Frances Piven

Distinguished Professor of Political Science

The Graduate Center, CUNY

Frances Fox Piven is an internationally renowned social scientist, scholar, and activist whose commitments to poor and working people, and to the democratic cause have never wavered.  Piven’s professional accomplishments in the world of academia place her among the ranks of the most important social scientists of the last century.  Her groundbreaking work with Richard A. Cloward on the functions of social welfare and poor relief (Regulating the Poor, 1971) received front page coverage in the New York Times Book Review and ignited a scholarly debate that reshaped the field of social welfare policy.  Subsequent work analyzed the conditions under which the disruptive actions of the poor influenced the foundation of the modern American welfare state (Poor People’s Movements, 1977) and were necessary to the advancement of progressive social policy and political reforms (The Breaking of the American Social Compact, 1997; Challenging Authority, 2008).  Piven is the author or co-author of more than 200 articles published in academic journals, books, popular publications and journals of opinion since 1965, some of which have been republished up to a dozen times.  Her scholarship has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Norwegian and is noted for its boldness and its analytical power and clarity.  It relies on historical interpretation, and in its totality, advances sophisticated theories of power from below.

Professor Piven loves teaching at the Graduate Center, where she has found a home for more than three decades.  In addition, she has held visiting professorships and fellowships (including Fulbright and Guggenheim awards) at numerous universities here and abroad, such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, the University of Amsterdam, Hebrew University, and the University of Bologna, and at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin, the University of California, Arizona State University, the University of Oregon and at Smith College.  Her service to the profession runs equally far and wide, and is most prominently noted by her election as a recent president of the American Sociological Association (2007), as President of the Society for the Study of the Social Problems (1980), and as a Vice President of the American Political Science Association (1981).

It is not only Professor Piven’s academic work that marks her career for distinction.  Rather, it is the unique and exemplary ways that she has bridged the worlds of academia and social activism to advance humanizing social policy reform that sets her apart.  And at this she has been remarkably successful, beginning in the late 1960s, when, along with George Wiley and others, Professor Piven was a founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO).  Later, in 1982, Professor Piven was a co-founder of the Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Campaign, or Human SERVE, which pioneered the idea of “automatic voter registration,” whereby citizens would be registered to vote when they applied for social assistance or drivers’ licenses.  After a decade of advocacy and organizing, Human SERVE’s program was incorporated into the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, popularly known as the “motor voter” bill.  This legislation represented an historic advance in the struggle to win full enfranchisement for low-income and minority people.  Piven and Cloward’s research on the comparatively low levels of voter participation in the U.S.’ book-ended’ their work on reforming the voter registration system with the publication of two scholarly studies, Why Americans Don’t Votein 1988, and Why Americans Still Don’t Vote and Why Politicians Want It That Way in 2000.  The successful blend of scholarship and activism is characteristic of Piven’s entire career.

Professor Piven has enjoyed a lifetime of working with grassroots groups concerned with different facets of poverty and inequality.  Her scholar-activism began before the founding of the NWRO, when she was affiliated as a researcher with Mobilization for Youth, the nation’s first federal juvenile delinquency demonstration project.  Piven’s grassroots activism continues to this day.  She currently serves on the boards of numerous nonprofit and advocacy groups like Project Vote and Wellstone Action, and generously shares her knowledge and funds raised through speaking fees with anti-poverty groups like Community Voices Heard, FUREE, the Center for Community Change, and many others.  Piven’s community service has been recognized throughout her career.  Most recently, she was the recipient of the Elliott-Black Award from the American Ethical Union, given in tribute for her “life-long commitment to create a society of peace and justice;” the Labor Communicator of the Year Award from the New York Metropolitan Labor Communications Council; the Hon. Shirley Chisholm Lights of Freedom Award from Community Voices Heard, given in recognition of her “leadership toward social and economic justice;” the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Award from the Brooklyn College Labor Education Center; and the Hope Shapiro Bread and Roses Award from New Jersey Peace Action, in honor of her “commitment to peace and social justice” and her “tireless work to protect and expand voter rights.”  In 2014, she received the prestigious Puffin Prize for Creative Citizenship from the Puffin and Nation Institutes.