How a 77-Year-Old Visionary Author Became the Target of a Far-Ranging Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory

Peter Dreier in AlterNet:

In their 6,327-word Nation article, Cloward (a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work at the time ) and Piven (an anti-poverty researcher and activist who joined the Columbia faculty later that year), proposed organizing the poor to demand welfare benefits in order to pressure the federal government to expand the nation's social safety net and establish a guaranteed national income. To put their strategy into practice, Cloward and Piven worked with George Wiley to create the National Welfare Rights Organization, which at its peak in the late 1960s had affiliates in 60 cities and had some success increasing participation in the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program by organizing protests at welfare offices and pressuring politicians and welfare administrators to change the rules.

Because it focused exclusively on welfare recipients, however, NWRO's narrow constituency base guaranteed that it would remain a marginal force in the nation's politics. In 1970, NWRO organizer Wade Rathke moved to Arkansas to start ACORN, which he hoped would build a broader multi-racial movement for economic justice. In its early days, Cloward (who died in 2001) and Piven served as unofficial advisers to the group. ACORN eventually grew into the nation's largest community organizing group, with chapters in 103 cities in 37 states.

Cloward and Piven soon concluded that a successful anti-poverty movement had to combine grassroots protest with electoral politics. During the Reagan years in the early 1980s, they wrote a widely-read book, Why Americans Don't Vote, which examined deliberate efforts throughout the 20th century to deny the franchise to immigrants, the poor, and African Americans. They also used their contacts among unions, community groups, and social workers to help build a movement to expand voting among the poor. Their idea led to the National Voter Registration Act, usually called the “motor voter” law, which President Clinton signed in 1993, at a White House ceremony at which Piven spoke and received one of the president's pens.

Cloward and Piven were obviously committed to combining scholarship and activism. Not surprisingly, conservatives have been attacking their ideas for decades. But the demonization of the couple by the extreme Right has escalated since Obama's election.

A few weeks after Obama's victory, James Simpson penned an article for the right-wing American Thinker entitled, “Cloward-Piven Government,” describing their “malevolent strategy for destroying our economy and our system of government.”