Frances Fox Piven.
In the 1960s, Piven worked with welfare-rights groups to expand benefits; in the eighties and nineties she has campaigned relentlessly against welfare cutbacks disguised as "reforms."
I met Piven thirteen years ago, when she asked me to help her plan the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, of which she was then president. I agreed only because I was thrilled at the idea of working with her. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship. Recently, I worked with Piven in the Women's Committee of 100 to oppose punitive welfare reform.
I interviewed her in her New York apartment on September 10, a few weeks after President Clinton had signed a bill ending the sixty-year-old federal commitment to welfare.
Q: Since Clinton signed the welfare bill, there seems to have been a change of heart among a lot of people. Suddenly, Joe Klein is aghast, writing in Newsweek that he was wrong to have favored welfare "reform" all this time. In the weeks after the signing, everywhere I looked, someone was denouncing Clinton for abandoning the poor. Could we have lost the policy battle and won the war of ideas?
Piven: Well, maybe a lot of liberals just weren't paying close attention for the last few years. Too many of them accepted the argument that welfare generates all these perverse incentives--making people lazy, encouraging them to have babies out of wedlock, etc. But at the same time, they didn't really want to see people simply get cut off And then they got bored with the issue, reassuring themselves that since Clinton had vetoed two welfare-reform bills, he'd veto a third one, too.
Q: But I do think there's been a sudden opinion shift, at least among a lot of pundits. Instead of redounding to Clinton's favor, the bill is being interpreted as a moral test that he was given and that he failed.
Piven: Well, lots of liberals failed, too. The Beltway organizations--women's groups and social-welfare advocacy groups--restricted themselves to an insider strategy. They seemed to think that, say, having a nice lobbying meeting with Leon Panetta was really doing something. What they needed to do was threaten Clinton with some serious political costs if he signed the bill. I don't think he was sure what the reaction would be, and he may have been waiting to find out. But we didn't threaten him with a wide airing of the issue--especially what the bill will do to children. No one went after him, not even Marian Wright Edelman, until after he had announced he would sign the bill. And then it was too late.
Q: How do you account for Edelman's failure to challenge him in any serious way? She organized that "Stand for Children" demonstration last spring, for example, and didn't use the occasion to protest welfare reform.
Piven: Right, you'd think from "Stand for Children" that the biggest problem poor children face is drive-by shootings. But I think that a lot of people like Edelman and others in the Beltway social-welfare advocacy circles think they have a real relationship with Clinton: that they somehow have access. I would have thought Edelman had strained her relationship with him with the op-ed she wrote on welfare in The Washington Post in November 1995, where she did say this was his "moral litmus test." But he did veto one version of the welfare bill after that, so I guess at that point there was still a relationship to preserve.
Q: I would generalize and say that this fantasy of access has been the undoing of the American left since 1992. A lot of terrific people--good organizers and media types--came to believe that they had a friend in the White House and that it was the job of progressives to defend him against the right. I think of Heather Booth actually working for the Administration to build support for the (ugh) Clinton health-reform plan. Imagine if someone of her talents and experience had been working to build the constituency for real, single-payer health reform.
Piven: Yes, and Clinton's defenders on the left have an excuse for what he did to welfare: that he had no choice, he was just a victim of public opinion. But this isn't true. For one thing, he could have done what Bush did--just not raised the issue. Most people don't like welfare, but ask them if poor mothers should have some support and they'll say "yes." Whether they think of welfare recipients as lazy and immoral or simply as poor women trying to raise their children and stay afloat depends to some degree on the images political leaders evoke. People are very susceptible to education and argument on this issue. So Clinton's other option would have been to do some real educating-explaining the plight of poor women, the inadequacy of wages and child care, and so on. But not only did Clinton fail to explain the need for welfare, he actually used the issue to stir up resentment in order to get himself elected. Instead of trying to change the stereotypes and misconceptions, he exploited them to get into office.
Q: So will you vote for Clinton this time?
Piven: No, although I'm not outraged at people who do. It's easy enough for me, voting in New York, because New York will go for him anyway (and if New York doesn't, no one will). The reason not to vote for him, after all, is to deprive him of a landslide. But whether we vote for Clinton or not isn't the biggest question. The biggest question is whether we're going to be able to build a movement to restore welfare. What happened wasn't just because of business pressures or the rightwing agenda or Clinton's opportunism. The larger cause was simply that there was nothing to stop them. We only have welfare "as we know it" because of the disruptive social movements of the 1930s and 1960s, and those movements have been severely weakened. Labor is very damaged, for example.
And the women's movement has been weakened by the relative success of upper-middle-class women in getting into the professions and management. Women still face plenty of problems, but there isn't the same urgency to feminism that there was twenty years ago. It's puzzling: We know from poll data there is a lot of discontent among women and disaffection from the Republican-Democratic program. But this discontent isn't being shaped into protest by the organizations that grew out of the feminist movement.
Q: It seems to me that if we don't vote for Clinton we're taking the responsibility to help build some real political alternatives. Like the New Party.
Piven: Absolutely, but we have the responsibility to help build a progressive third party whether or not we vote for Clinton.
Q: But then I read, in In These Times, New Party founder Joel Rogers sounding rather cavalier about the elimination of our "fundamentally flawed" welfare program, as if it would be easier now to replace it with something better. [Rogers later objected to the story, saying that his comments were rewritten and did not reflect what he believes about welfare.]
Piven: I get very irritated by the argument that welfare is flawed and therefore it can't be defended. This was one of the Achilles' heels in the left defense of welfare. Theda Skocpol said something like that in The New Republic: that we have to smash it so we can start all over again. This is crazy. We're going to have to start all over fighting for every dollar, every single entitlement. It's a whole lot easier to reform something that's in place than to start from scratch and have to reestablish the very notion that people have a right to support. If a program is flawed, you work to fix it. You don't smash it.
Q: It's the same problem with so many public services, like schools. They're terribly flawed, but they still have to be defended. This is something the left always has trouble with: How to defend flawed programs from cutbacks while at the very same time not losing sight of those flaws and the need for much more profound and basic reforms (and I mean "reform" in the old-fashioned sense, not as a euphemism for "destroy").
Piven: The big flaws of welfare are that it keeps people too poor and that its procedures humiliate them. Programs that demean people tend not to have a lot of public support. But of course the steps outlined in the new bill will only worsen these flaws: People will be even poorer and will face even more humiliating restrictions and investigations.
Q: So what are we going to do in response? And the arena won't be the federal government anymore. It will be fifty states, each going its own way.
Piven: Yes, and the states can do pretty much whatever they want under the bill--except give aid to people for too long. That's the only restriction, an upper limit on what they can do.
One worry I have is that the consequences will be invisible. State governments aren't closer to people than the federal government-in some ways they're farther away and harder to keep track of or to influence. So our first task is going to have to be to document the effects of the cuts: the cuts in benefits, all the new sanctions that will be imposed on those who "misbehave," the new time limits. When many able-bodied adults were cut off general relief a few years ago, a lot of them just disappeared from public view. Eventually there were studies showing that, years later, only about 20 percent of the men cut off had found employment. The rest were homeless, and some were too sick to work. We can't let the families that are cut off AFDC disappear like that. We have to do two things: monitor what the states are doing and publicize what is happening to the poor themselves. We have to keep poor people's lives in public view. Groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities will be monitoring what the states are doing and the impact on people. So one task for community groups is to publicize this information.
Q: So we monitor what's happening and document the disastrous effects. It seems kind of cold to just do that. I find myself wanting to organize some kind of charitable response, some kind of actual aid. I know it's a terrible defeat to go from an entitlement to charity, but a lot of kids aren't going to have winter jackets, stuff like that. And I can't think of a better way to focus on the plight of the post-welfare poor than by appealing to middle-class people with concrete cases of hardship.
Piven: Extending oneself to others is always good. It's the essentially human thing to do. But I worry about charitable approaches, too. For one thing, people will delude themselves into believing that by collecting canned goods for the poor or whatever, that they're really accomplishing something. The other problem is to figure out how to do charitable work in a way that forces the middle class to respect these people and their struggles, rather than pitying them. Maybe we need a combination of direct aid with a program of documentation.
Q: The problem is going to be to get middle-class attention.
Piven: The way to do that is to focus on what happens to children. I don't like a total focus on children--what about the adults? They deserve our attention and concern, too. But our trump card is that this crazy punitive policy is being applied to kids, who obviously are in no way responsible for their situation. You can argue that the adults have been damaged by "dependency," but dependency is part of the condition of childhood, and you can hardly blame kids for being "dependent."
Q: But conservatives have been going after children in a big way. In the hysteria about child crime, which Mike Males has written about, poor children are being described as potential "predators"--which is a way of saying that they aren't even human and certainly not deserving of love.
Piven: True, as soon as they become adolescents, everyone's afraid of them. But younger children are still seen as human and deserving. Even George Will and other conservative intellectuals are distressed about what's going to happen to the children.
Q: So what would you tell people to do? It's not enough just to tell people to monitor the effects. We need a very specific focus. Before the bill was signed, the focus was on getting Clinton not to sign it. Do we have a similar legislative focus now?
Piven: One thing to do would be to try to pass the Wellstone Amendment, which would mandate the federal government itself to do the monitoring. Then, in a year or two, when we have the results coming in, showing the effects.
Q: Increases in infant mortality, in homelessness, tuberculosis, malnutrition, etc.
Piven: Yeah, then we go to Clinton with these results, push them in his face, and demand that he restore welfare.
Q: And college students, what should they think of doing? Piven: We need something along the lines of Union Summer. It should be like VISTA, with the volunteers being resource people for advocacy and organizing in poor communities. And with the near-destruction of Legal Aid, there's an awful lot of advocacy that needs doing.
Q: So have we come up with a specific agenda for progressive groups that want to be involved?
Piven: Yes, we have one. First, find out who or what committee is doing the planning to create the welfare program for your state. Try to get represented on that committee. With or without representation, lobby and harass it. Secondly, start monitoring the effects of cutbacks at the grassroots level. If we can make the federal government do that through something like the Wellstone Amendment, fine. Either way, the aim should be to come back to Clinton in a couple of years with the awful consequences of what he's done and demand that he rebuild a welfare program. But to do that we're going to need more than documentation. We're going to need a political movement willing to be disruptive, and willing to exert real pressure by threatening Democratic politicians with the loss of their jobs.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "The Snarling Citizen," a collection of essays about the 1990s.