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The War Against the Poor

Posted on Nov 7, 2011
[casey] (CC-BY-ND)

By Frances Fox Piven

(Page 2)

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. 


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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.

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By Zeitgeist, November 11, 2011 at 7:13 am Link to this comment

Hind sight makes everyone wise. There is no point in blaming bankers or corporations
or even the government of ” we the people “. The fault is every bodies..we all enjoyed
while the going was good ,unquestionably ,uncritically, unsuspecting believing blindly
Nobel Laurates , Economist theoreticians,forgetting ethics. By indulging in excessive
consumerism, we took pride that some of us could become unbelievably wealthy and
irresponsibly even dreamed that everyone could also, just by virtue of being an
American.. All of us who didn’t have the means also started behaving mindlessly like
millionaires reveling in rank consumerism, without tarrying to think where was the
money coming from.If the bankers and the corporations exploited our own debauchery,
who should take the blame? All of us were alike in our unreasonable pursuit of
happiness. So stop it !  Let’s get down to basic work. We all are now paying for our
over- vaulting ambition and “we the glorious 99% ” are in our ” finest hour” to borrow
the pithy phrase from Winston Churchill.
The bottom- line of the remedy is to bring back to America “manufacturing and

production of GOODS sending the money-grabbing “Financial Service industry” into the
back offices where they should have belonged to in the first place. We should not
allow the ” services ” to boss over industry.Abolish the designation,“Finance Manager”
They are there to SERVE the activity of Production and Manufacturing of Goods and,
Trade and Commerce, on the terms and conditions dictated by the manufacturing and
marketing sectors.The bankers must take orders and not give them. Our mistake was
in giving Finance Managers and the Economists, undue importance. Their fancy
theories were a total dis- connect from human beings ;  centering only on generating
greedy profits for a few shareholders. It was a zero- sum game touted as a win- win
game that has brought this “cancerous growth ” .We must now,together fight it out by
becoming more sensible and moderate and realistic in our habits .We have found out
that excessive consumerism does bring in prosperity to the rich only but not to the
consuming society that does not produce any Goods. Pollution brought out by
manufacturing could be dealt with effectively . SO, START MANUFACTURING AND

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By Nikki Alexander, November 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm Link to this comment

I always wonder why human beings are poor to begin with. What kind of political-economic system creates poverty in the first place and how could we conceive an alternative system?

Think about the N’avi in Avatar and the arrival of the Sky People.

We need to start from scratch and ask the right questions.

Abundance is natural - we see it everywhere in nature. What is interfering with natural abundance and depriving so many people (and other species) of their inherent ability to be in dynamic exchange with the world around them?

Identify the mechanisms that produce scarcity and inflict poverty on most of the human race. These are man-made, artificial mechanisms conceived by antisocial minds that we blindly accept as if there is no alternative.

How can there be such a thing as the “working poor”? If you are working you shouldn’t BE poor.

This system is rigged to favor a select few at the expense of everyone else. We can change that if we study the system itself and ask, “What conditions would foster well-being for the whole society?”

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By Morpheus, November 9, 2011 at 9:42 pm Link to this comment

Wall Street is not the cause, it is a SYMPTOM!
We can’t afford to get distracted.

Read “Common Sense 3.1” at ( )

We don’t have to live like this. “Spread the News”

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By goredbytheright, November 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t condemn the rich for being rich.
Whether they were born into it or earned it through hard work, I have no problem with them.
What I do condemn is when they completely stack the deck against others or buy influence so they can take what little the guy at the bottom has left over, such as pensions , Social Security, and Medicare, which the guy at the bottom has also sacrificed for in the form of lower wages and deductions.
Middle Class and the poor folks are not criminals although quite a few people treat them as such.

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By Textynn, November 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t think it’s a mistake that in the past the news started at 5:00 which was the minute most working people finished their work day and were heading home and then again at 10:00 at night when most working people were already sacked out because they had to hit it again at 7:00 am.  Up until now, we only heard a miniscule fraction of what the OnePercent were doing to us and who the major players were, and then that was heavily spun.  NO MORE!! AND THEIR FREE RIDE IS OVER.  WE ARE DONE SUPPORTING THESE UNAPPRECIATIVE PARASITICAL SOCIOPATHS. FOREVER.

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By anaman51, November 9, 2011 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment

I’m not asking for anything special from my government. All I want is what I was told would be waiting for me in the event that my entire life’s work came to nothing: enough support to live out my days without having to eat cat food to survive. It was supposed to be a given, this end-of-life support, the same support my parents had when they retired. It was supposed to be provided by this nation in return for my lifetime of hard work, the same nation I helped build, one house at a time.

Realistically, not everyone can achieve the American Dream. Many of us work hard all our lives only to see it come to nothing in the end. There was nothing left of our paychecks after the bills were paid to put money aside for retirement. In my case, I worked until my body broke down, and I had no choice but to stand down. I served in the Navy when I was young, but all the benefits that were supposed to come with that service have been taken away. That seems to be the government theme these days, to take away what was promised and leave the helpless even moreso.

Yes, it’s class warfare, and it’s been going on ever since The New Deal came into being. The GOP feels that only the rich deserve to live decently after sixty, and they’re making sure the poor are punished accordingly for not having the decency to kill themselves once they became unable to pay taxes any longer.

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By o.i.812, November 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So a few are supremely wealthy and use that wealth to influence, well, whomever,
whatever.  So be it.  Some use it for good.  I somewhat understand the complaint,
the poor me, having struggled through low paying jobs in uncomfortable
situations while the voice inside me is screaming, nigger, slave.  It makes it hard
to spend money on shitty food in Cisco restaurants, on new anything.  Being
money poor leads to time rich- and how you choose to spend that defines your
poverty.  What is your ripple effect going to be?

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By EmileZ, November 8, 2011 at 12:50 pm Link to this comment

I would love to see this article turned into a feature length documentary, or even a longer, more sprawling, six-part, sort of reverse “Eyes On The Prize”.

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By balkas, November 8, 2011 at 11:48 am Link to this comment

the time cldn’t be riper to finally stop dichotomizing us
system of rule into two systems: republican one and
democratic the other.

verbally one can do that and the onepercent [or is it
anywhere from 0001% to 30% ?] will surely continue
doing that.

splitting asunder verbally what cannot be split asunder
empirically is one of the oldest ruses ever employed for
enserfment of people.

it is of enormous value to the clero-sybaritic-wasteful
class of extremely selfish people to keep splitting
people into two categories [or any shade in between]:
godful and godless, good, and evil, smart and stupid,
hopeful and hopeless, lazy and not lazy, deserving and
undeserving, peaceful and warlike, educated and
uneducated, etc.

[did u guyz know that pristine and highly civilized
societies such as indigenes of n.america and much of
afrika had no word “stupid” to limn [and thus abuse] a

ok! i made this up—only partially, tho! but it makes
lots of sense to not call people stupid, regardless!

on level of doing things, one cld split u.s politicians
into two categories: asocialist [for greater and ever
greater inequality, fears, insecurities, bloodbaths] and
socialist [for ever greater equality, peace,
interdependence, etc.]

[and guess which category is being demonized?]

alas, in u.s 99.9999% of all u.s judges, cia/fia, army
echelons, columnists, ‘educators’, politicians fall in the
former category.
mathematics don’t lie. they are very educational. and
the ratio of prowar, anti-equallity, etc., say, just
politicians in u.s., to that of antiwar ones appears from
10k-100k to one.
now, that’s educational! tnx

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By gw2007, November 8, 2011 at 11:43 am Link to this comment

The Associated Press released today that there are 49 million Americans living in poverty; that’s 1 1/2 Canadas. Shamefull. Tax the rich and corporations who are stashing 9 trillion US$ in offshore accounts to avoid taxes according to the Boston Research Group. Communism’s looking good based on these numbers. After all, Wallmart would not last a day without China.

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By BrooklynDame, November 8, 2011 at 11:25 am Link to this comment

I loathe the term ‘class warfare’ as it’s currently being used.  There is a war but it’s
certainly not on equal terms; one side has nearly all the tools they need at their
disposal (including lobbyists, media spin doctors and bought-and-paid-for
elected officials) while the other side is consistently vilified and told that it is
greedy for just wanting a seat at the table. There’s a war but the 1% declared it
against the rest of us years ago.

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By mrfreeze, November 8, 2011 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

But….but…. Just talk with some of my conservative friends who always have two things to say about poverty (especially in America):

1) It’s a lifestyle choice….if you’re poor, you deserve to be poor. It’s your own fault… harder, “become entrepreneurial,” embrace “the American Dream,” read “Think and Grow Rich,” “get a better attitude,” “they should have studied harder in school,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah….......

2) And my favorite: “The poor today live better than most people in history. WTF are they complaining about?” After all, they all have TV’s, cell phones, refrigerators…....

Of course my conservative “friends” are a bunch of self-righteous, condescending ass-holes. Most of them come from a modicum of privilege. The worst of them grew up during the “morning in America” days of R. Reagan. Few of them are “trickling down” anything. Most complain about taxes they aren’t paying and about regulations that don’t affect them.

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By balkas, November 8, 2011 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

i do not know if any value accrues from knowing or saying that war for
poverty [for most people] and riches [for 0001-1% of the people] had
started millennia ago in mesopotamia, hindus valley, egypt, china.

the warfare for poverty [spiritual-bodily-educational] then spread to
greece, rome; and later to germanic, slavic, gothic, celtic, euroasian tribes.

and these peoples brought the warfare to americas. thus, nothing new
ever happened in u.s. it had always been business as usual; waging wars
[via ‘education’, religion, enactment of ‘laws’ [read, please, diktats] never
ending warfare against weakling nations, repression at home, etc]

asians who left the continent for america 2,3,4,5 millennia before the
sumerian system of mastership over majority of its people had been
established, retained an unspoiled structure of society until euros, led by
clero-nobility decided to utterly destroy it.

and they did! now, the question arises how to restore the pristine
structure of governance and society we once had? and facing such an
enormous evil governmental structure nearly everywhere.

i think that most people vastly underestimate this evil and what it is
capable of doing to keep it going forever!  tnx

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By Shenonymous, November 8, 2011 at 6:58 am Link to this comment

On the fly…It takes two to tango and it takes two to make a war. 
This is not a war, this is a massacre the 1% as symbolized by Wall
Street is committing on the poor.  Unlike the middle “class” the poor
cannot make war, they have no resources.  They must tuck in their
tails, put their heads down before their massas, believe as some
Republicans insist they are responsible for their own abject poverty,
and just suffer what is dealt them, or die.

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By joegod, November 8, 2011 at 6:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the sick sad truth of it is that many people can’t bear to face and/or deal with
this issue. Most people do their best to ignore homeless people on the street
or talk about why our system exists indefinitely with a large amount of people
homeless ,jobless,and/or hungry. We’ve been conditioned to accept this as an
inevitability. Until we can get past our pre-conceived notions and artificial
explanations about why things are the way they are(which mostly have been
pounded into our collective psyche since birth), how can we actually make the
changes necessary to solve these problems?

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By Robespierre115, November 7, 2011 at 11:28 pm Link to this comment

@blogdog, agree with you on every point except the postmodern notion that class war is somehow unattached to ideaologies or specific philosophies. Left Vs. Right is useless when it comes to Democrats Vs. Republicans, but it is very relevant when it means Bakunin, Kropotkin, Luxemburg Vs. Ayn Rand, Thomas Friedman, Ronald Reagan.

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By gerard, November 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm Link to this comment

It is utterly amazing, when you stop to think about it, how so few can create so much havoc and misery and so many have such difficulty in getting the ear of their government.  And in a democracy, at that!
The world’s richest, most “powerful” country, yet it can do nothing for 99% of its people?  Frankly, I doubt it.  Come on, you guys.  Get with the program!
Otherwise we have a financial Titanic on our hands.

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By Arwen, November 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm Link to this comment

What a lucid, concise, precisely
targeted piece. I have a new

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By blogdog, November 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment

keep pushing till no doubt remains among the under classes everywhere - the war
is not a war ideologies (e.g. Left vs Right, Conservative vs Liberal, etc.) - the only
war that matters is between the oligarchs and the under classes - to the oligarchs
we’re all cannon fodder - make them feel it - call for a massive global, general
strike, withhold from the oligarchs all goods and services that can only be
delivered through the labour of the under classes - don’t give them the time of
day, no matter what they offer to pay

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