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Frances Fox Piven Award Statement

This award is given annually to a person or persons who have made exemplary contributions to advance the public understanding of sociology, sociological research, and scholarship among the general public. The award may recognize a contribution in the preceding year or for a longer career of such contributions.

The selection committee presented the 2003 Award for the Public Understanding of Sociology to social theorist, welfare rights activist, and political science professor Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. Piven is a scholar who is equally at home in the university setting and the world of politics. Her work reflects a concern with the uses of political science to promote democratic reform. In fact, a Boston newspaper article some years ago described Piven as anything but “a cloistered academic.”

Widely recognized as one of America’s most thoughtful and provocative commentators on America’s social welfare system, Piven started her career as a city planner. After brief service in New York City, she became a research associate at one of the country’s first anti-poverty agencies, Mobilization for Youth, a comprehensive, community-based service organization on New York City’s Lower East Side.

Piven’s collaboration with Richard Cloward came to influence both their careers, and the two eventually married. Their early work together provided a theoretical base for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), the first in a long line of grass-roots organizations in which Piven acted as founder, advisor, and/or planner.

Piven is known equally for her contributions to social theory and for her social activism. Over the course of her career, she has served on the boards of the ACLU and the Democratic Socialists of America, and has also held offices in several professional associations, including the presidency of the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the American Political Science Association.

In the 1960s, Piven worked with welfare-rights groups to expand benefits; in the 1980s and 90s she campaigned relentlessly against welfare cutbacks. A veteran of the war on poverty and subsequent welfare-rights protests both in New York City and on the national stage, she has been instrumental in formulating the theoretical underpinnings of those movements.

In Regulating the Poor, Piven and Cloward argued that any advances the poor have made throughout history were directly proportional to their ability to disrupt institutions that depend upon their cooperation. This academic commentary proved useful to George Wiley and the NWRO as well as a great many other community organizers and urban theorists. Since 1994, Piven has led academic and activist opposition to the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” (known as the Personal Responsibility Act), appearing in numerous public forums, from television’s Firing Line to the U.S. Senate, to discuss the history of welfare and the potential impact of welfare reform initiatives.

In corollary activity, Piven’s study of voter registration and participation patterns found fruition in the 1983 founding of the HumanSERVE (Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education) Campaign. The Campaign’s registration reform effort culminated in the 1994 passage of the National Voter Registration Act, or the “Motor-Voter” bill, designed to increase voter registration, especially among low-income groups.