Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven



Frances Fox Piven is a prominent activist and social theorist known for her work surrounding poverty and public policy. Born in the year 1932 to working-class Polish immigrants, Piven grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens (West; 2011). Accepted into the University of Chicago’s City Planning undergraduate program at the age of 15, Piven spent her nights waitressing in truck stop diners and her days were spent debating theory with her classmates in coffee shops. Her lifelong marriage of seemingly separate worlds of academia and the realities of the working poor is central to her work and theory (Sophia Smith Collection; 2012). Upon completing her fraduate degree in Social and Economic Planning at the University of Chicago in 1962 she moved to New York City to work in Mobilization for Youth on the Lower East Side for her future husband Richard Cloward (West; 2011).

Piven went on to teach at Colombia University and Boston University, and has taught at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York since 1982. She has held posts on the boards of the Democratic Socialists of America and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as served president of the American Sociological Association (Sophia Smith Collection; 2012).

Major Works

“Regulating the Poor” (1972)- a historical and theoretical analysis of the role of welfare policy in the economic and political control of the poor and working class.

“Poor Peoples’ Movements” (1977)- Analyzes the political dynamics through which insurgent social movements sometimes compel significant policy reforms.

“Why Americans Don’t Vote” (1988)- Analyzes of the role of electoral laws and practices in disenfranchising large numbers of working class and poor citizens.

“The War at Home” (2004)- Examines the domestic causes and consequences of the foreign wars launched by the Bush administration.

“Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America” (2006)- Examines the interplay of disruptive social movements and electoral politics in generating the political force for egalitarian reform in American history.


Major Concept

Piven and her late husband Richard Cloward outlined the Cloward-Piven Strategy which seeks to expedite the fall of capitalism by over loading government bureaucracies with a flood of impossible demands. Piven believed this would push for major economic reform at the national level. She also proposed the poor should disrupt the system by engaging in irregular and disruptive tactics. Puar views violent rioting as an effective and desirable means for social change.



Piven was famously attacked by conservative pundit Glenn Beck and his supporters for her 2010 article “Mobilizing the Jobless”.  In the article Piven calls for mass protests by the young and unemployed, who she feels have been failed and ignored by their government (Piven; 2012). In characterization typical of critics of Piven, Beck argued that she seeks a collapse of the economic system and advocates for welfare policies in which the poor lazily collect checks funded by tax dollars of the middle and upper classes (Mirkinson; 2011).



Mirkinson, Jack. “Glenn Beck Target Frances Fox Piven Gets Death Threats”. The Huffington Post, 21 January 2011. Web November 17, 2012.

Piven, Frances Fox. “Mobilizing the Jobless”. The Nation, 22 December 2010. Web November 17, 2012.

Poe, Richard. “ The Cloward-Piven Strategy”. Discover the Network A Guide to the Political Left.,  2005. Web 4 May 2013.

Sophia Smith Collection. “Biographical Note”. Smith College. Five Colleges Archives and Manuscripts Collections. Web 15 November 2012.

West, Cornel. “The Weight of the Poor: Cornel West Interview Frances Fox Piven”. Guernica Magazine, 15 September 2011. Web 15  November 2012.

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