The ultimate objective of this strategy--to wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income--will be questioned by some. Because the ideal of individual social and economic mobility has deep roots, even activists seem reluctant to call for national programs to eliminate poverty by the outright redistribution of income. Instead, programs are demanded to enable people to become economically competitive. But such programs are of no use to millions of today's poor. For example, one-third of the 35 million poor Americans are in families headed by females; these heads of family cannot be aided appreciably by job retraining, higher minimum wages, accelerated rates of economic growth, or employment in public works projects. Nor can the 5 million aged who are poor, nor those whose poverty results from the ill health of the wage earner. Programs to enhance individual mobility will chiefly benefit the very young, if not the as yet unborn. Individual mobility is no answer to the question of how to abolish the massive problem of poverty now. It has never been the full answer. If many people in the past have found their way up from poverty by the path of individual mobility, many others have taken a different route.
Organized labor stands out as a major example. Although many American workers never yielded their dreams of individual achievement, they accepted and practiced the principle that each can benefit only as the status of workers as a whole is elevated. They bargained for collective mobility, not for individual mobility; to promote their fortunes in the aggregate, not to promote the prospects of one worker over another. And if each finally found himself in the same relative economic nevertheless clear relationship to his fellows, as when he began, it was nevertheless clear that all were infinitely better off. That fact has sustained the labor movement in the face of a counter pull from the ideal of individual achievement.
But many of the contemporary poor will not rise from poverty by organizing to bargain collectively. They either are not in the labor force or are in such marginal and dispersed occupations (e.g., domestic servants) that it is extremely difficult to organize them. Compared with other groups, then, many of today's poor cannot secure a redistribution of income by organizing within the institution of private enterprise. A federal program of income redistribution has become necessary to elevate the poor en masse from poverty.
In retrospect, Cloward and Piven's proposal seems incredibly naive in failing to anticipate the sort of reactionary backlash that we'd take for granted now. But their wisdom or foresight is irrelevant to the historical question of whether their article actually influenced anyone from the time of its writing to the present day. The "strategy" was first exposed by Rudolph Giuliani while he was still mayor of New York, according to David Horowitz, a reactionary publicist credited with doing the most to popularize the idea. While Horowitz claims that Giuliani denounced Cloward and Piven by name, the mayor doesn't do so in a transcript of the speech Horowitz quotes from, though he may have done so elsewhere. (Another scholar explains that Giuliani name-checked them in a written draft of the speech, but left them out of his spoken remarks, apparently not yet realizing the power of their dread names) I have no reason to doubt that Republicans were aware of Cloward and Piven (who remained active authors until Cloward's death) at that time, but I don't know if anyone claimed, or if they even really claim today, that the activists' article was the single decisive inspiration for any government action, partisan strategy or activist movement. Horowitz claims that Cloward and Piven were instrumental in forming the National Welfare Rights Organization, a group he accuses of intimidating welfare workers, but he has no smoking gun linking the authors to that great satan, ACORN. Like most conspiracy theorists, he and his fellow researchers depend on circumstantial evidence based on presumed affinities among common enemies. That the founders of ACORN and related groups in the Tea Party demonology shared beliefs and goals in indisputable. Whether that proves that anyone after 1966 consciously followed a Cloward-Piven blueprint is less certain. Rightist researchers might want to trace a history of citations in progressive or radical publications if they want to prove the long life and influence of "The Weight of the Poor," but I suppose they assume that conspirators wouldn't be so blatant about where they got their marching orders.
The "Cloward-Piven" conspiracy theory has understandable appeal for reactionaries because "The Weight of the Poor" is written in a way guaranteed to scare them. The authors knew what they wanted and felt no shame about wanting it. I suspect, however, that it'd spook most modern-day Democrats. I can imagine an experiment along the lines of those conducted by tricksters who submit unattributed texts of the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights to politicians who end up rejecting them as extremist proposals. In this case, I'd bet that if you sent your Democratic Representative or Senator an anonymous copy of "The Weight of the Poor," he or she would trash it at once as an outburst from the loony left. What that says about Cloward, Piven or today's Democrats I leave for you to determine.