Despicable race gambit: What the GOP really wants to achieve by talking about poverty

Glenn Beck's most hated scholar, Frances Fox Piven, on the right's deplorable strategy to win more white votes

Published January 13, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Eric Cantor                          (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Reuters/Adrees Latif/Jonathan Ernst)
Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Eric Cantor (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Reuters/Adrees Latif/Jonathan Ernst)

Wednesday brought the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s speech announcing a “War on Poverty,” and with it a speech from Senator Marco Rubio declaring that war an expensive failure. The same day, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave an address contending, “School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty…” Those high-profile Republicans were followed by Congressman Paul Ryan, who argued Thursday against “dumping money into programs we know won’t work.”

For a different view, Salon spoke last week with Frances Fox Piven, the veteran scholar of poor people’s movements who drew a new round of notoriety when she became a top target of Glenn Beck (“Maybe they thought I was dead, so that they would have a mythical villain,” Piven told Salon last year). In a wide-ranging interview, Piven accused Rubio of exploiting racial fears, compared Obama’s handling of poverty to Hoover’s, and blamed social scientists for contributing to contempt for the poor. She defended her 1966 blueprint for forcing a “political crisis” through mass welfare enrollment, and said it would be “worth trying” today. And she offered her own assessment of the War on Poverty: a set of programs made possible because social movements threatened “ungovernability in American cities,” which “produced a very significant compression in income disparities,” and helped elites to “curb an emerging movement among poor people…”

“There may come a time when it’s impossible to co-opt and to integrate, because either the state doesn’t have the resources to do it, or the discontents are so deep,” said Piven, now a professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York. “In a way, I don’t look forward to that time, because I don’t know then what will happen.” An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Marco Rubio says it’s time to declare “Big government’s War on Poverty a failure.” Is he right?

No, he’s absolutely wrong. Although, it revives and reminds us of the fact that the Republican Party has tried to use the War on Poverty as a big trope in its campaign to use blacks really, and black insurgency, as the basis for peeling white working-class voters away from the Democratic party. And that’s been going on since the 1960s, since Barry Goldwater’s campaign and then George Wallace’s campaign, and then of course Richard Nixon perfected the technique of using race. You don’t see “race” anymore by the late 1960s. You didn’t say [the "n" word] anymore. Instead you used terms which invoked in people’s minds the specter of black insurgency. And the War on Poverty is just such a trope.

Do you think that’s what Marco Rubio is doing?

Oh yes. I do think it’s what Marco Rubio is doing. It’s not the only trope. Crime was very important for a long time. Calls for law and order by Republican operatives were an attempt to tar the Democratic Party with its black constituents and rising black -- if not crime rates, rising rates of black incarceration. That’s what he’s doing. It’s welfare, welfare mothers, “welfare queens,” and it was also the Great Society and the War on Poverty, because these were the initiatives through which the Democratic Party responded to the hardships and the grievances of its black constituents.

Rubio also says that we should “turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs and the trillions spent on them over to the states.” What do you think would happen if we did?

Well, in a certain way we have some indication of what would happen. Because the political leader who first began the effort to turn these programs -- or what remained of them after they’d been hammered at by the Republicans and right-wing Democrats -- to turn them over to the states [was] Nixon in the 1968 to ’74 period. That was when we got revenue-sharing instead of grants in aid to cities, where poor people, the urban poor, were concentrated -- and especially the minority poor. Through first revenue-sharing, and then block grants to the states, less funds and less of the sort of intervening authority of the federal government were applied to impoverished populations, and more funds were used for state interventions generally. I mean through revenue-sharing, we have federal money being spent on golf courses instead of the War on Poverty.

How significant is the role of race and racism in the way that poverty gets talked about in U.S. politics, and policy around poverty gets made in the U.S.?

Well, I think that we scarcely make a distinction between race and poverty at this point in time. Way, way back under JFK and then under LBJ…at the beginning the imagery that was evoked was of the Appalachian poor, and these were poor white people, so the first posters were of poor white women and their little children. In short order, the imagery changed and the people who were poor were black people or Hispanic people…

You can’t really tear apart, separate, the rhetoric of race and the rhetoric of poverty in American politics.

How effective do you think progressives have been at tackling the intersection of race and class in U.S. politics, in U.S. policymaking?

Well, what do you mean by progressives? Progressives have been on defense on so many fronts… The labor movement has been decimated… The left has not been very effective. But [specifically] the left has not been very effective in resisting what was always a business-led assault on these programs.

A business-led assault in American politics has always relied on popular support. The way to get popular support is to make racist appeals, or the kinds of class appeals that work for conservatives in American politics. Which is to paint the opposition as not representing a broad swathe of poor Americans and working-class Americans, but as representing the very bottom of the class structure in the United States.

The resistance has been effective at resisting what might otherwise have been an even more egregious and devastating assault toward the policies we have for the poor… But exploding the rhetoric, exposing the rhetorical tricks that have been used, answering the charges that the poor are poor because there’s something wrong with them, with their habits of life, with their culture, even with their genetic composition -- we haven’t been very effective at that.

How do you believe that can be turned around?

Well, I think what would really help is what helped in the 1960s and helped in the 1930s, which is the mobilization of the poor themselves.

Poverty policy, policy initiatives in the United States that come from on high, have never been as effective as the threat posed by the mobilized poor. And that’s what happened in the 1930s. It’s what happened in the 1960s. We didn’t get a War on Poverty because of the activity of left-liberal policy wonks in Washington. We got it because [of] the combination of the civil rights movements and the economic rights movement that was emerging in the Northern cities among African-Americans and Hispanics. Those movements forced responses, because they threatened, really, ungovernability in American cities.

And without that, the liberal-left -- what people would call progressive, the NGOs, even the labor leadership -- will not be enough to either halt the assault -- on food stamps now, on unemployment insurance -- or reverse. Which is what we really need to do.

We have destroyed -- they have destroyed -- and that’s not only the Republican Party, but the DLC-influenced Democratic party -- we have eliminated cash assistance to poor people under the welfare program. Virtually eliminated, two-thirds eliminated. We’re not gonna reverse those losses, and not only reverse them but improve the programs we’ve lost, unless there’s a movement of the poor. And that’s been difficult.

Part of the reason it’s been so difficult is that one part of the business-dominated politics of the last 50 years is the rhetoric which has been insulting and marginalizing of poor people. Maybe we should begin to address the rhetoric.

You’re an opinion-maker. I’m an opinion-maker. I don’t make the opinions of millions, but we have to laugh at, to explode, the propaganda which has made the poor such a degraded American life.

You and your husband were attacked in part for an essay you wrote in 1966, urging “a massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls” in order to create a “political crisis” that “could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end of poverty.” Coming up on two decades after Clinton signed welfare reform, would that be a feasible or advisable strategy today?

I think it was it was a very good strategy then. It was not just the rhetorical call for mobilizing to apply for and demand their full legal benefits under welfare -- you know, Glenn Beck never remembered to point that out -- but it was a strategy that was feasible to us, because of the political constellation under which it would unfold.

We thought that mayors and governors confronting a mobilized poor, drives for full welfare benefits, that on the one hand they’d be concerned about their more conservative white constituency, and the divisions that welfare would cause, and they would become claimants. They would become a pressure group to try to get Washington to reform the welfare program, and move it in the direction of a guaranteed income. We thought that kind of pressure from state and local officials would be more effective, because there was a Democratic regime in power in Washington, which depended on support of voter constituencies in the big cities and the biggest industrial states. So it wasn’t just a rallying call. It was based on a political analysis of federal relations, fiscal relations, and political, at that point in American history.

Are we at a similar point now? Maybe. Maybe. It’s worth trying.

What would that look like today?

These things don’t happen overnight. What we have to reverse is the culture of shame that has been created, really, by attacks on poor people for 50 years. I don’t think it would take 50 years to reverse it. After all, people do have resources and sources of dignity and energy and help that don’t [come] from on high. Nevertheless, poor people have been battered badly in American political culture and in American politics.

So it would take a lot of grassroots organizing, and it would take support from all those “progressives” that you talked about a couple of minutes ago. Support not only in the sense that [you] write a hundred-dollar check at the end of the year, but cultural support, intellectual support.

You know, one of the things that happened in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s is that social scientists -- who figure significantly on the intellectual left, the liberal left -- social scientists went along with argument about the culture of poverty. Which in effect pointed the blame for poverty – pointed to poor people as the ones to blame for poverty. And a lot of intellectual work was done to justify that reversal of historical experience and common sense.

We have to stop doing that, and make the other obvious, credible argument: that poverty is a problem in the United States because poverty is a consequence of a massive campaign to redistribute American earnings and American wealth, from a broad swathe of working people -- many of whom become poor -- and from the poor themselves. It’s a grab. And the grab has been going on for 40 or 50 years. But we have to begin to say that, and explain that, dramatize that, as our contribution to a remobilization of the American poor.

Who or what do you think is effectively organizing against poverty right now in the United States?

Well, fast food workers. Wal-Mart workers. Some with support from SEIU. The workers centers gathered around the country. There are still poverty rights groups or very similar [groups]. Some of them are actually descended from the welfare rights groups of the 1960s, like Community Voices Heard, like Make the Road by Walking. They’re small, but under certain conditions small groups can become the vanguard of much larger mobilizations. That’s what happened in the 1960s.

All of the people who descended on welfare offices demanding their benefits, it wasn’t that they were all organized with members or something like that. Some people took the initiative, provided the justification, and did the exemplary actions which made much larger mobilizations possible.

You wrote in that 1966 essay that although the “ultimate objective” should be to “wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income,” “even activists seem reluctant” to “because the idea of individual social and economic mobility has deep roots.” Does that remain a problem?

Yes it does. It certainly does. I mean, look: You raise the problem of poverty at a nice, genteel dinner party, and the solution is education. The solution is not education. Look at all the college graduates who are unemployed. The solution never was education. There were always going to be people who are going to be poor, because they do the drudge work in our society. We should pay them well for it, and we should also guarantee them the services that they need.

Look at how many people are unemployed now… Unemployment should not be as terrifying as it is. Instead, we should have a good income maintenance program. And the best income maintenance program is the guaranteed income.

Do you see a tension for liberals, or for the left, between the push to “make work pay,” broadly speaking, and the push to make basic sustenance, support and benefits independent from whether or not you have a job?

No. I think the two go together. That if in fact we had income security through public or social benefits, it would create enormous pressure on employers to make work pay. Otherwise, people could drop out of the workforce, would drop out of the workforce. Women who are now toiling to take care of a kid, two kids, and hold down a job, and get home in time to pick the kids up from what might be a disreputable daycare arrangement -- these women, they wouldn’t have to do that. Now they have to do it, not only because the benefits are not available -- so much shame and degradation [are] attached to what benefits do exist.

But if we took the view that women, men, people who are working are entitled to a good minimum wage and healthcare and childcare -- if we took all that for granted, and good unemployment benefits -- which could take the form of a guaranteed income -- it would be much more likely that pay would have to go up in order to keep them in the workforce.

Over the last 40 years, the attack on wages, the refusal to raise the minimum wage to keep with inflation, this has been paralleled almost exactly by an attack on benefits. Cash income, food stamps, all the auxiliary services that were initiated in some instances in the 1960s, have been chipped away and privatized… [And the] public sector has also become an arena for profiteering, because a lot of these services are now contracted out to for-profit providers.

Speaking of the degradation. When Democrats or labor activists take up this rhetoric against companies like Wal-Mart or McDonalds, for example calling the elite that run Wal-Mart “welfare kings” because Wal-Mart workers depend on public assistance, do you think that is counterproductive? Do you find that troubling in terms of these larger conversations about poverty and welfare?

Not particularly. I suppose there is an edge to it that is unpleasant, because I never thought the word “welfare” was a bad word. A lot of people hear it as slanderous. But it was a nice word. To overcome the stigma associated with “poor relief,” we renamed it welfare. But then of course welfare became stigmatized.

The effort, of course, is to point out these people are taking advantage. In a certain sense, as a business operation Wal-Mart is dependent on the public sector and the tax revenue of ordinary people. That’s a reasonable argument, because it’s a true argument. Is there another way of saying it? Yes, we can say it another way as well.

I mean, they have stigmatized welfare. The effort of the sort of counter-rhetoric is to use that stigma against them.

Do you believe you can have capitalism without mass poverty?

Yeah. I do. You know, it was a significantly long period in the 20th century when a number of European countries virtually eliminated poverty through policies we call social democracy. They eliminated poverty through a wide range of programs that provided for the needs of people who were vulnerable and at risk: childcare programs, housing programs, national healthcare programs. And then they also legislated work so as to make it easier for women to go to work. It was nothing like the poverty in the United Sates in the Nordic countries, or even in continental Europe -- Austria and Germany and the Netherlands for example. So far, toward eliminating poverty in these countries -- it’s obviously possible.

Those countries are still way, way ahead of the United States and the U.K. with regard to their poverty policies. Their levels of inequality are much, much less in those countries, and poverty is much less in those countries. It doesn’t mean that we have utopia, or a fully participatory society. We didn’t. There are a lot of things still wrong. The worst sorts of human suffering had been significantly eliminated. Just because there are still problems, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate and learn from the advances that have already been made.

What is the lesson in the pushback and the rollback of social democratic provisions and protections that we are seeing in Europe right now?

Well, I want to point out that the rollback is minor compared to what is happening in the United States. That’s not true in the southern tier. It’s not true in the countries that are really the focus of the austerity politics being practiced by the European Union. It’s not true in Spain, or Italy, or Greece, or Cyrpus, or Portugal or even Ireland -- those countries have significant reversals.

But the reversals in Norway? No. Reversals in Denmark? No. A little bit maybe, a little of peeling away at labor protections so as to make -- and this is sort of a code language of neoliberalism -- to make labor markets more “flexible.” But nothing like what has happened in the U.S. and U.K.

So for much of Europe, social democracy survives. And they certainly have healthcare. They certainly have better housing policies. The parts of Germany that were the center of German industry…have been struck by the same economic changes, deindustrialization, that have afflicted American cities like Detroit and Camden. But those cities are okay. You don’t see anything of the destruction that you see in American cities that have been the center of deindustrialization. It can be done, and it can be done while not only preserving, but expanding democratic rights.

What do you think the role of internationalism should be in the pushback against poverty in the United States?

I’m especially interested in international currents that help to give rise to protest movements…the way in which Occupy was in a sense interacting with developments in Tunisia and in Egypt. The inspirational kinds of currents that flow between these movements. They have also learned in some sense from the tactics and strategies of these movements.

I think that international ties between unions can also be significant, and especially unions of low-wage workers. Way back in the Justice for Janitors fight, especially in Los Angeles, the ultimate victory of that campaign was probably made possible, pushed over the top by European unions that had workers who worked for the same multinational real estate empires that the janitors were involved in.

When we talked in the fall, you compared Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover on unemployment, and on his relationship to mass movements. How do you assess Obama’s record on poverty up to this point?

The same way. It’s unkind to compare Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover. But just on the facts: Hoover, the poor man took office just a few months before the stock market collapsed, and he tried to do as little as possible -- but he nevertheless tried to do things. He initiated some of the first moves that later became incorporated in the National Industrial Recovery Act under FDR. He is in a sense the creature of the economic currents which he couldn’t control. To some extent that’s true of Barack Obama.

But I think something else is much more important. Herbert Hoover took office before the movements had really had a chance to percolate, before the hardships that inspired those movements had really transformed the ideas of enough people to make collective protest possible. I think that was also true of Barack Obama. The very beginning of 2009 was too early for massive protests to emerge. We saw a beginning with Occupy -- and I was a big fan of Occupy, so I don’t mean to dismiss them by any means. But I’m also very, very cheered, encouraged, by the growing activism among minimum-wage workers in fast food, retail. And that can make a big difference.

And it’s not clear to me that Obama will be the standard-bearer who responds to the movement’s deepest grievances. Maybe, but it may be too late for him.

On this anniversary, how should we assess the track record of the War on Poverty?

My ambivalence at the time -- and my continued ambivalence about the War on Poverty -- was the ambivalence of the left at the time. On the one hand, the War on Poverty was intended to curb an emerging movement among poor people, particularly poor minorities, in the United States. It was intended to co-opt that movement. It was intended to integrate these people into the ranks of the Democratic Party. To make them into voters, to make their leaders into, in a certain sense, machine politicians. That was what it was intended to do.

On the other hand, concessions had to be made, and those concessions became entwined with the growing movement. So that the protest in the North actually made use of the funds that were spent in the cities, and the storefronts that were funded by the poverty program, or the community health centers or whatever. And those, and that kind of symbiosis between the concessions intended to integrate blacks and a growing protest movement, produced a very significant compression in income disparities in the United States, and did a great deal [to] force the expansion of programs and regulations that reduced poverty in the United States.

At the same time, the programs also did succeed in co-opting the black and Hispanic populations at least for a time. It is true that blacks moved into urban politics. They got jobs in municipal governments. They ran for office. We have a Cory Booker in Newark -- and a response, in a way, a long-term response to the Newark riots and the Newark poverty programs. That’s the way it is.

The reason for responses to protest is the effort to placate protesters, and to co-opt them. That’s why responses are made. There may come a time when it’s impossible to co-opt and to integrate, because either the state doesn’t have the resources to do it, or the discontents are so deep. In a way, I don’t look forward to that time, because I don’t know then what will happen.

But until then, as I see it, the purpose of a protest is to force efforts to co-opt people by responding to their grievances. Along with those responses to their grievances will be the responses which are intended to pull their leadership, and to soothe people without dealing in a significant way with their grievances. It will be messy in that sense, but still something is happening.

By Josh Eidelson

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