In Defense of Grassroots-Powered Progressive Federalism

This piece is part of a collection on “progressive federalism,” which addresses the conditions under which American federalism advances and hinders the interests of democratic political movements. Other contributions can be found here. If you are interested in participating in the discussion, join us on Twitter at @lpeblog.

Annelise Orleck –

Over fifty years ago, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward suggested that poor people’s movements take to the streets as their only lever for influencing public policy. But as the 1960s welfare rights movement they were advising soon showed, and as the modern living wage and labor movements have demonstrated, “progressive federalism” can enhance the power of poor and working people. Rather than serving as an obstacle to progressive change, the diffusion of power and resources across federal, state and local governments has allowed poor people’s movements to turn to federal authorities at times when local governments have been conservative and resistant and vice versa. Today, progressive federalism has allowed community-based organizations and poor people’s movements to expand the political class—making successful runs for elected office and pushing through local ordinances that become models for other city, state, and federal governments.

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