Cloward-Piven strategy

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The Cloward-Piven strategy was a blueprint for making massive disruptions in the welfare system of the United States, thus clearing the way toward reforming the system along lines more politically palatable to the authors of the strategy.

The strategy was outlined in an article in The Nation in 1966, many years before the term "welfare reform" became politically incorrect.


The United States welfare system in 1966 was not at all to the liking of the strategy's authors, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, a husband-and-wife team of sociologists-cum-activists. The pair favored a centralized, federally-run system guaranteeing a minimum income for everyone, thereby wiping out poverty.[1]

The strategy[edit]

Cloward and Piven had determined that many people in the U.S. were eligible for welfare, but were not receiving it. They believed that if all these people were to apply for welfare all at once, the local welfare offices would be overwhelmed and the states would be threatened with bankruptcy.

In advocating such disruptions, Cloward and Piven were making a deliberate attempt to incite racial, ethnic, and class tensions, setting whites against racial minorities and middle class liberals against working class immigrant groups. This would weaken the already fragile New Deal liberal coalition and threaten the Democratic Party politically, which would cause the Democrats to institute a new welfare scheme in an attempt to maintain the cohesiveness of their coalition (and thus remain in power).


In supposing that the strategy could be carried out successfully, Cloward and Piven made a number of somewhat dubious assertions:

  • That enough people who were eligible for welfare, but not receiving it, could be persuaded to sign up (as if the only reason people refused welfare was that they did not know they were eligible).
  • That this signing up could be done quickly enough to disrupt the budgets of entire states of the Union.
  • That a fiscal crisis would "set brother against brother" in that manner.
  • That the Democratic Party would respond to that sort of crisis by implementing a welfare policy suggested by Marxists. Indeed, Cloward and Piven themselves later argued that during periods of civil disorder, governments would increase welfare payments by way of a bribe, but then promptly decrease them again when order was restored.[2]
  • That poverty could be wiped out by the method of a guaranteed income. Indiscriminately raising people's incomes has led in the past to wage-price spirals.[3][4]

Whether the plan actually did work is doubtful at best. Retired political strategist Robert Chandler attributes the 1975 budget crisis in New York City to an organized welfare enrollment campaign right along the lines of the strategy,[5] but that claim is not widely made and borders on a conspiracy theory.[6][7] Political scientists also agree that the New Deal Coalition fractured due to ideological contradictions regarding the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, rather than on the issue of economics.[8]

Conspiracy theories[edit]

U.S. right-wing circles love the concept of Marxists gaming the welfare bureaucracy to force implementation of their political program; from this seed they can divine a thousand different Secret Commie Plots currently in operation.[note 1]

This latest posits that 2008 financial crisis was deliberately manufactured by Democrats, by getting left-wing activists such as ACORN to force banks and lenders to make bad loans to people who would otherwise have been considered too great a risk. This was purportedly done via a combination of protest tactics and lobbying for such legislation as the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), thus resulting in a financial crisis which the Democrats could then exploit by instituting a "socialist" government.

The fact that most of the bad loans causing the crisis were not in any way mandated by the Community Reinvestment Act is conveniently ignored; so is the fact that the only way the Democrats would institute a socialist government is if socialist revolutionaries stormed Congress and made them do it at gunpoint.[note 2]

Mainstream "acceptance"[edit]

The "CRA-ACORN-Fannie-and-Freddie diddit" version of the financial crisis has actually become an official Republican explanation of the event with the release of their own alternate universe version of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report. The versions of this story range from the more moderate "CRA and F&F caused the financial crisis," to the really wingnut "Affirmative Action caused the financial crisis!" to the extremely conspiratorial and racist "ACORN engineered the whole thing as part of a Cloward-Piven Strategy."


  1. Ironically, some right-wing and libertarian economists such as Milton Friedman advocated replacing welfare programs with a guaranteed minimum income (though in their case, it was often a negative income tax instead of a UBI). Guess ol' Milton was a crypto-Marxist.
  2. Guys! I have an idea!