Cloward-Piven is a strategy for forcing political change through orchestrated crisis.
The strategy was first proposed in 1966 by Columbia University political scientists Richard
Andrew Cloward and Frances Fox Piven as a plan to bankrupt the welfare system and produce
radical change. Sometimes known as the "crisis strategy" or the the "flood-the-rolls, bankrupt-the-
cities strategy," the Cloward-Piven approach called for swamping the welfare rolls with new
applicants - more than the system could bear. It was hoped that the resulting economic collapse
would lead to political turmoil and ultimately socialism.
The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), founded by African-American militant George
Alvin Wiley, put the Cloward-Piven strategy to work in the streets. Its activities led directly to the
welfare crisis that bankrupted New York City in 1975.
Veterans of NWRO went on to found the Living Wage Movement and the Voting Rights
Movement, both of which rely on the Cloward-Piven strategy and both of which are spear-headed
by the radical cult ACORN.
Both the Living Wage and Voting Rights movements depend heavily on financial support from
George Soros's Open Society Institute.
On August 11, 1965, the black district of Watts in Los Angeles exploded into violence, after
police used batons to subdue a man suspected of drunk driving. Riots raged for six days, spilling
over into other parts of the city, and leaving 34 dead. Two Columbia University sociologists,
Richard Andrew Cloward and Frances Fox Piven were inspired by the riots to develop a new
strategy for social change. In November 1965 - barely three months after the fires of Watts had
subsided - Cloward and Piven began privately circulating copies of an article they had written
called "Mobilizing the Poor: How it Could Be Done." Six months later (on May 2, 1966), it was
published in The Nation, under the title, "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty."
The article electrified the Left. Following its May 2, 1966 publication, The Nation sold an
unprecedented 30,000 reprints. Activists were abuzz over the so-called "crisis strategy" or
"Cloward-Piven strategy," as it came to be called. Many were eager to put it into effect.
Richard A. Cloward was then a professor of social work at Columbia University. He died in 2001.
His co-author Frances Fox Piven was a research associate at Columbia's School of Social Work.
She now holds a Distinguished Professorship of Political Science and Sociology at the City
University of New York.
In their 1966 article, Cloward and Piven charged that the ruling classes used welfare to weaken
the poor. By providing a social safety net, the rich doused the fires of rebellion. Cloward and
Piven wanted to fan those flames. Poor people can advance only when "the rest of society is
afraid of them," Cloward told The New York Times on September 27, 1970. Rather than placating
the poor with government hand-outs, activists should work to sabotage and destroy the welfare
system. The collapse of the welfare state would ignite a political and financial crisis that would
rock the nation. Poor people would rise in revolt. Only then would "the rest of society" accept
their demands. So wrote Cloward and Piven in 1966.
The key to sparking this rebellion would be to expose the inadequacy of the welfare state. This
Cloward and Piven proposed to do, in classic Alinsky fashion, by forcing welfare bureaucrats to
live up to their own book of rules.
The authors noted that the number of Americans subsisting on welfare - about 8 million, at the
time - probably represented less than half the number who were technically eligible for full
benefits. They proposed a "massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls." Cloward and
Piven calculated that persuading even a fraction of potential welfare recipients to demand their
entitlements would bankrupt the system. The result, they predicted, would be "a profound
financial and political crisis" that would unleash "powerful forces… for major economic reform at
the national level."
Their article called for "cadres of aggressive organizers" to use "demonstrations to create a
climate of militancy." Intimidated by black violence, politicians would appeal to the federal
government for help. Carefully orchestrated media campaigns, carried out by friendly, leftwing
journalists, would float the idea of a "a federal program of income redistribution," in the form of a
guaranteed living income for all; working and non-working people alike. Local officials would
clutch at this idea like drowning men to a lifeline. They would apply pressure on Washington to
implement it. With every major city erupting into chaos, Washington would have to act.
The Cloward-Piven strategy never achieved its goal of system breakdown and a Marxist utopia.
But it provided a blueprint for some of the Left's most destructive campaigns of the next three
decades. It will likely haunt America for years to come since George Soros' Shadow Party has
now adopted the strategy, honing it into a far more efficient weapon than any of its Sixties-era
promoters could have foreseen.
Cloward and Piven recruited a militant black organizer named George Wiley to lead their new
movement. For more information on Wiley and his welfare rights movement. In the summer of
1967, Wiley founded the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), with headquarters in
Washington, DC. Wiley's tactics closely followed the recommendations set out in Cloward and
Piven's article. His followers invaded welfare offices across the nation - often violently - bullying
social workers and loudly demanding every penny to which the law "entitled" them. By 1969,
NWRO claimed a dues-paying membership of 22,500 families, with 523 chapters across the
Regarding Wiley's tactics, The New York Times commented on September 27, 1970, "There
have been sit-ins in legislative chambers, including a United States Senate committee hearing,
mass demonstrations of several thousand welfare recipients, school boycotts, picket lines,
mounted police, tear gas, arrests - and, on occasion, rock-throwing, smashed glass doors,
overturned desks, scattered papers and ripped-out phones."
These methods proved effective. "The flooding succeeded beyond Wiley's wildest dreams,"
writes Sol Stern in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. "From 1965 to 1974, the number of
single-parent households on welfare soared from 4.3 million to 10.8 million, despite mostly flush
economic times. By the early 1970s, one person was on the welfare rolls in New York City for
every two working in the city's private economy."
As a direct result of its reckless welfare spending, New York City - the financial capital of the
world - was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1975. The entire state of New York nearly went down
with it. Leftist agitators swooned in triumph. The Cloward-Piven strategy had proved its
The Cloward-Piven strategy depended on surprise. Once society recovered from the initial
shock, the backlash began. New York's welfare crisis horrified the nation, giving rise to a reform
movement which culminated in "the end of welfare as we know it" -- the 1996 Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which imposed time limits on federal
welfare, along with strict eligibility and work requirements. Both Cloward and Piven attended the
White House signing of the bill as guests of President Clinton.
Most Americans to this day have never heard of Cloward and Piven. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
attempted to expose them in the late 1990's. As his drive for welfare reform heated up, Giuliani
accused the militant scholars by name, citing their 1966 manifesto as evidence that they had
engaged in deliberate economic sabotage. "This wasn't an accident," Giuliani charged in a 1997
speech. "It wasn't an atmospheric thing, it wasn't supernatural. This is the result of policies and
programs designed to have the maximum number of people get on welfare."
Cloward and Piven never again revealed their intentions as candidly as they had in their 1966
article. They learned to cover their tracks. Even so, their activism in subsequent years continued
to rely on the tactic of overloading the system. When the public caught on to their welfare
scheme, Cloward and Piven simply moved on, applying pressure to other sectors of the
bureaucracy, wherever they detected weakness.
The Cloward-Piven strategy - first proposed in 1966 - seeks to hasten the fall of capitalism by
overloading the government bureaucracy with a flood of impossible demands, thus pushing
society into crisis and economic collapse. Application of this strategy contributed greatly to the
turmoil of the late Sixties. Cloward-Piven failed to usher in socialism, but it succeeded in
generating an economic crisis and in escalating the level of political violence in America - two
cherished goals of hard-Left strategists.
Radical organizers today continue tinkering with variations on the Cloward-Piven theme, in the
perennial hope of reproducing '60s-style chaos. The thuggish behavior of leftwing unions such
as SEIU and of certain elements of George Soros' Shadow Party can be traced, in a direct line of
descent, from the early practitioners of Cloward-Piven.
Cloward-Piven's early promoters cited radical organizer Saul Alinsky as their inspiration. "Make
the enemy live up to their (sic) own book of rules," Alinsky wrote in his 1989 book Rules for
Radicals. When pressed to honor every jot and tittle of every law and statute; every Judaeo-
Christian moral tenet; and every implicit promise of the liberal social contract, human agencies
inevitably fall short. The system's failure to "live up" to its rule book can then be used to discredit
it altogether, and to replace the capitalist "rule book" with a socialist one.
In its earliest form, the Cloward-Piven strategy applied Alinsky's principle to the specific area of
welfare entitlements. It counseled activists to create what might be called Trojan Horse
movements - mass movements whose outward purpose seemed to be providing material help to
the downtrodden, but whose real purpose was to draft poor people into service as revolutionary
The specific function of these Trojan Horse movements was to mobilize poor people en masse to
overwhelm government agencies with a flood of demands beyond the capacity of those agencies
to meet. The flood of demands was calculated to break the budget, jam the bureaucratic gears
into gridlock, and bring the system crashing down. Fear, turmoil, violence and economic collapse
would accompany such a breakdown - providing perfect conditions for fostering radical change.
That, at least, was the theory behind the Cloward-Piven strategy.
In 1982, partisans of the Cloward-Piven strategy founded a new "voting rights movement," which
purported to take up the unfinished work of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Like ACORN, the
organization that spear-headed this campaign, the new "voting rights" movement was led by
veterans of George Wiley's welfare rights crusade. Its flagship organizations were Project Vote
and Human SERVE, both founded in 1982. Project Vote is an ACORN front group, launched by
former NWRO organizer and ACORN co-founder Zach Polett. Human SERVE was founded by
Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, along with a former NWRO organizer named Hulbert
All three of these organizations - ACORN, Project Vote and Human SERVE - set to work lobbying
energetically for the so-called Motor-Voter law, which Bill Clinton ultimately signed in 1993. The
Motor-Voter bill is widely blamed today for swamping the voter rolls with "dead wood" - invalid
registrations signed in the name of deceased, ineligible or non-existent people - thus opening the
door to the unprecedented levels of voter fraud and "voter disenfranchisement" claims that
followed in subsequent elections.
The new "voting rights" coalition combines mass voter registration drives - typically featuring high
levels of fraud - with systematic intimidation of election officials in the form of frivolous lawsuits,
bogus charges of "racism" and "disenfranchisement" and "direct action" (street protests, violent
or otherwise). Just as they swamped America's welfare offices in the 1960s, the Cloward-Piven
team now seeks to overwhelm the nation's understaffed and poorly policed electoral system.
Their antics set the stage for the Florida recount crisis of 2000, and have introduced a level of
fear, tension and foreboding to U.S. elections heretofore encountered mainly in Third World
countries. For more information on the Voting Rights Movement, see the entry for "Project Vote."
Both the Living Wage and Voting Rights movements depend heavily on financial support from
George Soros's Open Society Institute. It is largely thanks to money from Soros that the Cloward-
Piven strategy continues even now to eat away at America's political and economic