Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The War Against the Poor and Occupy Wall Street

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.


"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 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 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).



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