Saturday, March 10, 2007

Let Us Make Man, pt. 4 - In as much as the program advanced by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven (previously discussed elsewhere) depended upon "a national Democratic administration [that] would be constrained to advance a federal solution to poverty" it achieved a modicum of success. Although their efforts never led to the implementation of any sort of guaranteed national income, they seemed to provide impetus for President Nixon to propose a Family Assistance Plan that would provide a guaranteed income of $1,600 to a typical family of four, along with up to $864 in food stamps. For his part, the National Welfare Rights Organization's (NWRO) George Wiley called the legislation "an act of political repression" noting that the $1,600 was insufficient. Their work definitely lead to an increase in welfare rolls across the country and significantly contributed to NYC’s declaring bankruptcy in 1975 (as by 1970-71, the city was budgeting nearly $1.8 billion for AFDC and Medicaid.) In a July 20, 1998 speech, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani described the effectiveness of the Cloward-Piven strategy.

For a time welfare functioned, both around the nation and in New York City, as a bridge to self-sufficiency. It offered temporary help when people needed help but, as quickly and as reasonably as possible, a movement back to the workforce so that you can be your own self-sufficient human being. However, beginning in the sixties, the system began to expand rapidly. This happened around the country but most dramatically it happened in the City of New York. . . Between 1960 and 1967 the size of the welfare rolls more than tripled. The 1960s began with about 250,000 people on welfare; by 1968 there were 800,000 people on welfare. From that point forward it would never drop below 800,000 any day, any month, or any year between 1968 and February of this year.

This was not a period of economic depression. It wasn’t a period of economic decline. In fact, the mid-1960s to the late 1960s was some of our greatest boom periods in the history of this country. This is not an effect of our national or city economy. This is the result of policies and programs designed to have the maximum number of people get on welfare. This is the period of time in which it changed from a program of enablement, a program in which you would help people for a period of time and enable them to get back to taking care of themselves and their families, to the word entitlement – to a program of entitlement – and the effect of the change in philosophy from enablement to entitlement was maybe 700,000 to 800,000 to 900,000 to maybe a million additional people on welfare than had been the case before.
The damage done during this period of American history, and the carelessness with which this program was engaged, cannot be overlooked or overstated. Here you had a pair of privileged white elites whose only concern was to create economic havoc for the federal government in order to encourage some form of guaranteed income for all Americans. And in order to achieve this end, they were willing to use millions of faceless and ultimately powerless blacks as implements. As one reads A Strategy to End Poverty, two things become apparent. First, one is struck by Cloward and Piven’s temerity in that they would presume to be able to single-handedly eradicate poverty in America. But secondly, it becomes clear that Cloward and Piven gave no thought to the long term effects of their scheme.

Theirs was not a plan designed to improve the educational, political of social standing of the poor. To Cloward and Piven, inner city blacks were just another one of the "elements in the big-city Democratic coalition." By putting their plan into effect, Richard Cloward, Frances Fox Piven, George Wiley and the entire NWRO organization expanded the reach and impact of the welfare system into the lives of impoverished blacks. And by widening the scope of a program that "hunted after-hours for a man in the house," the Cloward-Piven experiment contributed terribly to the breakup of untold millions of poor and minority families by depriving them of the benefits of a consistent male presence.

In so doing, Cloward and Piven’s experiment did seemingly irreparable damage to the body politic of America. It effectively brought about the end of the civil rights movement as a force for moral excellence, and brought about the advent of the "civil wrongs" movement. Whereas the civil rights struggle was about equality and empowerment, the civil wrongs movement has everything to do with avoidance of responsibility and a sense of entitlement, the results of which are evident in many benighted communities yet today. And the NWRO's part in all of this is not confined to the 1960s. At George Wiley’s direction, organizers in Little Rock began the development of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The goal of ACORN was to expand the NWRO's constituency beyond minorities and welfare recipients, to include the working poor and unemployed, veterans and schoolchildren.†

In their attempts to incite at social upheaval by any means necessary, Cloward and Piven attempted to contravene an often under-appreciated imperative for those striving for upward mobility. That is, before one can enter the middle class economically, one must first enter it behaviorally. As generations of teenage minimum-wage earning burger flippers will attest, it is important to learn the middle class habits of responsibility, dependability and self-motivation at a formative age. By breaking the linkages between labor and reward for millions of impoverished people, the Cloward-Piven experiment created a disincentive against middle class behavior, thereby entrenching the poor into self destructive behaviors.

† Unfortunately, ACORN never abandoned its roots in the welfare-rights agenda. With offices in over 100 cities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, ACORN has had one of its latest successes in its "Living Wage" campaign, claiming recent victories in Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois. Predictably, it has served largely as an adjunct of the Democratic Party, with former senator John Edwards helping to kick off its minimum wage ballot initiative in June 2006. The irony is that when California regulators sued ACORN for not paying its own workers the minimum wage, ACORN argued that such regulations were unconstitutional "because they restrict ACORN’s ability to engage in political advocacy."

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