Frances Fox Piven was born in Alberta, Canada in 1932, to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Russia. In 1933, Piven and her family relocated to the United States. She was raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953. Rebellious from an early age, Piven, in elementary school, refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance even after being punished for her obstinance. “I said I could only pledge allegiance to the Maple Leaf,” she would recall in later years. “I was a Canadian.” Also in those later years, Piven would recollect her father as a staunch anti-capitalist: “He told me a little bit about capitalism, how it’s a dog-eat-dog society, and that you couldn’t believe the capitalist press, it was all full of lies.”
Piven earned a B.A. degree in 1953, an M.A. in city planning in 1956, and a Ph.D. in social science in 1962 — all from the University of Chicago. She subsequently taught in the Columbia University School of Social Work from 1966-72, and was a professor of political science at Boston University from 1972-82. She then served as a professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center from 1982 until her retirement in 2017. For a detailed list of Piven’s additional professional credentials, see Footnote #1 below.
Piven and her late husband, Columbia University social-work professor Richard Cloward, are best known for having outlined, in 1966, the so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy – a tactic that seeks to hasten the fall of capitalism by overloading government bureaucracies with a flood of impossible demands, thus pushing society into “a profound financial and political crisis” that would unleash “powerful forces … for major economic reform at the national level.”
In 1966 Piven was a panel member at a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. There, she and her husband presented a paper proposing that the poor should engage in “irregular and disruptive tactics” designed to overburden city and state governments with demands for welfare money – the ultimate objective being to force those governments to turn to the federal government for assistance. Such “disruption of the system,” said Piven, would result in a situation where: “Welfare rolls will begin to go up; welfare payments will begin to go up – the impact will be very, very sharp. The mounting welfare budget will increase taxes, force cities to turn to the federal government. We have to help people to make claims; for this they will organize and act.”
Inspired by the August 1965 riots in the black district of Watts in Los Angeles — which erupted after police used batons to subdue a black man suspected of drunk driving — Cloward and Piven published a landmark article titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” in the May 2, 1966 issue of The Nation. In their piece, the authors charged that the ruling classes typically used welfare to weaken the poor; that by providing a social safety net, the rich doused the fires of rebellion. Poor people could advance only when “the rest of society is afraid of them,” Cloward told The New York Times on September 27, 1970. Rather than placating the poor with government hand-outs, wrote Cloward and Piven, activists should work to sabotage and destroy the welfare system. The authors also asserted that: (a) the collapse of the welfare state would ignite a political and financial crisis that would rock the country; (b) poor people would rise in revolt; and (c) only then would “the rest of society” accept their demands.
In an effort to help bring about such a turn of events, Piven, during the welfare-rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, repeatedly joined other activists in storming welfare centers to demand benefits for poor people.
In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing, along with several hundred other leftists, to refuse to make tax payments as an act of protest against the Vietnam War
In their 1977 book, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Cloward and Piven reemphasized that because the poor and unemployed were politically powerless in America, they would be well advised to withhold “quiescence in civil life: they can riot.” The authors noted, approvingly, that in the 1930s, violent disruptions such as “mob looting” and “rent riots” – fomented by leftist and Communist Party organizers – had enabled the first great expansion of the welfare state to take place. Likewise, Cloward and Piven credited the urban riots of the 1960s for helping to further grow the welfare state by forcing changes in traditional procedures for investigating and verifying applicants’ eligibility for welfare benefits. As best-selling author Stanley Kurtz writes:
“For Cloward and Piven, the core strategic lesson of their activism is that, rather than channeling poor people’s anger into conventional political activity, community organizers ought instead to ‘escalate the momentum and impact of disruptive protest at each stage in its emergence and evolution.’ At one point in Poor People’s Movements (p. 306), in the course of providing an historical example of her preferred strategy, Piven presents the case of a community organizer who was arrested for inciting to riot. Readers are invited to judge this passage for themselves, but my own take is that Piven clearly approves.”
In 1979-80, the Annual Report of the Institute for Policy Studies/Transnational Institute listed Piven as a “lecturer on U. S. political activities.” In October 1983 she was a New York delegate to a conference of the newly formed Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In subsequent years, Piven continued to be a very active DSA member:
In 1983, Piven delivered the opening remarks at the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) in New York City, an event that commemorated the 100-year anniversary of Karl Marx’s death and was likely attended by a young Barack Obama. In her talk, Piven described Marx as the man whose ideas had enabled “common people” around the globe to become “historical actors.” She urged her listeners to “stand within the intellectual and political tradition Marx bequeathed,” treating it not as a “dead inheritance” but rather as a “living tradition—the creation of thinking, active people.” In subsequent years, Piven would appear at numerous additional SSCs, including, among others, those in 1990, 1992, and 1997.
In 1983, Cloward and Piven co-founded Human SERVE, an organization that sought to register voters at social-service agencies and Departments of Motor Vehicles — thereby foreshadowing the so-called “Motor Voter” law of 1993, which would prove to be a breeding ground for election fraud. Piven’s hope was that federal and state governments would eventually try to rein in the efforts of politicized welfare workers who were registering new voters, and that this, in turn, would cause welfare recipients to rise up in a massive protest movement — rendering society “disrupted and transformed.”
In the fall of 1994, Piven was listed in a publication of the New Party (NP) – a socialist political coalition – which named more than 100 activists “who are building the NP.”
Piven was also one of approximately 130 people who played a role in founding the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) in 1996.
In 2000, the American Sociological Association presented Piven with its Career Award for the Practice of Sociology.
On September 20, 2001, Piven was a guest speaker at a New York City gathering to honor the work of her husband, Richard Cloward, who had died a month earlier. Other speakers included Barbara Ehrenreich, Howard Zinn, June Jordan, Gus Newport, Tim Sampson, Joel Rogers, Miles Rappaport, and Cornel West.
“Socialism is a broad tradition and it has many meanings. So if you were to ask me, ‘What are the core values in that tradition?’ ‘The values of equality and fraternity and democracy,’ I would say… That tradition has a future; it’s the only future that’s possible.
“At this particular moment in time I think that those values are fired up by a great social movement that has spread across the globe. Nobody expected it, it’s taking everyone by surprise, and it is probably the largest social movement in recorded history. The whole world is rising up to say ‘No’ to war, and they’re saying ‘No’ to war because of their convictions that war means imperialism; war means the United States becoming a new Roman Empire and settling down on the Middle East…war means that the fundamental things that all human creatures want, which is enough to eat and a place to sleep and a community and a voice, that those fundamental values will be denied.”
When an interviewer asked her, at that same SSC conference, if she believed that “socialism must be brought about by a revolution,” Piven answered:
“I don’t believe in a revolutionary transformation. But I have another set of beliefs which I think many people share, which is that each step forward, each step to reduce the cruelty and the punitiveness that contemporary elites are imposing on other people takes enormous struggle. But each step is worth that struggle because we make our communities a little bit more humane and because we also, through those struggles, learn that it’s our world, too, and we can contribute to its future shape.”
In January 2002, Piven endorsed the founding of War Times, a national anti-Iraq War newspaper established by a group of San Francisco leftists affiliated with such organizations as the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and STORM. Among the more prominent founders of the publication was Van Jones.
In August 2004, Piven endorsed a demonstration at the site of the Republican National Convention in New York City, protesting President George W. Bush’s “endless war and repression.” The rally was organized by Not In Our Name, a project of the Revolutionary Communist Party. To view a list of additional endorsers, click here.
During 2006-07, Piven served as president of the American Sociological Association.
In 2009, Piven was listed as a signer of the Progressives for Obama website.
In 2009, Piven sat on the advisory board of Wellstone Action, a self-described “national center for training and leadership development for the progressive movement.” Fellow committee members included Robert Borosage, Julian Bond, Heather Booth, Peter Edelman, Keith Ellison, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, Leo Gerard, Tom Harkin, John Lewis, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Andrew Stern, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
In 2009, Piven served as a sponsor of New Politics, a magazine staffed and run almost entirely by members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
On December 22, 2010, Piven published an article in The Nation titled “Mobilizing the Jobless,” where, after noting that some 15 million Americans were unemployed, she asked: “So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs?” Admonishing the Left not to wait patiently for “the end of the American empire and even the end of neoliberal capitalism,” she called for active measures to bring about “big new [government] initiatives in infrastructure and green energy.” Such measures, she explained, should take the form of “mass protests” that could pressure President Obama “hard from his base.” Piven urged that the disruptions begin on the local and state levels, where governments that were “strapped for funds” would look, by necessity, for “federal action” to help them. Wrote Piven:
“An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.”
Before the unemployed or any other disadvantaged group “can mobilize for collective action,” added Piven, “they have to develop a proud and angry identity and a set of claims that go with that identity. They have to go from being hurt and ashamed to being angry and indignant … [at] the bureaucrats or the politicians who are in fact responsible.”
“Local protests,” Piven wrote in the same piece, “have to accumulate and spread—and become more disruptive—to create pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece….” As author Stanley Kurtz observed in January 2011: “Given Piven’s strategic stance, it’s clear that she and The Nation are in fact calling for violence.”
As of January 2011, Piven was a sponsor of New Politics, a self-described “independent socialist forum.”
In the fall of 2011, Piven was among the numerous high-profile personalities who made personal appearances in support of anti-capitalism rallies which were staged in New York City by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and such activist groups as the Adbusters Media Foundation, Anonymous, Take the Square, and USDayOfRage. In a September 30 address to the OWS protesters, Piven referred to “greedy” bankers as “thieves,“ ”cannibals,“ and the ”big problem.” For a list of additional OWS supporters, click here.
On October 12, 2011, Piven appeared alongside Elizabeth Warren at a “National Teach-In” sponsored by the AFL-CIO to discuss “the jobs crisis and student activists’ fight for worker’s rights, equal access to education, fair taxation, and economic and social justice.”
In 2012, Piven was a guest speaker at the Young Democratic Socialists winter conference.
In a March 2012 lecture at the University of Connecticut, Piven spoke optimistically about how active and effective the Occupy Wall Street movement would be that year.
“It may well be that the Occupy movement is now in its second phase, in the phase where it makes trouble, in the phase where it threatens to shut down institutions. The Occupy movement has moved into the neighborhoods of our cities, it has moved into the schools…. This spring, we’ll see action against the banks, against the corporations…. It is going to be a spring with lots of protests that take different forms and engage lots of people.”
“In the absence of movements from below, of real trouble from below, in the absence of protest, American politics, electoral politics — despite the fact that so many people go out to vote — reverts to a position where big money is the dominating force. And when big money is the dominating force, regulations of business become impossible, or they are ignored, and that of course is what happened in the current period…. It’s been time for another surge from the bottom for quite a while [since the 1970s], and some of us have been waiting.”
As of 2014, Piven was on the advisory board of Peace Action, along with such notables as Christine Ahn, Medea Benjamin, Phyllis Bennis, Julian Bond, David Cortright, Thomas Gumbleton, Pete Seeger, and Cornel West.
At an event called The People’s Summit, which was held in Chicago in June 2016, Piven spoke at a session titled “Understanding Our Movement Moment.”
At an NYC-DSA event in May 2017, Piven spoke at a “Socialist Day School” session examining the lessons that socialist activists and organizers could learn from past historical movements.
In 2019, Piven taught a session at the so-called People’s Forum, a newly established event space in Midtown Manhattan. The facility featured a picture of Vladimir Lenin tacked on the wall, along with a shelf full of books about Che Guevara. “Since the 1970s, everything has gotten worse and worse,” explained Piven, mainly because “poor people” had been consistently “humiliated” and forced to “shut up,” and because the people now holding political power were “crazy.” “But they’re also evil,” she continued. “And they will be evil because they are greedy.” The only way to effectively deal with them, said Piven, was with force and defiance: “We have to be noisy, and difficult and ungovernable.”
Further Reading: “Frances Fox Piven” (Keywiki.org).