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Won’t Somebody Please Help Frances Fox Piven?

Glenn Beck is the least of her problems.

By 1.26.11

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Big news! Glenn Beck has discovered the 1960s writings of Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, the husband-and-wife team that gave birth to the Welfare Rights Movement and plotted the bankruptcy of the federal government. Cloward died in 2001 but Piven, now 78, is still teaching at the City University of New York Graduate Center and writing manifestos for The Nation.

Cloward and Piven -- ah, those names. To me they have always been an abstraction, some mysterious academics closeted away somewhere on the West Side of Manhattan, directing the armies of the poor to the next barricade from their cloistered hideaway. And oh my, were they effective. I wrote a book about crime in the 1980s and a considerable number of articles about the welfare system in the 1990s and Cloward and Piven were all over the place. To me it's almost startling to find they are real people -- just as Piven, who is now receiving death threats for her writings, must be astonished to find there are actually people out there paying attention to what she has to say.

Cloward seems almost admirable in some respects. He was an ensign in the Navy during World War II and reenlisted in the Army during the Korean War, but then he got into social work at Columbia University and ended up wallowing in the mires of academic sociology. In 1961, he and Lloyd Ohlin, another academic all-star, wrote Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs, which became square one of the "new approach to crime" that dominated the 1960s. Cloward and Ohlin had a simple thesis -- criminals, particularly juvenile delinquents, were just like everybody else: ambitious, red-blooded Americans intent on success. Their only problem was that they were poor and had no legitimate outlets for their ambition. A street kid joining a gang and engaged in petty crime was no different from an affluent suburban youth joining the Young Rotarians and selling hot dogs at a football game. Both were expressing their ambition through the career paths open to them. Crime and delinquency were defined by economic circumstances, or -- as it came to be expressed succinctly -- "poverty causes crime."

The principal corollary to this theory was that the worst thing to do was to put such youth in jail. They only picked up the mores of serious offenders and became hardened criminals. The argument became the foundation of the "deprisonization" movement, which became our national crime policy when Ohlin became a director of President Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice and lead author of The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, published in 1967. Billed as the "Blueprint to Banish Crime Forever," the famous "Crime Report" recommended: a) ending poverty, b) improving education, c) eliminating racial inequality, and d) letting almost everybody out of jail. The deprisonization worked so effectively that, as James Q. Wilson would point out in Thinking About Crime (1975), by 1970 crime rates had tripled yet there were fewer people in prison.

The ensuing crime wave became perhaps America's longest and most brutal undeclared war. I once calculated that if murder rates had remained where they were in 1965 -- and where they have descended once again since we returned to law enforcement in the 1990s -- 500,000 Americans would not have lost their lives. Crime so dominated the national consciousness that it cost Michael Dukakis the 1988 election when he gave a mealy-mouthed answer to Bernard Shaw's question, "What would you do if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered?" (He said he'd call an international drug conference.) It was the #2 item in the Contract With America when the Republicans took over Congress in 1994. Today, with crime rates back to their early 1960s levels -- despite 9 percent unemployment -- the days when theories such as those in Delinquency and Opportunity nearly paralyzed the nation are almost forgotten.

DELINQUENCY AND OPPORTUNITY was indeed a theory. Throughout the book, Cloward and Ohlin barely mentioned a single individual delinquent (although Ohlin had worked as a parole advisor in Illinois). The authors presented no statistics, no research, no real people. It was all theory -- "Criminals are just like you, they just have less opportunity." The personal predilections of criminals toward violence or risk-taking played no part. That unchecked crime turned poor neighborhoods into war zones, that the poor themselves were the principal victims of crime, that crime and its disruption limited the opportunities of thousands of other people -- all were overlooked. But it made a good theory.

In 1966 Cloward and Piven had married and moved on to write "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty," the article in The Nation that 45 years later has captured Glenn Beck's attention. Cloward and Piven suggested a simple, if cynical, strategy for "ending poverty." The welfare law -- the notorious AFDC (Aid to Financially Dependent Children) -- was filled with special allowances for furniture, clothing, and back-to-school expenses that nobody ever claimed. Millions of people were eligible for welfare but never applied. All you had to do, after all, was have a baby out of wedlock. Many states refused to apply these laws while others kept them hidden from applicants. But a full-scale national effort to get everybody signed up for welfare would bankrupt the system, paving the way -- in good Marxist fashion -- for something much better. The "Cloward-Piven Strategy," later expanded into Regulating the Poor (1971), became the foundation of the Welfare Rights Movement, which Cloward and Piven founded in 1968 and whose main accomplishment was to get millions of unwed mothers to apply for government assistance, so that the term "single-parent home" not only entered the lexicon but became a national phenomenon.

I have a bit of personal experience in this story. In the summer of 1969 I went to Alabama to work for the Southern Rural Research Project, an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, which was promoting Welfare Rights in the South. I had been in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and wanted to go back. I was a bit disappointed to find that the emphasis had switched from voting rights to welfare rights, but participated all the same. It was a good experience

I learned, most of all, that welfare was a very destructive system. I saw that almost every teenage girl in town already had a baby but was living at home, turning the baby over to the grandmother while continuing a relatively carefree teenage life. After the second or third child, however, the grandmother would kick her out and she would marry the father of her most recent child. That was how families were formed. I later found by reading Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom and several other books that this pattern can be traced all the way back through slavery and into African cultural patterns. "Children of fortune" (i.e., children of unknown fathers) were commonplace in slavery and remain so in Africa today. Yet families do form. Eighty percent of the families in Gutman's plantation records had two parents and the rate of two-parent families among African-Americans living in Harlem in the 1920s was close to 90 percent.

What the welfare system did was interrupt this process. By the time a teenage girl had her second or third child she didn't need to marry her boyfriend -- she could go on welfare. In fact she would be penalized if she didn't. She would lose her welfare benefits, her Medicaid card, and the general solicitations of the state. Walter Williams is perfectly correct in saying the welfare system destroyed the black family.

I learned other things as well. I learned about human nature. In fact, I always date the beginnings of my conservative leanings to a sunny day that summer when I walked into a cotton field to tell an elderly black man and woman who were tending their crop about the wonders of the welfare system. They were old enough to qualify for Old Age Assistance, I said, and their low income was probably sufficient. Therefore they should accompany me down to the welfare office to apply. They stood there nodding and smiling in that silent way until I suddenly realized the old man had tears in his eyes. It hit me like a thunderbolt. This couple had worked all their lives to achieve what they valued most -- their independence and self-respect -- and now I was telling them they should give it up to become wards of the government. I walked out of that field thinking, "I wonder if I'm doing the right thing down here." It has been a long journey but it started right there.

SO I CONGRATULATE the late Richard Cloward and the late Leonard Ohlin and Frances Fox Piven for all the wonderful theorizing they have accomplished in their careers. Cloward did try once to put his ideas into practice. In 1963 he founded Mobilization for Youth, a government-funded organization dedicated to implementing his theories about delinquency and opportunity. Mobilization for Youth lasted about a decade but in 1968 spawned MFY Legal Services, a federally funded employment opportunity for lawyers that still functions on the Lower East Side of New York long after Mobilization for Youth's original intentions have been forgotten.

I could even feel sorry for Piven, finding herself suddenly the object of wrathful attention after years of living in the cocoon of academia. She is, after all, 78 years old. But then I read what she has been writing recently in The Nation:

An effective movement of the unemployed [in America] will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.

Now I know Piven really doesn't mean what she's saying here. She doesn't want to see the kind of civil disobedience riots where a 34-year-old pregnant mother was burned to death when Greek rioters set fire to a bank -- at least not in her neighborhood. Riots don't involve real people, any more than juvenile delinquency involves real juveniles or welfare rights involves real mothers being urged to spurn wedlock and marry the state. These are just Marxist abstractions -- "the masses" -- waiting to be moved around the chessboard by academic strategists intent on creating a perfect world.

Still it's nice to know that Piven finally realizes there are actual flesh-and-blood people out there reading what she has to say.

Welcome to the real world, Frances.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.