November 2011, Week 3


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The War Against the Poor and Occupy Wall Street
The Politics of Financial Morality 

By Frances Fox Piven 
November 7, 2011


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 now.

until now."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." (Creative
Commons | Wikimedia | Brian Sims)

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

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 poor.

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 institutions.

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 employment.

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.

© 2011 Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven is professor of political science and
sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York, where she has taught since 1982. 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). She is the author and co-author of numerous
books, including The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of
Bush's Militarism (2004) and Challenging Authority: How
Ordinary People Change America (2006), and has received
career and lifetime achievement awards fromt he American
Sociological Association and the American Political Science
Association. Frances has been featured on Democracy Now!, and
regular contributor to The Nation


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