Frances Fox Piven is a political scientist and activist who has been writing about poverty, welfare rights and protest movements for nearly half a century. The Nation, where Piven has been a long-time contributor, calls her “legendary.” Recently, Piven has become well known to another audience. Since Glenn Beckplaced her at the root of one of his famous chalkboard graphs, accusing her of plotting to “intentionally collapse our economic system,” Piven has been covered throughout the conservative blogosphere. We talked to Piven about rising inequality, poverty, and the condition of the safety net, as well as her sudden and un-intentioned notoriety.
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.