Lauren Feeney: There’s been a lot of talk recently about growing inequality — how the richest of the rich just keep getting richer. But what’s going on with the poorest of the poor?
Frances Fox Piven: Poverty has been increasing pretty rapidly, at least since 2000, and then there was another big spike with the financial crisis. The official poverty rate is about 15 percent [but] I think the most reasonable estimate is that one out of three Americans are now poor. The official poverty line in the United States is set much lower than it is in other rich countries. That’s because it’s based on the cost of a market basket of basic foods multiplied by three to cover all other costs, and those other costs have inflated much more rapidly than food costs. I want to count people who in other prosperous countries would also be called poor.
We have another measure which we call extreme poverty — people who are living at half of the official poverty line — and the numbers in extreme poverty are increasing rapidly too. It’s a big problem, an inexcusable problem. Profits are increasing; the aggregate amount of wealth in this country does not in anyway justify having such a large pool of poor people and near poor people. We’re wiping out whatever progress has been made in the last half century in decreasing poverty.
Feeney: Mitt Romney recently said in an interview with Soledad O’Brien that he’s not worried about the very poor because they have a safety net. What’s the state of that safety net?
Piven: Dismal. It’s torn in many places.
There was something like a safety net put in place gradually between the 1930s and the 1960s — that included the program we call welfare, the food stamp program, Medicaid, WIC (a nutritional program for pregnant women and infants), unemployment benefits. By the end of the 1960s, these programs had expanded to the point that they provided at least minimal assistance to the majority of the poor. It was a ragged safety net, but there was a safety net. After the protests of the 1960s subsided, there were steady cutbacks in the main program that is welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children we called it then. The cutbacks took mainly the form of failing to raise the benefit levels to take account of inflation, so in real terms the benefits sank.
This was accompanied by an enormous outpouring of rhetoric blaming poor people — and black people and Hispanic people — for their own poverty. The culmination of all this occurred in 1996 when Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility Act, which essentially eliminated the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and replaced it with another program know as TANF. Under TANF, the states have been given much more license to refuse people, and the consequence has been that far, far fewer people get any assistance from TANF than they did from Aid to Families with Dependent Children. And this is of course called a success.