Three Theses from Piven & Cloward’s “Regulating the Poor”

1. It’s not only Kansans who listen to Rush Limbaugh who are taught to oppose their own class interests. It’s Americans.

What has to be understood, however, is that the loathing of “reliefers” [welfare recipients] is not an accidental feature of American culture. It has deep roots in the two main tenets of market ideology: the economic system is open, and economic success is a matter of individual merit (and sometimes luck); those who fail–the very poor–are therefore morally or personally defective. Each belief reinforces the other. The fervor with which these beliefs are held is a mark of the highly developed capitalistic society in which the mass of workers are “self-motivated” to perform the work required of them by economic enterprise. In earlier stages of capitalistic development, these values were not widely inculcated, so that outright governmental coercion–including a penalistic relief system that could indenture paupers–was required to ensure the necessary labor resources. With the increasingly widespread diffusion and acceptance of market values by workers, the penalistic features of relief arrangements softened; what has always remained, however, is the ritual degradation of a pariah class that serves to mark the boundary between the appropriately motivated and the inappropriately motivated, between the virtuous and the defective. The point is, then, that relief practices are not a mere reflection of market ideology; they are an agent in nurturing and reinforcing that ideology.

2. “Entitlements” are good things, because we’re legally entitled to them.

[S]ocial security policies should be understood as an entirely different form of social provision than the old poor relief system. The aid people received from poor relief programs was necessarily discretionary, and elaborately conditioned, presumably in order to determine the neediness and worthiness of particular supplicants. By contrast, the new policies are said to be characterized by the vesting of social rights. They are often called citizenship entitlements, because they are rooted in the law, embedded in bureaucracy, and supported by mass opinion and class or interest group organizations. They are, in other words, shored up by institutionalized politics.

3. When answering the questions “Why is there no socialism in the US,” “Why is there no working class party in the US,” or (here) “Why is the US welfare state so limited compared with other welfare states,” race always matters.

The usual lists of such peculiar aspects of American history include: no feudalism, the open frontier, a uniquely individualistic ethos, ethnic divisions, rapid economic mobility, and so on. We leave the door open on the case for the impact of these or other peculiarities in shaping the American welfare state. The argument we feel compelled to flag for now is for the deep imprint of racism, and the complex political distortions it nourished, on the politics of the welfare state. Race has been one of the enduring issues of American politics, implicated in most of the great conflicts which periodically convulsed the United States, and also singularly important in the formation of everyday political identities. The political structures associated with a limited welfare state can only be fully explained by taking account of the tortured impact of slavery and institutionalized racism on the construction of the American polity…[U]nderdevelopment in the United States reflects the weakness of the working class political organization. And the weakness of the working class in turn is traceable to constitutionally prescribed state structures which ensured a fragmented and decentralized party system, to the blunting of popular electoral influence by disenfranchisement, to the consequent construction of welfare state programs that in turn inhibited popular support for further improving or expanding the welfare state. Each of these dimensions of political underdevelopment is also marked by historical encounters with race and racism. The constitutional compromises which produced a decentralized and fragmented government and party system were imperative because the slave labor system was already established in the Southern colonies, and Southern elites feared the interference of a strong national government. The disenfranchising movement that swept the states in the late nineteenth century began in the South as a movement to disenfranchise blacks (and succeeded as it did because poor whites were apparently ready to give up their voting rights in order to deprive blacks of theirs). And the sectional interests which blocked welfare state growth in the twentieth century were motivated to preserve the caste system of the South.

–from Frances Fox Piven & Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, Updated Edition, Vintage Books, 1993