The Cloward-Piven Strategy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The American political landscape is full of interesting ideas and challenges. In this lesson, we'll talk about the Cloward-Piven Strategy, a controversial gambit used to create real change in some radical ways.

The Cloward-Piven Strategy

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Of course, if it ain't fixed--break it. That's the basic theory behind one of the most controversial American political theories of the 20th century. The Cloward-Piven Strategy is a political gambit designed to overwhelm the American government by placing so many demands on the bureaucratic structure that it collapses. It's sort of a shock-and-awe campaign, a surprise attack on entrenched systems meant to force major changes to the ways that things are handled by the government. It may be messy, but it does harken back to a fundamental ideology of the American Republic: if it ain't fixed, break it.

Background

To understand the Cloward-Piven Strategy, we need to head back to the 1960s. The nation was swept up in a decade of political activism and, at times, almost revolutionary campaigns against entrenched systems of racism and prejudice. Also, there were hippies. It's always important to remember that. Anyway, in 1965 a race riot broke out in a traditionally African American neighborhood of Los Angeles after a heavy use of police force to subdue a black man accused of drunk driving. It was only one of many race riots to occur throughout American cities in that decade.

Race riots of the 1960s helped inspire the Cloward-Piven Strategy.
Harlem riots

It was evident that something needed to change, and two sociologists from Columbia University developed a plan. According to Richard Andrew Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, the wealthy used the welfare system to keep the poor subjugated, to maintain institutional systems of inequality. This prevented real change from occurring and disproportionately impacted African Americans, many of whom lived in working class urban neighborhoods. As Cloward would state in a later interview, the poor could only advance when the rest of society learned to fear them. They needed a revolution.

A Strategy to End Poverty

In 1966, Cloward and Piven published their theories in the May issue of Nation, in an article called 'The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.' They observed that at the time, about 8 million African Americans were on welfare, while roughly 16 million were technically eligible. Thus, they proposed a massive campaign to recruit African Americans into the welfare system. They claimed that if the welfare system was inundated, the bureaucracy would shatter and collapse, leading to a massive economic crisis. In this context, the poor had the power to make their voices heard, demand actual political change, and introduce a system of wealth redistribution that could balance the scales of equality once and for all.

Impact

The Cloward-Piven Strategy was a revolutionary ideology, and in the political climate of the 1960s, it caught on. People protested, rioted, and enrolled in welfare at a tremendous rate. This had the biggest impact in New York City, where roughly 1/3 of the adult population got on welfare, causing the city to declare bankruptcy in 1975. The city's political infrastructure crumbled, which almost brought down the entire state.

Since this strategy was a surprise tactic, its immediate effectiveness soon wore off, but the impact didn't. The crash of New York illustrated to many that Cloward and Piven's basic theories were correct, and sparked a reform movement demanding a total overhaul of the welfare system. The direct result of this was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which tightened restrictions for welfare eligibility and increased work requirements. The goal was to make it a federal safety net for the unemployed, but not something that could be used to hold the poor in generational cycles of poverty. When President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, Cloward and Piven were standing in attendance as his personal guests.

President Clinton signed legislation in 1996 created largely in response to the efforts of Cloward and Piven.
Clinton

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