From The Bottom Up


David Wagner is a foremost scholar on issues of poverty, homelessness, and social welfare policy. He co-founded Catalyst Collective, an important grouping within the tradition of radical social work, in the 1970s. His many works include the classic ethnographic look at homelessness, Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community (winner of the C. Wright Mills award) and Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics, and the Failure of Social Policy, with Jennifer Gilman. Partially retired from the University of Southern Maine, where he taught social work for decades, David is moving to Los Angeles, where he is active with the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN). Earlier he helped create POWER, the Portland Organization to Win Economic Rights. Wagner’s latest book, Unlikely Fame: Poor People who Made History (Paradigm Publishers), will be out this fall, and includes famous people of poor origin such as Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Malcolm X, Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday, Margaret Sanger, and many more.

HUGHES: Can you talk about what in your own life brought you to focus on poverty and social change in your activism and scholarship?

WAGNER: My parents, particularly my father, had a big influence on me. They were first-generation Eastern European Jews, and just a step away from poverty. My father always had a class consciousness of both poverty and being working class. He was also militant about unions, but because they lived through the McCarthy period, they always “shoosed” any discussion of radical ideas. They were militant on civil rights.

When I was 14 my school in Malverne, Long Island, became the Northern test case for desegregation, and I just assumed I would be active in the school boycott and protests. Malverne was only a small percentage of Jews, and at the time we naturally looked at black people as our allies on anything involving civil liberties, rights, and labor. Despite the above, I was never more than a liberal in high school. Radicalism in the mid-1960s was not really much out on Long Island. I didn’t like the affluent kids who were my first association with the anti-war movement; when I got to Columbia in 1968 I was a little standoffish. By October 1968, I joined all the rallies. I found I needed to read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao, because I needed to know where I stood. It was an incredibly exciting time not only in the U.S., but throughout the world, with uprisings in France, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. I’m definitely a product of that time. Having said this, like other baby boomers radicalized at this time, it has also haunted me because those times have not come back. We certainly have not had a period of social unrest like that since in the United States.

When you entered the field of social work, were social justice and poverty perceived differently than they are now?

int-3First I wanted to get a PhD, in history, my major. I sort of stumbled into social work—I did not see it as a political statement. In fact I had no idea until I got into the Master’s in Social Work (MSW) program at Columbia that there was even the possibility of concentrating in community organization. After working in the social services, I decided to get my MSW. It was painful for me, perhaps because I could not believe how depoliticized not only social work, but the whole campus, had become. It was like a ghost town to me. It was mostly people concentrating their studies on administration and planning, and there were no jobs in community organization. Even then I was extremely skeptical of social work as a vehicle for anything radical.

There was a group in New York City, the Radical Alliance of Social Service Workers (RASSW), which was fairly large. Out of an RASSW study group I met my wife Marcia and we formed the Catalyst Collective. Even then we were isolated from much of social work. RASSW was split: there was a Communist Party–dominate faction, which supported a “bore from within” strategy in social work—seeing the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as equivalent to a union, and hence supporting it and running candidates within it. The more radical people, including some who founded Catalyst, did not at all see NASW this way— they strongly supported a union orientation, alliance with clients/consumers, and other radical actions.

Catalyst Collective, which ran a journal that later became the Journal of Progressive Human Services, was the major thing that came out of it. Catalyst is most pronounced as an intellectual home for a number of radical social welfare scholars who formed a left academic cohort of sorts. It was not at all what we had in mind—which was a journal that sparked action. Unfortunately we quickly found, as did other “radicals in the professions” movements in the 1960s–1970s, that academics were those who read journals, not practitioners. By the late 1970s there was a scarcity of radical activity; mostly it was a counterattack on the New Right.

Did living in New York City in the 1980s, when “modern homelessness” was exploding,, impact your decision to dedicate much of your career to understanding homelessness?

Yes, although I did not know it at the time. I can remember in 1979 when the traffic islands suddenly filled with homeless bodies on Broadway. I think as a person who was aware and followed the news, one could not help but see homelessness as a political issue and, moreover, as a major marker of deindustrialization in America. In the 1980s, the New York Times ran a series called “The New Calcutta,” that was the perception of the time, we had reached Third World status.

Can you explain the causes underlying homelessness?

Deindustrialization, gentrification, and cuts in social benefits are the big three and they happened at such similar times as to be overwhelming. Factory closings and layoffs, and the more gradual decline of unions and good wages and benefits. Landlords and developers turned major cities into fancy neighborhoods for what was then called “yuppies.” From Carter on, declines in social benefits in value for decades, with the worst cuts under Presidents Reagan and Clinton. There are of course other additions like de-institutionalization (overstated), a weakening in family support, and the drug war, amongst others.

In your books Checkerboard Square and Confronting Homelessness, you discussed how the narrative of mental illness as the cause of homelessness has been dominant and institutionalized. Why do you think we have focused on this, and what are the long-term consequences?

I think this issue goes beyond what we advocate/critics have said, yes, it is easier to blame deinstitutionalization or mental illness than structural causes, and it makes us (presumed “normal” people) feel more secure. But I think Americans, fundamentally, don’t understand the context of what makes a “mental illness” or, for that matter, the context of alcohol and drug abuse. We all know middle-class people—and Hollywood stars—who suffer from problems. But we handle these issues quite differently and the more money you have, more gingerly and more compassionately.

When you are poor or a service recipient your whole life is examined and the “gaze,” as Foucault put it, is entirely on what is wrong with the person. Such a gaze almost always discovers problems, as it might well in everyone I know. It is the raising of these issues as causation that is the real problem. This is our common-sense view of social failure: the problem is in you (them). And it’s scary because almost everyone, including many homeless and poor people, do believe the problem is within them.

You’ve noted that benevolent rhetoric about poor people, often the focus of charitable groups, does not amount to social justice. What do you think the potentials are for social workers to engage in social justice practice without falling into rhetoric and charity?

int7More often change comes from the bottom up—poor people and those who experience oppression or disadvantage. I think social workers are so much a product of the system and subscribe so much to the ideology of service that they may be less likely than working people of lower pay or professional people who have different relations to clients—for example teachers or journalists—to be radical. At a certain point if you see the poor person or other people without degrees as agents of change, it seems to me, you move away from any of the middle class “social justice” paradigms.

For what it’s worth, I have always been a little critical of the worship of Paulo Freire, which informs so much contemporary education. The problem in the USA is not that poorer people need educators, no matter how on their side or capable of “conscientization” they are. Freire is used to buttress the self-importance of all of us bringing in knowledge and ideas from the outside. Also overused is “social justice” as a goal—a term from the 19th century Roman Catholic Church aimed at countering socialism and communism and anarchism.

Given that point, what kind of interventions can be made by social workers or others that contributes to the development of struggle from below?

I guess the successes or partial successes I have seen have been when “clients” organize as poor people or under other labels by themselves. Then, if some middle class people are in a social/ideological position to ally, this works better than what many of us have tried to do—which is be middle class people who try to organize the poor. I have nothing even ideological against the latter, I just have not seen it work. Sadly, I also have been in situations where professionals were more radical than the “clients.” This is not a situation that most theorists, whether Marx or Freire, foresaw, and I think that speaks of a lot of the disorientation Americans feel. If you lived in France or Brazil, people would assume that change comes from the bottom, here Americans do not.

Your work has been somewhat unique in examining the political agency of homeless people while providing a critical assessment of the social services. How would you assess the role of social workers in the development of the sheltering industry and in homeless activism?

Well, in some ways it’s hard to see professionals doing much of anything. Except for students and people working their way through school, it’s all lower-level people (in terms of degrees). I think the whole mass “do good” industry was at fault for the sheltering industry, which, for me, includes not just the shelter staff and maybe case management staff who place people in shelters. It’s the entire apparatus of non-profit, private, and governmental services that structure, along with ideologues and our schools, how we see people and define their problems. Like [Michael] Lipsky’s “street-level bureaucrats,” a formulation I like. As for the activism, this also did not stem from social workers, but from a few people, the Mitch Snyder’s or Bob Hayes’s, who were struck on a moral level. People are so captured by their own effort at being charitable that they rarely, if ever, see the side of equation that homelessness is a political issue. I teach about homelessness and there are students even at the end of the course who resist these definitions. Professionalism also keeps pushing a specialized approach—so I get students who are committed to veterans, but really don’t care about others or who understand all problems as resulting from substance abuse or mental illness and that is their approach to life and work, labeling the problem, as if that solves anything.

What do you mean by “homelessness is a political issue?”

It’s a matter of political resources and willpower. Like health care, it can be changed by government policy. There are countries with few homeless people because of their social policies. Of course, it is also an issue of political economy.

One of the tensions you explored in Checkerboard Square was the dynamic between homeless people and professionalized advocates. What brought you to focus on that?

In Portland, Maine, I noticed there were these indigenous groups, at one point three of them, and this fascinated me. I had this student who led a tent city, so I began to know most of the actors in the homeless and ex-homeless community. It was not surprising that their views of homelessness, the social agencies, and many other things were quite different from professionals. I realize now that this was a moment in time and faded within a short order of the book.

It is true and it is a dynamic problem still that people are easier to organize when they have a place to stay, meals, and so on. So in this cohort there probably were more who became housed and stayed housed. Some still identified with their homeless brethren. By including the ex-homeless and episodically homeless, I created a different notion of community than most people.

Many accounts of political interventions surrounding homelessness focus on professional advocates as the change-makers. What role do you think people experiencing homelessness have played in the political dynamics of the safety net?

I believe the “clients” have a huge influence—by resistance and other techniques in social institutions. My book The Poorhouse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) demonstrates how the so-called “inmates” came to dominate New England institutions, and the raison d’être of the poorhouse/workhouse idea faded. Much of this is unknown unless one looks. Rules unenforced, people let into a shelter who are not supposed to be, a large number living in hidden places. Also the people who get information on how to apply for certain benefits and get them by learning what to say. By its nature this is a hidden discourse. It is only at times that the hidden resistance moves to a political resistance. Many people would rather move on or not fight.

int-4There was a time between 1989 and 1991 when it seemed as if homeless and related groups might have enough power to influence policy. Those were the Up and Out of Poverty days. I think generally outside of local-level politics it has been hard since. My friends in Los Angeles (LACAN) have impeded the City of LA and realtors’ long desire to convert Skid Row to a yuppie zone, but it’s an ongoing fight.

Can you contrast the approach of organizing groups to that of advocacy groups?

A number of scholars have tried to chronicle this. The political, emotional, and organizing impact of homeless people themselves emerging was important. It made for, as I think I showed in Confronting Homelessness, a real three-way dialogue between cities and providers and organized advocates and homeless people themselves. It also meant in a number of cities that criminalization was impeded and people left alone in their tent cities or that housing was built. But of course this was mostly localized power.

In Checkerboard Square you argued that “unlike advocates, many poor people…are anti-bureaucratic, and they resist the intrusion of the state into their lives.” Do you think service providers can themselves move toward movement building without becoming street-level bureaucrats?

Only when social movements are strong—whether on local or broader levels—is there hope for assistance with minimal intrusion. But I have also learned most social movements don’t last forever and many that start services become similarly bureaucratic. I generally do not agree with those who think service provision has a radical potential. Our idea of “service,” as with health care and education has become deeply commodified. This is not to say it might not be better to tear down aspects of the commodified state. But it became too much for the New Left, women’s movements, disability movements, and other critics to fight that battle and the battle over more democratic issues.

I can give an example: at a meeting with Occupy and other radicals a couple of years ago, I said, what if people all went down to hospitals and doctors and refused to show their health cards? The first man who spoke got very freaked out, he had some illness/disability, and he said this was not a thing he would take any chances with. This seems to represent so much of our culture, even the “radicals.” People are not yet desperate enough to demand even health care, and that is very commodified and not-so-good health care. But if you try to change that, people get freaked out. In other words, radicals support each other in fear, but how can you ever have radicalism without helping people overcome their fears?

On a broader basis, I still feel—and it may separate me from some other leftists—that only when some entity on the “left” can appeal to both the poor’s anti-bureaucratic impulse and to Americans’ anti-bureaucratic impulse will there be a strong movement in the U.S. I don’t know exactly what shape it will take, but I shudder when so-called leftists are so afraid of attacks on Obamacare—as if it were their legislation. Government legislation is most often like a sledgehammer “interacting,” as Piven and Cloward once said, with the poor and clientele. Why are we afraid of criticizing the welfare state such as it is? To me, both capitalism and the state are our natural enemies, but I have met many leftists who love the state and can’t wait to get their jobs or funding.

Can you give other concrete examples of how efforts toward social and economic justice could work with anti-bureaucratic impulses, or of efforts that are critical of government?

I think we do this in a small way whenever we appeal to homeless people who do not want a shelter, people who want to manipulate the service system, and those who refuse to accept government and corporate answers. This year, when the city decided to sell what the homeless call “Checkerboard Square” to a multinational hotel, we had a good coalition up here of neighborhood groups, homeless and poor people, a few small businesses that cater to low-income people and Occupy people. I think these types of battles are becoming more common. For example, in Turkey last year a battle over space escalated into a national strike. The kids in the square who are somewhat radical are the future (if there is any good one) and they are encouraging to me. But they look very different from older leftists because many are downwardly mobile and “off the grid.” It is interesting: they are simultaneously left, anti-authoritarian and anti-government.

In Checkerboard Square you questioned whether social change can occur without the involvement of poor people organizing for it. Elsewhere you’ve written about the dangers of tokenizing, channeling and co-optation by politicians. What kind of social movement is necessary right now in efforts toward poverty alleviation and resource redistribution?

This is a key question—not just on homelessness but around all issues of distribution. It’s much of the reason why we have no real universal health care: we have no social movement among poor and working-class people for it. Sure a few labor officials, professors, social service people, but where are the rank and file workers? Where is the force for a guaranteed free health care?

One of the negative effects of the 1960s movements was to enshrine this split between educated radicals and the rest of people. It is a throwback to 19th-century politics, where the rich Brahmins dominated abolitionism, the women’s movement and other reform movements. It’s a sad fact and one that somehow has to be overcome. And I don’t think it can be overcome by middle- (or upper-) class people. It has got to be homegrown. This kind of social movement has to be cross-racial, with more African-Americans and Latino leaders .

I actually see this happening much more than I would have dreamed 20 years ago. We had a large group called POWER, Portland Organization to Win Economic Rights—all poor people—who elected an African-American man president and a Native American/ African-American woman vice president. They had the most experience and people realized it.

At LACAN meetings, it brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw bald older white men clenching their fists in harmony with African-American and Latino people. Granted, these are only glimpses, moments. But it is key to have racial, ethnic and gender unity. Some of this is happening on the West Coast.

Much activism around the safety net and homelessness occurs at a state, municipal or county level, yet the broad contours of funding and policy for homelessness occur at the federal level. Do you think there’s any hope for grassroots organizing for more resources on a federal level?

Very good point. I think most groups and movements think too local and feel too weak to take on big issues. Also the way community organizing works—a not- so-positive virtue of Alinsky and others—is on a limited basis with small targets. I don’t know the answer, one always hopes that like a fire, the brushfires will add up and make flames. I think it’s worth throwing in how the two-party system is indicted here. The Democrats are always willing to turn the heat on the GOP, and, for example, here in Maine, they blame everything on our crazy right-wing governor. This narrow two-party thinking gets people in trouble in terms of anything other than the “same old, same old” ideas. They do this in part so people will not blame the national government and Obama, and it’s very common.

In Checkerboard Square you quoted a homeless activist as stating, “[The system] will move only when we force them [to] and then only as much as we force them to change.” What potential do you think disruptive tactics, or “dissensus” strategies, hold for impacting poverty, including housing access, today?

I am wary of those who either exaggerate activism or believe there is none. It is always somewhere in between. The advocates and service providers are bought out since they must deal with funders and politicians. This is too why our schools basically teach only collaborative tactics. They try to prepare a generation for “civic engagement” defined as “stakeholders” sitting around a corporate table. So there is no controversy that their strategy does not work.

In Los Angeles, I have seen some militant demonstrations by poor people, and I think they do have an effect: in one I attended, a group surrounded an LAPD station and you could see in the eyes of the cops, they were a little scared that people had the courage to bring issues of harassment right to their doors; they had orders not to do anything and stood there taking some abusive chants. Again on the West Coast, Occupy stimulated some militant actions, particularly in places like Oakland.

I admit that since the late 1960s/early 1970s we have not seen widespread success of disruptive tactics. But it is still hard to envision an alternative. Electoral possibilities seem weak, the way U.S. elections are structured. Perhaps something will arouse people to reverse the several-decade decline in even workplace strikes. I don’t feel like a very good prognosticator.

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Craig Hughes is a freelance writer and member of the Team Colors Collective.