How Congress Ignores the Jobless Without Political Worry

Frances Fox Piven says it's because people getting benefits no longer share a public space--where organizing could happen.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 24, 2010

Millions of workers who are facing periods of unemployment longer than 26 weeks will lose insurance benefits in the coming weeks because Congress did not pass an extension of the unemployment program this week. The average unemployed person has been out of a job for stunning 34 weeks, but Congress has been stuck in a back and forth over extending the unemployment insurance program for months, with Republicans and some Democrats arguing that the extension would add too much to the federal deficit. [The Times reports](

Senate Republicans and a lone Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, joined forces to filibuster the legislation in a procedural vote on Thursday. Visibly frustrated, the majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he would move on to other business next week because he saw little chance of winning over any Republican votes.

How can this be? If so many people are out of work, how can do-nothing politics be sustainable? Francis Fox Piven (yes, the architect of [Glenn Beck’s fantasy leftist conspiracy]( to cripple the world) has an idea of how. Just after the news of Reid’s relent broke, I sat down for lunch with Piven, one of the country’s most prominent and influential scholars on poverty and organizing. I ran into her here in Detroit, where I’ve spent the week reporting from the U.S. Social Forum. Piven explained that the way public benefits like unemployment insurance and cash assistance are structured now makes it increasingly difficult for those who rely on these programs to organize politically and demand respect. That’s because the welfare office and the unemployment office are no longer places where poor people gather. Whereas once everybody receiving assistance would go to the office to apply, the programs have become wholly restrictive and are now largely digitalized. The effect is that organizers can no longer organize these constituencies by showing up at the offices where people apply. Poor and unemployed people no longer have a center. This may be one reason that unemployment insurance was not extended today. It’s conceivable that had massive numbers of unemployed people been organized, taken to the streets and flooded congressional in-boxes with emails and calls, the pressure might have been great enough to beat the Beltway’s anxieties about the deficit. Ironically, by making unemployment insurance easier to apply for–by moving applications online–administrators created a disconnected mass of people whom Congress is now openly ignoring.