November 2011, Week 1


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Mon, 7 Nov 2011 21:57:15 -0500
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The War Against the Poor Occupy Wall Street and the
Politics of Financial Morality 

By Frances Fox Piven



We've been at war for decades now -- not just in
Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home.
Domestically, it's been a war against the poor, but if
you hadn't noticed, that's not surprising. You wouldn't
often have found the casualty figures from this
particular conflict in your local newspaper or on the
nightly TV news.  Devastating as it's been, the war
against the poor has gone largely unnoticed -- until

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the
concentration of wealth at the top of this society a
central issue in American politics.  Now, it promises
to do something similar when it comes to the realities
of poverty in this country.

By making Wall Street its symbolic target, and branding
itself as a movement of the 99%, OWS has redirected
public attention to the issue of extreme inequality,
which it has recast as, essentially, a moral problem. 
Only a short time ago, the "morals" issue in politics
meant the propriety of sexual preferences, reproductive
behavior, or the personal behavior of presidents. 
Economic policy, including tax cuts for the rich,
subsidies and government protection for insurance and
pharmaceutical companies, and financial deregulation,
was shrouded in clouds of propaganda or simply
considered too complex for ordinary Americans to grasp.

Now, in what seems like no time at all, the fog has
lifted and the topic on the table everywhere seems to
be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism.
The protestors have accomplished this mainly through
the symbolic power of their actions: by naming Wall
Street, the heartland of financial capitalism, as the
enemy, and by welcoming the homeless and the
down-and-out to their occupation sites.  And of course,
the slogan "We are the 99%" reiterated the message that
almost all of us are suffering from the reckless
profiteering of a tiny handful.  (In fact, they aren't
far off: the increase in income of the top 1% over the
past three decades about equals the losses of the
bottom 80%.)

The movement's moral call is reminiscent of earlier
historical moments when popular uprisings invoked ideas
of a "moral economy" to justify demands for bread or
grain or wages -- for, that is, a measure of economic
justice.  Historians usually attribute popular ideas of
a moral economy to custom and tradition, as when the
British historian E.P. Thompson traced the idea of a
"just price" for basic foodstuffs invoked by eighteenth
century English food rioters to then already
centuries-old Elizabethan statutes.  But the rebellious
poor have never simply been traditionalists.  In the
face of violations of what they considered to be their
customary rights, they did not wait for the magistrates
to act, but often took it upon themselves to enforce
what they considered to be the foundation of a just
moral economy.

Being Poor By the Numbers

A moral economy for our own time would certainly take
on the unbridled accumulation of wealth at the expense
of the majority (and the planet).  It would also single
out for special condemnation the creation of an
ever-larger stratum of people we call "the poor" who
struggle to survive in the shadow of the
overconsumption and waste of that top 1%.

Some facts: early in 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau
reported that 14.3% of the population, or 47 million
people -- one in six Americans -- were living below the
official poverty threshold, currently set at $22,400
annually for a family of four. Some 19 million people
are living in what is called extreme poverty, which
means that their household income falls in the bottom
half of those considered to be below the poverty line. 
More than a third of those extremely poor people are
children.  Indeed, more than half of all children
younger than six living with a single mother are poor. 
Extrapolating from this data, Emily Monea and Isabel
Sawhill of the Brookings Institution estimate that
further sharp increases in both poverty and child
poverty rates lie in our American future.

Some experts dispute these numbers on the grounds that
they neither take account of the assistance that the
poor still receive, mainly through the food stamp
program, nor of regional variations in the cost of
living.  In fact, bad as they are, the official numbers
don't tell the full story.  The situation of the poor
is actually considerably worse. The official poverty
line is calculated as simply three times the minimal
food budget first introduced in 1959, and then adjusted
for inflation in food costs.  In other words, the
American poverty threshold takes no account of the cost
of housing or fuel or transportation or health-care
costs, all of which are rising more rapidly than the
cost of basic foods. So the poverty measure grossly
understates the real cost of subsistence.

Moreover, in 2006, interest payments on consumer debt
had already put more than four million people, not
officially in poverty, below the line, making them
"debt poor."  Similarly, if childcare costs, estimated
at $5,750 a year in 2006, were deducted from gross
income, many more people would be counted as officially

Nor are these catastrophic levels of poverty merely a
temporary response to rising unemployment rates or
reductions in take-home pay resulting from the great
economic meltdown of 2008.  The numbers tell the story
and it's clear enough: poverty was on the rise before
the Great Recession hit.  Between 2001 and 2007,
poverty actually increased for the first time on record
during an economic recovery.  It rose from 11.7% in
2001 to 12.5% in 2007.  Poverty rates for single
mothers in 2007 were 49% higher in the U.S. than in 15
other high-income countries.  Similarly, black
employment rates and income were declining before the
recession struck.

In part, all of this was the inevitable fallout from a
decades-long business mobilization to reduce labor
costs by weakening unions and changing public policies
that protected workers and those same unions.  As a
result, National Labor Board decisions became far less
favorable to both workers and unions, workplace
regulations were not enforced, and the minimum wage
lagged far behind inflation.

Inevitably, the overall impact of the campaign to
reduce labor's share of national earnings meant that a
growing number of Americans couldn't earn even a
poverty-level livelihood -- and even that's not the
whole of it.  The poor and the programs that assisted
them were the objects of a full-bore campaign directed
specifically at them.

Campaigning Against the Poor

This attack began even while the Black Freedom Movement
of the 1960s was in full throttle.  It was already
evident in the failed 1964 presidential campaign of
Republican Barry Goldwater, as well as in the recurrent
campaigns of sometime Democrat and segregationist
governor of Alabama George Wallace. Richard Nixon's
presidential bid in 1968 picked up on the theme.

As many commentators have pointed out, his triumphant
campaign strategy tapped into the rising racial
animosities not only of white southerners, but of a
white working class in the north that suddenly found
itself locked in competition with newly urbanized
African-Americans for jobs, public services, and
housing, as well as in campaigns for school
desegregation.  The racial theme quickly melded into
political propaganda targeting the poor and
contemporary poor-relief programs.  Indeed, in American
politics "poverty," along with "welfare," "unwed
mothers," and "crime," became code words for blacks.

In the process, resurgent Republicans tried to defeat
Democrats at the polls by associating them with blacks
and with liberal policies meant to alleviate poverty.
One result was the infamous "war on drugs" that largely
ignored major traffickers in favor of the lowest level
offenders in inner-city communities. Along with that
came a massive program of prison building and
incarceration, as well as the wholesale "reform" of the
main means-tested cash assistance program, Aid to
Families of Dependent Children.  This politically
driven attack on the poor proved just the opening drama
in a decades-long campaign launched by business and the
organized right against workers.

This was not only war against the poor, but the very
"class war" that Republicans now use to brand just
about any action they don't like.  In fact, class war
was the overarching goal of the campaign, something
that would soon enough become apparent in policies that
led to a massive redistribution of the burden of
taxation, the cannibalization of government services
through privatization, wage cuts and enfeebled unions,
and the deregulation of business, banks, and financial

The poor -- and blacks -- were an endlessly useful
rhetorical foil, a propagandistic distraction used to
win elections and make bigger gains. Still, the
rhetoric was important.  A host of new think tanks,
political organizations, and lobbyists in Washington
D.C. promoted the message that the country's problems
were caused by the poor whose shiftlessness, criminal
inclinations, and sexual promiscuity were being
indulged by a too-generous welfare system.

Genuine suffering followed quickly enough, along with
big cuts in the means-tested programs that helped the
poor.  The staging of the cuts was itself enwreathed in
clouds of propaganda, but cumulatively they frayed the
safety net that protected both the poor and workers,
especially low-wage ones, which meant women and
minorities. When Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office
in 1980, the path had been smoothed for huge cuts in
programs for poor people, and by the 1990s the
Democrats, looking for electoral strategies that would
raise campaign dollars from big business and put them
back in power, took up the banner. It was Bill Clinton,
after all, who campaigned on the slogan "end welfare as
we know it."

A Movement for a Moral Economy

The war against the poor at the federal level was soon
matched in state capitols where organizations like the
American Federation for Children, the American
Legislative Exchange Council, the Institute for
Liberty, and the State Policy Network went to work.
Their lobbying agenda was ambitious, including the
large-scale privatization of public services, business
tax cuts, the rollback of environmental regulations and
consumer protections, crippling public sector unions,
and measures (like requiring photo identification) that
would restrict the access students and the poor had to
the ballot.  But the poor were their main public target
and again, there were real life consequences -- welfare
cutbacks, particularly in the Aid to Families with
Dependent Children program, and a law-and-order
campaign that resulted in the massive incarceration of
black men.

The Great Recession sharply worsened these trends. The
Economic Policy Institute reports that the typical
working-age household, which had already seen a decline
of roughly $2,300 in income between 2000 and 2006, lost
another $2,700 between 2007 and 2009.  And when
"recovery" arrived, however uncertainly, it was mainly
in low-wage industries, which accounted for nearly half
of what growth there was.  Manufacturing continued to
contract, while the labor market lost 6.1% of payroll
employment.  New investment, when it occurred at all,
was more likely to be in machinery than in new workers,
so unemployment levels remain alarmingly high.  In
other words, the recession accelerated ongoing market
trends toward lower-wage and ever more insecure

The recession also prompted further cutbacks in welfare
programs.  Because cash assistance has become so hard
to get, thanks to so-called welfare reform, and
fallback state-assistance programs have been crippled,
the federal food stamp program has come to carry much
of the weight in providing assistance to the poor. 
Renamed the "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance
Program," it was boosted by funds provided in the
Recovery Act, and benefits temporarily rose, as did
participation.  But Congress has repeatedly attempted
to slash the program's funds, and even to divert some
of them into farm subsidies, while efforts, not yet
successful, have been made to deny food stamps to any
family that includes a worker on strike.

The organized right justifies its draconian policies
toward the poor with moral arguments.  Right-wing think
tanks and blogs, for instance, ponder the damaging
effect on disabled poor children of becoming
"dependent" on government assistance, or they
scrutinize government nutritional assistance for poor
pregnant women and children in an effort to explain
away positive outcomes for infants.

The willful ignorance and cruelty of it all can leave
you gasping -- and gasp was all we did for decades.
This is why we so desperately needed a movement for a
new kind of moral economy.  Occupy Wall Street, which
has already changed the national conversation, may well
be its beginning.

Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the Graduate
School of the City University of New York.  She is the
author, along with Richard Cloward, of Regulating the
Poor and Poor People's Movements.  Her latest book,
just published, is Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?
The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck
Loves to Hate (The New Press).  To listen to Timothy
MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Piven
discusses Glenn Beck's bizarre fascination with her
click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Frances Fox Piven

(c) 2011 TomDispatch. All rights reserved. View this
story online at:

. . . [Intro} And speaking of such movements, if you've read the
final essays in the remarkable new book Who's Afraid of
Frances Fox Piven?, an essential guide to the writings
of the activist and professor "Glenn Beck loves to
hate," then you know that no one came closer than her
to predicting the rise of OWS.  Having covered the fate
of the poor memorably for almost half a century, Piven,
whom Cornel West calls "a living legend," has a bead on
the "war" these vets are now facing on the American
home front.


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