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Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  408 ratings  ·  36 reviews
Have the poor fared best by participating in conventional electoral politics or by engaging in mass defiance and disruption? The authors of the classic Regulating The Poor assess the successes and failures of these two strategies as they examine, in this provocative study, four protest movements of lower-class groups in 20th century America:
-- The mobilization of the unemp
Paperback, 408 pages
Published December 12th 1978 by Vintage (first published 1977)
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C. Scott
Nov 24, 2014 rated it liked it
I found this book a little like eating a plate full of spinach every day for lunch. You know it's good for you, but that sure doesn't make you look forward to reading it. That said, there is a lot of good information here. I kind of had to check some of my assumptions about how movements accomplish their goals. Overall I learned a lot. ...more
Jun 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
a very instructive history of 20th century social movements - specifically, the unemployed movement of the Great Depression, the industrial workers' movement of the 30s, the civil rights movement, and the welfare rights' movement of the late 60s.

Piven's argument is that movements succeed through disruption (direct action). disruption causes elites to have to appease movements with reforms, whereas negotiating, lobbying, or other tactics are more easily ignored. Piven also contrasts disruption w
Feb 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
Both academics and activists who were involved in the organizing of the Welfare Rights Movement of the 1960s, authors Piven and Cloward talk the talk and walk the walk. Their thesis is simple: the most concessions can be won from power through spontaneous, local and direct economic disruption, rather than through building formal bureaucratic organization and lobbying in the federal government. The effectiveness of a direct local tactic lies in its ability to create local political/financial stra ...more
May 22, 2011 marked it as to-read
Unfortunately, i didn’t know about Poor People’s Movements (1977), until Glenn Beck branded Piven a dangerous radical. Having just read Piven’s introduction to the paperback edition of her book, I actually see why Beck would choose her book to lash out against. Her thesis is that worker “organizations endure, in short, by abandoning their oppositional politics”, that concessions made by the elites are a response not to the organizational strength of the movements, but to the chaotic, mass distur ...more
Dana Sweeney
Apr 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
An extremely compelling sociological / historical view of social movements in the United States. Piven and Cloward are convincing contrarian thinkers whose critiques of the typical "community organizing" model are necessary and historically grounded. This work challenges me to think very differently about how communities can (and often cannot) leverage significant social change. It is extremely well-researched, tactically and strategically valuable, and productively discomforting.

All of that be
Emily Alvarado
Apr 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: badass-books
This text is amazing. Surprisingly radical--- its a marxist based analysis of social movements.....very pragmatic with historical examples and extremely well synthesized theories of how political movements succeed/fail
Feb 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Interesting read. Probably the only people (that I am aware of) to suggest that the civil rights movement could possibly be considered a failure, in one respect.
Craig Werner
Jul 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Written by activist scholars who were involved in shaping the Welfare Rights Movement in the late 1960s, this book is a hybrid of history and political philosophy. The history sections show their age; there's been a ton of scholarship on the labor movement and the civil rights movement that would change the picture they paint in important ways. But their perspective on the relationship between local and national politics as well as their defense of "disruption" and "mobilization" as strategies f ...more
This is a classic in the study of social movements. The authors were scholar activists in the 1960's and 1970's who looked at the ways poor people's movements in the 1920's and 1960's were able to make signficant gains, but then also lost momentum and saw some of those gains retrenched by the ruling elites. Essentially, the authors posit that the greatest resource that poor and working class people have to initiate change is the capacity to gather large groups of people to create social disrupti ...more
Jul 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, socialism
Had a hard time getting into this book, but it was worth it in the end. I would actually recommend that potential readers read Howard Zinn's People's History of The United States first, as this would provide a good background. The conclusions drawn from the inter-war industrial strikes were a welcome surprise and the argument concerning the Civil Rights movement similarly new for me, as well as convincing. Finally, the final chapter on the National Welfare Rights Organization was unlike anything ...more
Brandon Wu
Apr 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Compelling and persuasive, but also depressing and kind of disempowering - Piven and Cloward's classic study of how marginalized people in the United States succeed and fail at mobilizing for social change holds up to scrutiny 35 years after its publication. Interestingly, I've heard that today, Piven is somewhat less intensely structural, and is more focused on agency and relational power. That makes me want to read her more recent work, as Poor People's Movements is extremely well-argued but v ...more
Jul 27, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poli-sci
absolutely brilliant account of social movements, social theory, and how politics plays its part - looking at how people try to affect the system from the outside. her assessment of power is smart, clear, and well-written, and she never shies from saying that as citizens we should be doing more. piven is the type of person when i think of "patriot", and i mean that as a compliment. it's an astounding work of social criticism and in the end, hope. ...more
Oct 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
Written by veterans of the welfare rights movement, this book analyzes four mass movements in U.S. history in the 1930's and 1960's and draws interesting conclusions about the reasons behind their successes and failures. I don't agree with all the conclusions, but it's definitely food for thought, echoing some themes of "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded." ...more
Steven Peterson
Aug 20, 2010 rated it liked it
This is another work by the authors of "Regulating the Poor." It probes the question of why poor people's movements succeed--and fail. The authorts develop four case studies, representing the Great Depression Era and the post-war time frame. When can mass defiance work? Piven and Cloward do a nice job in trying to explain that. ...more
Jan 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Overall clasic that every organizer should read. I'm looking forward to Piven's new book "Challenging Authority." Here's a blog I wrote on it:

Just A. Bean
Oct 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
I learned so much reading this book. It was a bit technical, and tended to repetitive, but really worth the time if you're into mid 20th-century history, or the history of mass movements. Very well thought out, organised and insightful. ...more
Apr 23, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: superior
Another recommendation from Mr. Wildchild. In depth study of political movements, how they come together and why so many have not achieved a lasting impact.
Jul 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: not sure
Shelves: history
This was an informed smack in the face from the world of social science to the face of a wide-eyed liberal arts/american studies major. But the pain felt very nice.
Sep 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
Movements against injustice are unstable if they are not involved in policy making and legislation.
Feb 19, 2010 added it
ever hear about the bonus army movement after the great depression? me neither!
Felix Kolb
Aug 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A classic on the outcomes of social movements and still worth reading!
An exceptional book that will make you think
Jan 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting book on the subject of social movements, and the role that political opportunity structures and mass disruption play in their success and/or failure.
Jul 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic
A classic. Absolutely still worth reading.
Jul 12, 2015 added it
Articulating the very important distinction between mobilizing and its less effective counterpart: organizing.
Oct 26, 2007 rated it really liked it
Very materialist study of why certain movements succeed and fail
Jeremy Meadow
Sep 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
The initial chapter serves as a summary for the examples to follow. The authors assert that political gains to the left are driven by protest that is eventually coopted into progressive organizational bureaucracy bogged down in electoral politics. As the momentum from protest wanes with political gains, elected officials’ incentives to support the poor diminish and concessions are reversed by a wave of reaction. The role of the organizer is to generate as much protest as possible to maximize gai ...more
Aug 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: political-stuff
This is a seminal book that people involved in social movements have been studying for years and I finally got around to reading it. The book is structured as four case studies of social movements--the unemployed and the industrial unions in the Depression, and the civil rights and welfare rights movements in the 60s. Not until I got to the final section did it become clear that it is the greatest work of petty "I told you so" I have ever seen. Basically, it seems like the point of the book is t ...more
Brayden Dunstone
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Read this book for my sociology class and i thought it was very insightful on the structure of social movements. After the first chapter (probably the most important) the books gets very listy with the historical events it focuses on and that kind of dragged on. Still enjoyable
Sep 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Essential reading for anyone interested in building power for the left. Lessons on every page.

“The poor need a great deal, but they are not likely to be helped to get it when we ignore the weaknesses in received doctrines revealed by historical experience.” Amen.
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“What some call superstructure, and what others call culture,” 0 likes
“Briefly stated, the main argument of this chapter is that protest is also not a matter of free choice; it is not freely available to all groups at all times, and much of the time it is not available to lower-class groups at all.” 0 likes
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