- African-American militant of the 1960s, widely regarded as the father of the “welfare rights” movement
- Founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization
- One of the earliest and most successful practitioners of the “change-through-crisis” formula prescribed by the “Cloward-Piven strategy”
- Mentor of Wade Rathke, founder and leader of the radical cult ACORN
- Pioneer of the radical “franchise” concept, now used by ACORN and other groups, which enables local activists to quickly and easily build local outlets of national activist organizations through replication
George Alvin Wiley is best known for his effective use of the so-called “Cloward-Piven strategy,” which called for swamping the welfare rolls with new applicants, beyond what the system could bear. The plan’s inventors, Columbia University political scientists Richard Andrew Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, hoped that the resulting economic collapse would lead to political turmoil and ultimately socialism. Cloward and Piven recruited Wiley to put their plan to work in the streets.
One of six children, George Wiley was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on February 26, 1931, but soon moved with his family to Warwick, Rhode Island, a mostly white suburb of Providence. Wiley’s father supported his family by working as a postal clerk, but his heart lay in political activism, which he pursued by editing a weekly newspaper for the black community and leading the Rhode Island Urban League. Wiley’s mother was also active in black charities and political organizing.
Wiley earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Rhode Island in 1953; received a doctorate in organic chemistry from Cornell University in 1957; fulfilled a six-month ROTC obligation as a first lieutenant in the Army at Fort Lee, Virginia; and subsequently accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA. He taught chemistry for two years at the University of California at Berkeley, whereupon he took a teaching position at Syracuse University in New York.
As his career progressed, Wiley never forgot his political upbringing. He led a voter registration drive in Petersburg, Virginia while serving in the Army. During his stint teaching at UC Berkeley, he counseled student activists taking part in sit-in protests. But only after he moved to Syracuse did Wiley’s militancy begin to emerge in full. He joined the Syracuse University faculty in 1960. That same year, he founded the Syracuse chapter of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) and became its first Chairman. On November 23, 1964, Wiley accepted the job of Associate National Director of CORE, making him second in command to National Director James Farmer. Wiley left academia that year to become a fulltime activist, moving with his family to New York City’s Lower East Side.
Within 14 months, however, Wiley became disillusioned with CORE’s conventional approach to civil rights. He left the organization in January 1965, forming his own activist group called the Poverty Rights Action Center (PRAC), with headquarters in Washington, DC. Reflecting his new militancy, Wiley exchanged his business suits for dashikis, jeans, scuffed shoes, and a newly grown Afro. He took up residence in Washington’s Dupont Circle — not far from the Institute for Policy Studies, whose doctrine of “creative disorder” resonated with the underlying goals of the Cloward-Piven strategy.
Wiley was just getting PRAC up and running when Cloward and Piven began promoting their “flood-the-rolls, bankrupt-the-cities” plan in the activist community. Cloward and Piven believed that their plan could spark a nationwide movement. To lead the movement, they sought an experienced organizer with vision, charisma and — most important of all — street credibility with inner-city blacks. That organizer turned out to be George Alvin Wiley.
Wiley’s first act was to organize nationwide protests by welfare recipients. From June 20-30, 1966, about forty welfare recipients marched 155 miles from Cleveland to Columbus, Ohio, gathering at the state capitol with about 2,000 supporters to demand increased benefits. Their June 30 arrival in Columbus was timed to coincide with rallies in fifteen other cities, including New York, Trenton, Chicago, Louisville, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Wiley declared “the birth of a movement.” It became known as the Welfare Rights Movement.
Wiley’s National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) held its founding convention in Washington DC, August 25-27, 1967. Closely following Cloward and Piven’s recommendations, Wiley and his followers invaded welfare offices — often violently — bullying social workers and loudly demanding every penny to which the law “entitled” them. Regarding Wiley’s tactics, The New York Times reported in 1970: “There have been sit-ins in legislative chambers, including a United States Senate committee hearing, mass demonstrations of several thousand welfare recipients, school boycotts, picket lines, mounted police, tear gas, arrests — and, on occasion, rock-throwing, smashed glass doors, overturned desks, scattered papers and ripped-out phones.”
These methods proved effective. “The flooding succeeded beyond Wiley’s wildest dreams,” writes Sol Stern in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. “From 1965 to 1974, the number of single-parent households on welfare soared from 4.3 million to 10.8 million, despite mostly flush economic times.”
In accordance with the Cloward-Piven strategy, NWRO pushed for a guaranteed living income, which it defined, in 1968, as $5,500 per year for every American family with four children. Wiley introduced the battle cry, “Fifty-five hundred or fight!,” raising it the following year to “Sixty-five hundred or fight!” Though the guaranteed income never progressed beyond the level of rhetoric, the tens of billions of dollars in welfare entitlements that Wiley and his followers managed to squeeze from state and local governments came very close to sinking the U.S. economy, just as Cloward and Piven had predicted.
Wiley and his welfare radicals terrorized social workers all over the United States, but their greatest success came in New York City. Newly elected in 1966, arch-liberal Mayor John Lindsay knuckled under to every demand from Wiley’s NWRO. New York’s welfare rolls had already been growing by 12 percent per year before Lindsay took office. The growth rate jumped to 50 percent annually in 1966. “By the early 1970s, one person was on the welfare rolls in New York City for every two working in the city’s private economy,” writes Sol Stern in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. As a direct result of its reckless welfare spending, New York City was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1975.
Crucial to NWRO’s success was its business model, which evinced certain odd parallels with the franchising strategy of hamburger chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King. Franchise chains grow through replication. Their founders create successful, easy-to-duplicate businesses, then sell licenses to individual franchisees, who set up exact copies of the business, at their own expense, in their own local markets. In addition to the licensing fee, each franchisee is required to pay a percentage of sales each month to the parent company, in exchange for the privilege of using its name and business system.
NWRO worked in a similar fashion. It encouraged local activists to set up independent chapters in their communities. Each chapter became a profit center in its own right, generating money from its own local operations. Whereas McDonald’s made money by selling hamburgers, NWRO made money by teaching people to exploit the welfare system, then charging its beneficiaries membership fees for the privilege of profiting from NWRO’s shakedown operations.
Membership fees alone did not cover NWRO’s expenses, however. Wiley’s radical franchise required outside financing to stay afloat. This came in the form of grants from federal agencies and private philanthropists. In his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, former communist and promoter of “compassionate conservatism” Marvin Olasky notes that NWRO received more than $500,000 from the National Council of Churches from 1968 to 1971. At one point, Johnson administration officials signed a contract to give NWRO $435,000. Wiley received only $106,000 of this sum before President Nixon cancelled the grant in 1969. Despite such occasional setbacks, federal aid flowed freely to Wiley’s group from many sources and in many different forms, including free legal aid and free office space from the Legal Services division of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).
Fueled by its multitudinous income streams, NWRO chapters sprouted up from coast to coast. By 1969, NWRO claimed a dues-paying membership of 22,500 families, with 523 chapters across the nation.
With Richard Nixon’s accession to the White House in 1968, the federal funds that drove NWRO began drying up. So did the public’s patience for the sort of violent tactics Wiley promoted. As money tightened, NWRO’s leaders began turning on each other. White activists were driven from leadership positions by black extremists. Wiley himself came under attack for his middle-class background. A poor people’s organization should be run by poor people, the insurgents declared. Pressure grew to fill every leadership slot with welfare recipients, rather than with the professional activists who had previously led NWRO.
Wiley announced his resignation in a New York Times interview of December 16, 1971. “The welfare rights movement created a political and economic crisis around the issue of welfare which could have led to reform or repression,” he told the Times. “What we are witnessing is repression, and we need a broad organized movement to counter it.”
Wiley said that he would officially leave NWRO on January 31, 1972, in order to start a new group called The Movement for Economic Justice. “In some ways, people are tired of the issue of welfare and the label is a problem …” he said. “The real welfare in this country is going to the Department of Defense, the railroads, the airlines and to other corporations through tax loopholes.” Wiley declared that he would reach out across class and racial lines, building a coalition of the working poor, the unemployed, senior citizens and the lower middle-class (those making $5,000 to $15,000 per year) around such issues as national health insurance, consumer rights, housing, daycare, and tax reform. He explained that he was not abandoning his original mission, but expanding it. Welfare was only one of many paths to his ultimate goal: “income redistribution.”
The Movement for Economic Justice never got off the ground. Wiley died in a boating accident on August 8, 1973. NWRO closed its doors two years later. Its stormy history had lasted only eight years, from 1967 to 1975. But Wiley’s concept of the radical franchise chain, whose operations can be duplicated in any community, continues to inspire imitators to this day, such as ACORN and the PIRG groups. Former NWRO activist Mark Toney credits Wiley with “introducing the first organizing model that was consciously designed to be replicable anywhere in the country. The many community organizations today that use a standard model when they start a chapter in a new community have NWRO to thank for the concept.”
Wiley’s legacy lives on most powerfully through ACORN — a nationwide movement founded and led by Wiley’s protegé Wade Rathke, a former Students for a Democratic Society militant and onetime NWRO organizer. ACORN and its front groups today are the leading practitioners of the “Cloward-Piven strategy” that Wiley pioneered.