Frances Fox Piven


Research Interests

  • political movements, electoral politics, the welfare state


  • Ph.D. University of Chicago

Frances Fox Piven is an internationally renowned social scientist, scholar, and activist whose commitments to poor and working people, and to the democratic cause have never wavered.  Piven’s professional accomplishments in the world of academia place her among the ranks of the most important social scientists of the last century.  Her groundbreaking work with Richard A. Cloward on the functions of social welfare and poor relief (Regulating the Poor, 1971) received front page coverage in the New York Times Book Review and ignited a scholarly debate that reshaped the field of social welfare policy.  Subsequent work analyzed the conditions under which the disruptive actions of the poor influenced the foundation of the modern American welfare state (Poor People’s Movements, 1977) and were necessary to the advancement of progressive social policy and political reforms (The Breaking of the American Social Compact, 1997; Challenging Authority, 2008).  Piven is the author or co-author of more than 200 articles published in academic journals, books, popular publications and journals of opinion since 1965, some of which have been republished up to a dozen times.  Her scholarship has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Norwegian and is noted for its boldness and its analytical power and clarity.  It relies on historical interpretation, and in its totality, advances sophisticated theories of power from below.

Professor Piven loves teaching at the Graduate Center, where she has found a home for more than three decades.  In addition, she has held visiting professorships and fellowships (including Fulbright and Guggenheim awards) at numerous universities here and abroad, such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, the University of Amsterdam, Hebrew University, and the University of Bologna, and at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin, the University of California, Arizona State University, the University of Oregon and at Smith College.  Her service to the profession runs equally far and wide, and is most prominently noted by her election as a recent president of the American Sociological Association (2007), as President of the Society for the Study of the Social Problems (1980), and as a Vice President of the American Political Science Association (1981).

It is not only Professor Piven’s academic work that marks her career for distinction.  Rather, it is the unique and exemplary ways that she has bridged the worlds of academia and social activism to advance humanizing social policy reform that sets her apart.  And at this she has been remarkably successful, beginning in the late 1960s, when, along with George Wiley and others, Professor Piven was a founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO).  Later, in 1982, Professor Piven was a co-founder of the Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Campaign, or Human SERVE, which pioneered the idea of “automatic voter registration,” whereby citizens would be registered to vote when they applied for social assistance or drivers’ licenses.  After a decade of advocacy and organizing, Human SERVE’s program was incorporated into the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, popularly known as the “motor voter” bill.  This legislation represented an historic advance in the struggle to win full enfranchisement for low-income and minority people.  Piven and Cloward’s research on the comparatively low levels of voter participation in the U.S.’ book-ended’ their work on reforming the voter registration system with the publication of two scholarly studies, Why Americans Don’t Vote in 1988, and Why Americans Still Don’t Vote and Why Politicians Want It That Way in 2000.  The successful blend of scholarship and activism is characteristic of Piven’s entire career.

Professor Piven has enjoyed a lifetime of working with grassroots groups concerned with different facets of poverty and inequality.  Her scholar-activism began before the founding of the NWRO, when she was affiliated as a researcher with Mobilization for Youth, the nation’s first federal juvenile delinquency demonstration project.  Piven’s grassroots activism continues to this day.  She currently serves on the boards of numerous nonprofit and advocacy groups like Project Vote and Wellstone Action, and generously shares her knowledge and funds raised through speaking fees with anti-poverty groups like Community Voices Heard, FUREE, the Center for Community Change, and many others.  Piven’s community service has been recognized throughout her career.  Most recently, she was the recipient of the Elliott-Black Award from the American Ethical Union, given in tribute for her “life-long commitment to create a society of peace and justice;” the Labor Communicator of the Year Award from the New York Metropolitan Labor Communications Council; the Hon. Shirley Chisholm Lights of Freedom Award from Community Voices Heard, given in recognition of her “leadership toward social and economic justice;” the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Award from the Brooklyn College Labor Education Center; and the Hope Shapiro Bread and Roses Award from New Jersey Peace Action, in honor of her “commitment to peace and social justice” and her “tireless work to protect and expand voter rights.”  In 2014, she received the prestigious Puffin Prize for Creative Citizenship from the Puffin and Nation Institutes.


Francis Fox Piven, Challenging Authority (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
Challenging Authority argues that ordinary people exercise extraordinary political courage and power in American politics when, frustrated by politics as usual, they rise up in anger and hope and defy the authorities and the status quo rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives. By doing so, they disrupt the workings of important institutions and become a force in American politics. Drawing on critical episodes in American history, Frances Fox Piven shows that it is precisely at those seismic moments when people act outside of self-restricting political norms that they become empowered to their full democratic potential

Frances Fox Piven, The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush’s Militarism (New York: New Press, 2004).
While numerous analysts have discussed, and decried, the geopolitical ambitions of the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies, the attention to America’s imperial posture overseas has turned our eyes away from a crucial dimension of belligerent foreign policy: the domestic politics of war. Frances Fox Piven, examines the ways the war on terror served to shore up the Bush administration’s political base and analyzes the manner in which flag-waving politicians used the emotional fog of war to further their regressive social and economic agendas.

Frances Fox Piven, Joan Acker, Margaret Hallock and Sandra Morgen Eds., Work, Welfare and Politics: Confronting Poverty in the Wake of Welfare Reform (Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 2002).
Work, Welfare and Politics sheds much-needed light on the ideology and impacts of recent welfare reform legislation.  Highlighted by Frances Fox Piven, activist, professor and author from City University of New York, notable scholars, advocates and policymakers explore the timely issues currently facing legislators.  From politics and social control to families and childcare, this volume is comprehensive in scope–and offers concrete suggestions for authentic welfare reform.

Is low-wage work a solution to poverty?  Should work trump caregiving for low-income mothers?  Do job-training programs do more harm than good for low-wage workers?  Do current programs encourage education for low-income parents?  How are states dealing with low-income people after the “end of welfare as we know it”?

Work, Welfare and Politics appears at a crucial time in the welfare reform discussion.  As these issues come before Congress and to the public, the authors provide essential depth and dimension to an informed debate.  Born out of a 2000 conference sponsored by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, Work, Welfare and Politics offers analysis and solutions, thorough background and a look ahead.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Why Americans Still Don’t Vote and Why Politicians Want It That Way (Boston: Beacon Press, Revised 2000).
Americans take for granted that ours is the very model of a democracy. At the core of this belief is the assumption that the right to vote is firmly established. But in fact, the United States is the only major democratic nation in which the less well-off, the young, and minorities are substantially underrepresented in the electorate.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward were key players in the long battle to reform voter registration laws that finally resulted in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also known as the Motor Voter law). When Why Americans Don’t Vote was first published in 1988, this battle was still raging, and their book was a fiery salvo. It demonstrated that the twentieth century had witnessed a concerted effort to restrict voting by immigrants and blacks through a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, and unwieldy voter registration requirements.

Why Americans Still Don’t Vote brings the story up to the present. Analyzing the results of voter registration reform, and drawing compelling historical parallels, Piven and Cloward reveal why neither of the major parties has tried to appeal to the interests of the newly registered-and thus why Americans still don’t vote.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Breaking of the American Social Compact (New York: The New Press, 1997).

Piven and Cloward demonstrate that under the banner of “globalization,” a mobilized American business class is driving down wages and benefits, breaking unions, weakening civil rights, and slashing programs that protect the disadvantaged – all at a time when income and wealth inequality has reached historic extremes. They argue that business elites’ claim that ordinary people must make due with less because of the imperatives of the global markets is a hoax, and that the effort to dismantle the social compact should instead be understood as an ideologically powered political mobilization by business.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Vintage Books, Revised 1993).

Originally published in 1971, this social science classic outlines the social functions of welfare programs. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A Cloward persuasively demonstrate how public relief has been used to avert civil chaos during economic downturns and to exert pressure on the work force during periods of stability. Their analysis ranges from the early history of poor relief through the inception of welfare during the Great Depression to its massive erosion during the Reagan and Bush years. The authors provide a conceptual framework that sharply illuminates the problems current and future administrations will encounter as they attempt to rethink the welfare system. Admirably specific yet vast in its implications, Regulating the Poor is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about the American social contract.

Frances Fox Piven Ed., Labor Parties in Postindustrial Societies, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
Vast changes in western societies have dimmed the prospects of the labor-based political parties that emerged a century ago, and became major contenders for government power.

This book makes evident the problems generated for left parties by the emerging postindustrial economic order.  However, despite common difficulties, each party confronts the new problems of post-industrialism in the context of different national political heritages and party legacies.  These differences, in turn, go far toward explaining the relative success of some parties and the disarray of others.

The internationally renowned contributors include: Joel Krieger, Goran Therborn, Claus Offe, Gosta Esping-Andersen, Ivor Crewe, George Ross, Asher Arian, Ilan Talmud, Neil Bradford, Jane Jenson and Alan DiGaetano.

Fred Block, Richard Cloward, Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven, The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State (New York: Pantheon, 1987).
Against the crescendo of fashionable attacks upon the welfare state, our boldest social thinkers–Fred Block, Richard Cloward, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Frances Fox Piven–argue for its real, hard-won accomplishments.  The Mean Season analyzes Regan’s war on the poor and the welfare state to reveal its true beneficiaries–and its true targets.  More than a defense of the welfare state’s economic efficiency and fairness, The Mean Season is a reaffirmation of those decent, human values so much under attack in Regan’s America.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences (New York: Pantheon, 1982).
The slashing of the social programs by the Reagan administration poses the most serious threat to the welfare state since its origins in the Great Depression.  In this book, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward propose an explanation why a new class war has been declared not only on the poor but on workers as well.

Piven and Cloward start by examining the enormous changes that the current administration has brought about in our social policies.  However, they go well beyond the usual examination of cuts and ask, for the first time, the underlying questions why these policies were carried out and what their overall economic impact is meant to be.  They go on to predict that this assault will be resisted.  Since the New Deal, Americans have come to recognize that government plays a major role in economic life, that it is responsible for the economic well-being of its citizenry.

That was not always so.  The politicization of economic rights represents a radical departure from traditional American beliefs.  In contrast to much of Europe, working people in the United States have rarely demanded government intervention on their own behalf.  The major reason that government had little proper role in economic life was the prevalence of laissez-faire doctrine.  Piven and Cloward examine the distinctively American institutions that gave life to this doctrine, and show how these gradually broke down as state intervention in the economy expanded throughout the twentieth century.  Their re-examination of American history is daring and provocative.  It proposes a perspective on the American past that is harshly realistic, and a perspective on the American future that is boldly optimistic.

The New Class War is one of those rare books that manages, in the compass of a very few pages, to offer new answers to long-standing and basic questions.  It will be read and debated for years to come.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

Have the poor fared best by participating in conventional electoral politics or by engaging in mass defiance and disruption? The authors of the classic Regulating The Poor assess the successes and failures of these two strategies as they examine, in this provocative study, four protest movements of lower-class groups in 20th century America:

The mobilization of the unemployed during the Great Depression that gave rise to the Workers’ Alliance of America
The industrial strikes that resulted in the formation of the CIO
The Southern Civil Rights Movement
The movement of welfare recipients led by the National Welfare
Rights Organization

Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, The Politics of Turmoil (New York: Pantheon, 1974).
In their first and highly praised book, Regulating the Poor, Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, two of America’s best-known radical social critics, documented the rise of the welfare crisis in America and put forth their thesis as to its causes, effects, and solutions.  In The Politics of Turmoil, they have gathered their other essays on the urban crisis, analyzing the different aspects of the political upheaval produced in the cities since World War II.
One facet of this upheaval has been the great black migration to the cities and the subsequent rise of insurgency among the black poor themselves, taking the form of marches, riots, rent strikes, and welfare protest.  Several essays evaluate these movements, showing that the relatively closed American political system, which often made protest the only option available to the poor, also finally defeated them.

Migration brought great numbers of blacks into the arena of city politics, generating the hope that they would follow the path presumably taken by other ethnic groups, gaining power and patronage through municipal politics.  Another group of essays examines the basis for the hope in the political structure of contemporary American cities, and concludes that the prospects for the realization of black power are exceedingly dim.

The final essays discuss efforts by American political elites to moderate the disorder welling up in the ghettos, efforts ranging from the establishment of manpower training and mental health programs to the “War on Poverty.”  Modest as these programs were, the greater irony is that the black poor did not turn out to be their chief beneficiaries; sectors of the middle class profited more.  Once again, the poor had made the trouble and others made the gains.