Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sociologists as Folk Devils at the Supreme Court

A photo that accompanied New York Times articles about the Supreme Court arguments on the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) has some interesting connections to sociology.

There, in the middle of the picture, on a protester's sign, we read "No Obmarx Care or Cloward & Piven Spending."  Marx you will recognize, but who are Cloward and Piven?

Frances Fox Piven is a professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and past president of the American Sociological Association.  She is the widow of Richard Cloward, also a sociologist, who died in 2001. Cloward is most commonly encountered by sociology students in deviance courses in connection with Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs, co-authored with Lloyd Ohlin. In this book the authors offered a critique of the then (1960s) prevailing theory of delinquency as an individual problem, arguing instead that it is caused by poverty and lack of opportunity (what we sometimes call "differential opportunity" theory to make the contrast with differential association theory that suggests delinquency comes from hanging out with the wrong people).  Their work influenced the shape of social programs ever since.  Cloward and Piven were major forces behind what we now know as "motor voter" -- making it easier to register to vote (and that are also under assault as we speak).

Piven and Cloward have become folk devils of the far right and a background focal point in the current debate on Obamacare. In 1966 they published an article, "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty," in The Nation.  It included the suggestion that if the poor could make increasing demands on the federal government the eventual result would be a federally guaranteed minimum income.  This
It is our purpose to advance a strategy which affords the basis for a convergence of civil rights organizations, militant anti-poverty groups and the poor. If this strategy were implemented, a political crisis would result that could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end to poverty (Cloward and Piven 1966).
Detractors call this the "Cloward-Piven Strategy" and make all manner of arguments that any effort to deploy government resources to combat poverty is an attempt to convert the U.S. into a socialist state.  For a sense of this vast left-wing conspiracy you can read this blog post from 2008 or just look at the diagram below.

Source may be J. Simpson (

If only more of our sociological work could cause such a ruckus.  Study up; there's much work to be done.

Selected Bibliography

Piven, "How I Ended up in Glenn Beck’s Line-of-Fire… And why it matters." (blog post 06/02/10)
Cloward and Piven. Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1978)
Piven and Cloward. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (1993)
Piven. Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2008)
Piven. Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate (2011)

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