A noted expert on the history of U.S. poverty and social change predicted a return to grassroots organizing to fight poverty under the Obama administration.

Francis Fox Piven, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, said that the current economic recession offers fuel to spark grassroots movements similar to those in the 1930s and the 1960s, when major legislation created social welfare programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance and others.

Piven gave the keynote address to an audience of 300 on Jan. 12 at the Graduate School of Social Service’s annual Entitlements and Benefits Conference at the Lincoln Center and Westchester campuses.

In the last 40 years, said Piven, the American business community has initiated strong governmental lobbies to effect legislation that would roll back regulations on safety requirements, a minimum hourly wage and environmental regulations. In addition, they have made an “outright assault” on social safety net programs while lobbying for corporate tax cuts and other benefits, and have used propaganda to shift the focus of politics to social issues such as same-sex marriage.

The result, Piven said, is that in 2007 some 37 million Americans lived below the poverty level of $21,000 for a family or four; half of those households lived at the “extreme poverty” level, with an income below $10,600.

“Real term” wages have been falling since 1970, she said. The United States also has the largest income gap between rich and poor in the industrialized world, and ranks 25th in its infant mortality rate.

“What the economic crisis is already doing is exposing the kind of crackpot ride that we have been on, a ride fueled by the financiers and the CEOs and their political agents,” Piven said. “Their policies were short run, greedy policies that brought us to this place, and people are beginning to see it.”

President Barack Obama’s use of the rhetoric of American populism to win the White House, observed Piven, is similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s rhetoric in the 1930s.

“But Obama is still a politician… who might bend to the political currents at his back,” she cautioned.

Piven credited the populist movements of the 1930s with forcing the creation of agricultural and housing assistance and workers’ rights gains that “made the New Deal.” Grassroots movements today, including organized social workers, can play a role in putting pressure on the Obama administration from the bottom up, so that he will “make good on his rhetoric.”

She cited the recent action by a group of downsized Republic Windows and Doors workers in Chicago, who occupied their factory for six days until owners gave them benefits they were owed. The action was reportedly the first major organized factory occupation in the United States by unionized workers since the 1930s.

“If these movements emerge, maybe we will begin to undo some of the damage that has been done,” Piven said.

Piven is the author of several books on poverty and social movements, including Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (Pantheon, 1971). Her keynote speech was simultaneously video-conferenced to GSS students at Fordham’s Westchester campus.

The half-day conference included several workshops designed to educate social work students on how to assist clients in obtaining benefits available to them, said conference organizer Ji Seon Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work.


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]