evidently been getting death threats after glenn beck has been targeting her on his show. that made it seem like a good time to talk about piven and her ideas and how vital they are in today’s economic and political climate.

i encountered piven in the context of learning the history of the united states welfare program and the history of public welfare programs overall. her book with richard cloward, regulating the poor: the functions of public welfare, is foundational reading if you have any interest in how governments have thought about and justified assistance to people in poverty For an overview of both the book and the history of western welfare programs, i highly recommend this pdf from the benchmark institute.]

the piven/cloward argument is that broad welfare programs and relief are intended first and foremost to prevent people in poverty from upsetting political stability. they’re designed to minimize and mute civil disorder by controlling enough of the unemployed to restore order. the main goal is to prevent civil unrest – rioting, protests, and anything else that would destabilize the existing political order. then, as unemployment declines and economic stability rises, the welfare system contracts, sending people back out into the workforce. this is an ongoing cycle, with regular expansions and contractions of the welfare program:

A flowchart: 1. Normal times (low unemployment, little disaffection with status quo), 2. Rising, 3. Turbulence, 4. Relief programs (cash or work), 5. Lowered unemployment, 6. Less disaffection, 7. Cutback of relief unemployment, looping back to normal times

piven argues that the purpose and intention of welfare programs from the point of view of the government administering them – including unemployment insurance, disability insurance, etc – is to placate and prevent unrest against that government.

this kind of unrest is not unheard of by any means. take, for example, the 1932 bonus army riots in DC, when some 15,000 WWI veterans and their families went to DC to request payment of a bonus for military service. they’d been issued certificates that couldn’t be cashed until 1945 and many had been out of work since the beginning of the depression. president hoover and army chief of staff general douglas macarthur used US military troops to drive all of the veterans off government property, resulting in a melee with shots fired and veteran casualties. this is the kind of unrest these programs are designed to avoid.

an image of a Dust Bowl/Great Depression camp of refugees and their tents

programs today sound like they’re to help people and families. there’s temporary assistance to needy families (TANF), and the US just renamed the food stamp program as the supplemental nutrition assistance program. so it’s easy to think about them as charitable gifts to people who we want to do well, as the government stretching out a hand of assistance to those who need a little help. but they are about political control.

it’s easy to see why beck doesn’t like her. tea party conservatives like to think of welfare as uselessly throwing money into the air, creating a class of dependent infants incapable of providing for themselves. thinking of the poor as people who are being systemically denied human rights by a system that placates them in order to maintain power is directly opposed to beck’s view in every way. it describes people in poverty as worthy and independent and most of all potentially very powerful. it describes the welfare payment as essentially a payoff – scraps sufficient only to prevent them from demanding their due.