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peter edelman

Peter Edelman

Blessed Are the Poor, But Not in America: Reflections on Peter Edelman’s So Rich, So Poor

The LA Progressive has done much to expose present-day poverty, including the posting of Charley James’s essays describing his own experiences among the poor. So it is fitting to place here these reflections on Peter Edelman’s new book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America (2012).

Edelman worked for Senator Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and has been concerned with alleviating U.S. poverty ever since. While working for RFK in 1967 he met his future wife, civil rights lawyer Marian Wright, the first black woman accepted to the Mississippi Bar. In 1973 she founded the Children’s Defense Fund, which has been attempting to lessen poverty among children for almost four decades. In his new book, Edelman speaks passionately of Kennedy’s concern with poverty: “He was a man who—arguably unlike anybody at that level since—was deeply committed to doing something very serious about poverty in this country and the intersection of poverty and race.”

In his Introduction and Chapters 1(“A Snapshot of Our Current Mess”) and 3 (“Why are We Stuck?”) Edelman provides plenty of statistics indicating the growing poverty in our midst. Since President Clinton left office in early 2001, 15 million more people had become classified as poor, reaching a total of 46 million people or 15.1 percent of the population by 2010, and the situation was getting worse in 2011. In 2010 “an astonishing 20.5 million people lived in extreme poverty [possessing an income of less than $9,000 for a family of three], up by nearly 8 million in just ten years, and 6 million had no income other than food stamps. . . . Adding in the near-poor—those with incomes below twice the poverty line or $44,000 for a family of four—brings the total of the poor and the near-poor to more than 103 million people [one-third of our total population], a number that is nearly as arresting as the utterly shocking number who are in extreme poverty.” Edelman believes that the incomes of these near-poor families are inadequate to pay for “such essentials as food, housing, and health care.”

To find the resources to lessen poverty, Edelman thinks we must attack “the blatant inequality of today [and] see that the wealthiest Americans and big corporations pay at least as much in taxes as they did before [the Bush tax cuts of] 2001. He adds that “the stunning ascendancy of the wealthiest people must be addressed; it has become a moral issue as well as one of politics and economics. The American economy did not stagnate over the past forty years: it grew, but the fruits of that growth went to those at the top. . . .The economic and political power of those at the top is not only eroding our democracy but also making it virtually impossible to find the resources to do more at the bottom. Nor is the issue merely about those at the bottom: today’s inequality hurts a substantial majority of Americans.” In his Conclusion, he adds, “In a way we have not seen since the Great Depression, the rich and the powerful are adding every day to the bricks that make up the wall of their separation from everyone else.”

Many decades ago, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote: “The difference between the incomes of the poor and mine is the most shocking fact of our civilization.” Edelman expresses a similar outrage over the ever-widening U. S. gap between rich and poor. He concludes: “We are the wealthiest country in the world; that we should have poverty at all is oxymoronic, and that we have the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world is downright shameful.”

In his second chapter, Edelman turns to “What We Have Accomplished.” He writes that “John F. Kennedy’s campaign in West Virginia (in 1960) is said to have opened his eyes to white poverty, and Michael Harrington’s now-classic The Other America [1962] captured a surprising degree of attention.” Most of the remainder of this chapter deals with anti-poverty accomplishments in the 1960s and beyond, including those under President Lyndon Johnson, who waged a “War on Poverty.” Edelman believes it’s important to appreciate what has been accomplished and to realize that without these accomplishments our current poverty level, bad as it is, would be much worse (“about 40 million more people in poverty” if it were not for many federal programs he lists).

Although he mentions some of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, like the Social Security Act of 1935, Edelman mainly concentrates on anti-poverty measures developed during the last half century: Medicaid, food stamps, indexing Social Security to inflation, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, Pell Grants, Supplementary Security Income (SSI), housing vouchers, Head Start, child care assistance, legal services for the poor, and (under President Obama) the Affordable Care Act, and the Recovery Act.

Earlier in his book Edelman writes that “throughout history there has been an instinctive belief among some that the poor have no one to blame but themselves.” He suggests that certain U. S. developments have contributed to this belief: America’s pioneer spirit, rugged individualism, and “Horatio Alger mythology that one makes it (or doesn’t) on his or her own.”

My own research indicates that a similar belief about old-age poverty contributed to the USA’s delay in becoming the last major industrial nation to enact some form of national social security. Only after the Great Depression proved conclusively that one did not have to be lazy to end up poor was it possible for Roosevelt to get Congress to pass Social Security and other New Deal legislation. In post-WWII America, however, many people have forgotten this lesson and have reverted to the belief that poverty is some sort of self-inflicted condition brought about by moral flaws. As Michael Harrington referred to it in his Toward a Democratic Left (1968): the “most cherished of middle-class myths: that the poor are essentially lazy free-loaders.”

Edelman believes that this myth has led many “middle-income voters [to] think they have more in common with the people at the top than the people at the bottom,” and as long as they think that “we are cooked.” In the midst of our still troubled economy it seems mind-boggling that more people do not realize that even among the homeless there are all sorts of individuals—e.g., as Charley James states, former “construction workers, teachers, production managers, accountants, day care helpers, entrepreneurs and factory hands”—but such is the case.

marian and peter

Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman

This myth connecting poverty with laziness seems to be the single biggest roadblock preventing us from doing more to alleviate poverty. It helps explain why few politicians talk much about it. Edelman writes that “liberal members of Congress say that, just now, approaching more conservative colleagues (and not just Republicans) with a proposition that contains the word ‘poverty’ is an immediate red flag.” Even President Obama, whom Edelman credits with doing much, and being blocked by Congress from doing even more, to lessen poverty “seldom said the ‘p’ word, and his emphasis on the middle class with infrequent references to those at the bottom” disappoints Edelman. “

In a later chapter, Edelman briefly refers to the Progressive Era (1890 to 1914), “during which a coalition of immigrant workers, muckraking journalists, urban reformers, and followers of the social gospel produced both a sharper backlash against corporate power and a new spate of socially oriented legislation.”

He does not mention, however, two women who perhaps worked harder than anyone, for almost a combined century, to alleviate U. S. poverty. The first was a leading Progressive, Jane Addams, who in 1889 established Chicago’s Hull House to aid the poor and in her autobiographical Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) included a chapter entitled “Problems of Poverty.” The second woman was Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Worker (CW) movement. By the time Addams died in 1935, Day had already begun her long career of overseeing a string of Hospitality Houses that provided shelter and food to poor people. By WWII there were about 30 of them nationwide, as well as one in England, but her pacifism angered some previous supporters, leading to some wartime closings. Following the war, the number of houses again gradually increased, and today, more than three decades after her death in 1980, the CW movement remains strong. By 2011, according to the CW website, “213 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence . . . and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken.”

In a 1966 article on poverty, Day noted that “it was Michael Harrington's book The Other America, and Dwight McDonald's long review and analysis of that book in the New Yorker, that made the problem explode in this country. . . . This book of Mike's, which came as a result of his two-year stay with us as one of the editors of the Catholic Worker [the newspaper run by Day], started the War on Poverty program.”

In the same article she wrote that “war, and the poverty of peoples which leads to war, are the great problems of the day.” But she stressed a different approach than Edelman’s to dealing with poverty. Whereas he emphasizes the need for governmental actions like raising taxes on the wealthy to provide more funds to fight poverty, the self-described anarchist Day distrusted federal-government solutions even more than many conservatives today. And she added that “the fundamental solution is the personal response which each of us makes to the message of Jesus Christ. It is the solution which works from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and makes for readiness to join in larger regional solutions like the organizing of farm workers with Cesar Chavez, community solutions of Saul Alinsky.”

During the Clinton administration, Edelman worked on anti-poverty measures at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but he “resigned from the government in protest over President Clinton’s signing of the welfare law in 1996.” What bothered Edelman most about this law was that it ended any federal entitlement to poverty assistance and turned the matter over to the discretion of individual states, many of which have done an inadequate job since then in helping the poor.

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Although he does not primarily emphasize personal responsibility and bottom-up solutions, neither does he ignore them. In his Introduction, he writes: “If we want to make greater progress on poverty, bold action will be required on many fronts: public policy and private action, national and local initiatives, and steps across many fields of endeavor—income from work, work supports like child care, safety-net measures, health, housing, criminal justice reform, human services of all kinds, and investments in education and child development. Public policy is essential, but so is civic action. The millions of one-on-one, one-by-one connections that occur every day, both professionally and through volunteering, make a huge difference. Individual responsibility is indispensable, too.”

Despite their different approaches, both Day and Edelman, unlike many on the Right, have rejected the idea that poverty results primarily from one’s own moral flaws. Day would be especially upset today by the fact that so many U. S. citizens who consider themselves good Christians seem indifferent to the poor, who they blame for their own plight.

Like Day, Edelman and Kennedy admired Chavez, and all three met with him on different occasions. In a column of June 1969 she recounted taking part in a memorial mass for Robert Kennedy after she had come to visit Cesar Chavez and support him and his United Farm Worker strikers. She mentioned that “Chavez will always remember that [Robert] Kennedy came and broke bread with him. . . . He considered him a companero in a very deep sense. Both Catholics, both devout, it did not seem that the wealth of one made any difference between them.”

Day was even more a devout, but radical, Catholic, and a few decades after her death New York’s Cardinal John O’Conner convinced the Vatican to consider proclaiming her a saint. Her view of poverty was developed not only by her personal experiences, but also by reading papal encyclicals that stressed Christian obligations to help the poor.

Her mention of Saul Alinsky is especially interesting because of right-wing attempts to present him as some sort of guru to President Obama, who as a community organizer in Chicago was exposed to his ideas (see here for more on this subject).

Edelman thinks that three forces help explain why U. S. poverty has increased since RFK’s assassination in 1968:

“Most important of those is the fundamental change that occurred in the American economy. Good-paying low-skill jobs went overseas and gave way to automation, and low-wage work became ubiquitous. . . . Second is the substantial increase in the number of families headed by a single parent, usually a woman. The plethora of low-wage jobs has made it more and more difficult for a family with only one wage-earner to make ends meet [one-fourth of all single-earner households are in poverty]. Third is the fact that race and gender still matter a great deal as to who is poor and who is not. Despite important improvement in the 1990s, minorities and single women with children continue to be vastly poorer than are whites and married couples, and attitudes about race and gender are still major drivers of the politics of poverty.”

Chapter 4 of So Rich, So Poor concentrates on jobs. The problem is not just that the Great Recession and the continuing economic malaise that have characterized our economy in recent years have failed to produce enough jobs, but that so many that we do have are low-wage ones and with poor or no benefits. “Half the jobs in the country pay less than $34,000 a year, and almost a quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four ($22,000 a year).” Many of the positions likely to become more available in the future—e.g. “home health aides, food preparation and service workers, personal and home care aides, and retail salespersons”—pay low salaries. Getting people adequate paying jobs is the single most important way of lessening poverty.

Edelman provides numerous suggestions as to how to accomplish this goal. Many of them involve federal and state policies that need to be more worker-friendly, and he realizes that our present political climate is not conducive to such measures. An implicit aim of his book is to convince more citizens of the need of politically progressive policies such as strengthening the rights of unions; increasing and expanding the coverage of federal and state minimum wage rates, as well as those of women and immigrants (including undocumented workers); weakening the influence of corporate lobbying; and cracking down on what he labels “wage-theft,” by which workers such as “dishwashers, office cleaners, day laborers, nannies, health care aides, packinghouse workers, and sweatshop factory employees” are often cheated out of portions of their income. Edelman also advocates “stronger enforcement of all applicable antidiscrimination laws” and facilitating “entry into the labor market for people who face particular barriers: the disabled, young people at the margins of inclusion, welfare recipients, ex‑offenders, and the homeless.”

One of the federal government programs he would like to see expanded is AmeriCorps. Its website describes it “as a network of national service programs that engage Americans in intensive service to meet the nation’s critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.” It also states that “in September 1994, the first class of AmeriCorps members—20,000 strong—began serving in more than 1,000 communities. On July 3, 2003, President Bush signed the Strengthen AmeriCorps Program Act, which nearly doubled the number of AmeriCorps members.” As a result of more recent legislation, “approximately twice as many AmeriCorps positions in all categories” became possible.

Edelman also believes that the government should encourage the creation of more “green jobs” and modify tax and other policies so not only would the wealthiest be taxed more, but the poorest helped more. He realizes that many of the rich (unlike Warren Buffet) would oppose higher taxes on themselves, but argues that “it is in their interest to do so. They benefit enormously from the stability of our system; they can’t have appropriately educated workers without good schools; they won’t have enough consumers for their products without paying their workers a decent wage.” He mentions the “national debt” only once, observing that some who would be willing to tax the rich more “want to send the proceeds to reduce the accumulated national debt rather than help people in need, even the victims of the recession.” But he does make one major suggestion on how to free up more government money—curtail “our bloated defense budget, which is greater than the defense budgets of the next seventeen countries combined.”

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with “Deep Poverty” and “Concentrated Poverty.” Edelman points out that “deep poverty [defined as a family of three having less than $9,000 annual income] among children rose nearly 75 percent from 1995 to 2005, and it had risen another 30 percent by 2010. Why the rise since the mid-1990s? The biggest reason is the near demise of welfare,” due mainly to the 1996 law, which ended any right to cash assistance. He also writes that “the American safety net is much more fragmented than that of every other industrialized country, and its biggest hole is its deterioration with regard to the utterly destitute.” He thinks that “fundamental changes in policy” are needed.

In dealing with “concentrated poverty,” he is most concerned with “the abandoned who live in the inner city, disproportionately but far from exclusively African American: people who live amid conditions of concentrated, persistent, and intergenerational poverty far more than the rest of the poor.” But he notes that the abandoned also include “Native Americans on reservations; former coal miners in Appalachia; seasonal farmworkers in California, Florida, and elsewhere; sharecroppers in Alabama and Mississippi; and day laborers in city after city.”

To deal with deep and concentrated poverty Edelman believes a pragmatic and holistic approach is necessary that attacks the problem on many fronts. Government programs and creating more good jobs and raising the pay for many lower-paying ones can only do so much. He mentions various anti-poverty experiments of the past that policy-makers need to learn from, both because of their successes and failures. Among them were local initiatives like RFK’s attempt to encourage the revitalization of the African American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, an initiative which he believed combined “the best of community action with the best of the private-enterprise system.” There were also conservative Congressman Jack Kemp’s efforts to create “enterprise zones” in inner cities.

Edelman does not dismiss the complaints of many conservatives about some of the “behavioral patterns—denigration of the value of education, crime, nonmarital childbearing, and more—that have been associated with concentrated poverty. . . . Sad to say, they have become embedded and, in effect, intergenerational. The structural frameworks and continuing racism and racial discrimination have to be addressed, but so do the issues of personal and parental responsibility.”

But attention to inner city needs is also important regarding housing, safe-neighborhoods, transportation, and attracting more stores, businesses, and higher-income people. Throughout his book, but especially in Chapter Seven, “Young People: Improving the Odds,” Edelman stresses the importance of schools and education. He states that the main purpose of this final chapter is “to discuss the education young people must have in order to qualify for the jobs of the future. . . . especially the role that career- and job-related education should play in keeping inner-city young people in school and creating more pathways to productive adulthood.” Again he is most thorough in discussing all sorts of educational experiments, including charter schools, and he is balanced and judicious in his assessments of successes, failures, and future needs.

In his brief four-page Conclusion, Edelman sums up his book with some terse sentences. For example: “The first thing we need to do is roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. If we can’t do that, we’re not going to have the resources to do the next ten things.” “Our best weapon—our weapon of mass construction when we use it—is us.” “We have to be at it steadily, all the time. This means both electoral politics and outside advocacy and organizing.” His final thought is that after electing Obama in 2008 too many of his supporters “figured he would do it all and we could go about our business.

There were two problems with that. One, he needed our help to get things done, and two, he needed to hear our voice about what he was not doing that he should have been doing and what he was doing that was wrong. You can’t just vote and then disappear for four years. But there have also been times when we turned up our nose at the electoral part of it on some dopey theory that it didn’t matter who won and found out otherwise, to our detriment.” With the 2012 elections fast approaching, this useful reminder couldn’t be timelier.

Walter G. Moss