Policy Matters is a quarterly series of reports that provide timely research and guidance on issues that are of concern to policymakers at the local, state, and national levels.

Volume 5, Issue 1 by Juliann Allison, Ian Breckenridge-Jackson, Katja M. Guenther, Ali Lairy, Elizabeth Schwarz, Ellen Reese, Miryam E. Ruvalcaba, and Michael Walker, Is the Economic Crisis a Crisis of Social Justice Activism?


Executive Summary

The recent economic crisis, which began in 2007, has had devastating impacts for people throughout the United States, with over 15 million workers out of their jobs and several million fami- lies out of their homes. Compounding these problems, demands for social services have soared at the very time that revenues to states and nonprofit organizations have decreased.

At first blush, these circumstances seem ripe for social justice activism in the United States. Grievances tend to increase during recessions, thereby creating a larger pool of potential participants. Social justice movements may also have opportunities to identify new opponents (such as “big banks”) to help galvanize support, and economic crises can increase strain on political and economic structures in ways that render them more vulnerable to challenges by social movements. At the same time, diffi- cult economic circumstances may reduce funding available to social movement organizations, and may reduce participation among individuals who are worried about their personal financial circumstances.

Has the economic crisis created a crisis for social justice activism in the United States? This paper examines how social justice activists perceive the effects of the economic crisis on their political organizations and how new organizing campaigns are seeking to address the problems associated with the recession. We analyze quantitative and qualitative data collected at the 2010 United States Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit, Michigan, where some 20,000 activists affiliated with a variety of organiza- tions and social movements gathered to discuss current issues, plan actions, and broaden their alliances.

Nearly half of activists reported that funding has become tighter in the context of the economic crisis, while slightly more than one quarter (28 percent) of activists reported that the goals and priori- ties of their organization and its alliances had shifted in light of the economic crisis. At the same time, our content analysis of the USSF program and ethnographic observations from the meeting suggest that the economic crisis has inspired or revived campaigns for economic justice among consumers, homeowners, and unemployed workers, as well as among a variety of public sector workers and their clients. Thus, the economic crisis seems to have produced divergent effects among organizations advocating for equity and social justice: increasing the need for such organizations and increasing the pool of interested participants, while at the same time presenting budgetary and logistical challenges to social movement organizations.

The authors are all faculty and graduate students in sociology and political science at UC Riverside. Juliann Allison is associate professor of political science and Katja Guenther is assistant professor of sociology. The corresponding author, Ellen Reese, is associate professor of sociology at UC Riverside. Her research focuses on welfare state development and social movements.

For more information, contact Ellen Reese at (951) 827-2930 or by email: ellen.reese@ucr.edu.