Cloward and Piven’s article is focused on forcing the Democratic Party, which in 1966 controlled the presidency and both houses of the United States Congress, to take federal action to help the poor. They argued that full enrollment of those eligible for welfare “would produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and fiscal disruption in local and state governments” that would “deepen existing divisions among elements in the big-city Democratic coalition: the remaining white middle class, the white working-class ethnic groups and the growing minority poor. To avoid a further weakening of that historic coalition, a national Democratic administration would be constrained to advance a federal solution to poverty that would override local welfare failures, local class and racial conflicts and local revenue dilemmas.” They wrote:
The ultimate objective of this strategy—to wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income—will be questioned by some. Because the ideal of individual social and economic mobility has deep roots, even activists seem reluctant to call for national programs to eliminate poverty by the outright redistribution of income.
The authors pinned their hopes on creating disruption within the Democratic Party. "Conservative Republicans are always ready to declaim the evils of public welfare, and they would probably be the first to raise a hue and cry. But deeper and politically more telling conflicts would take place within the Democratic coalition," they wrote. "Whites – both working class ethnic groups and many in the middle class – would be aroused against the ghetto poor, while liberal groups, which until recently have been comforted by the notion that the poor are few... would probably support the movement. Group conflict, spelling political crisis for the local party apparatus, would thus become acute as welfare rolls mounted and the strains on local budgets became more severe.”
Michael Reisch and Janice Andrews wrote that Cloward and Piven "proposed to create a crisis in the current welfare system – by exploiting the gap between welfare law and practice – that would ultimately bring about its collapse and replace it with a system of guaranteed annual income. They hoped to accomplish this end by informing the poor of their rights to welfare assistance, encouraging them to apply for benefits and, in effect, overloading an already overburdened bureaucracy."
Historian Robert E. Weir argues that the original goal of the strategy was to bring about a crisis in the welfare system that would require radical reforms. An article in the New York Times in 1970 investigated the welfare system and discussed the impact of the Cloward–Piven strategy. Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, was quoted in 1982 as saying that the strategy could be effective because "Great Society programs 'had created a vast army of full-time liberal activists whose salaries are paid from the taxes of conservative working people." Robert Chandler claimed, "The socialist test case for using society's poor and disadvantaged people as sacrificial “shock troops,” in accordance with the Cloward–Piven strategy, was demonstrated in 1975, when new prospective welfare recipients flooded New York City with payment demands, which may have contributed to the bankrupting of the state government." Other observers credit the city's bankruptcy to the mismanagement caused by politics, encouraging "frequently maturing short-term debt that left officials constantly scrambling to pay off loans."