The following is the first installment in The Nation magazine's new “Talk About Poverty (#TAP)” series. Each edition of the series will feature a poverty expert and pose 3-5 questions to the presidential candidates regarding the state of povery in the United States. At the completion of the series, The Nation will compile the best questions into a single questionnaire and hound the presidential campaigns for answers:
When it comes to public policy and poverty in the US few people know more about it than Georgetown University Law Professor Peter Edelman. He has worked to eradicate poverty for nearly half a century, most notably as a legislative assistant to Senator Robert Kennedy and as an Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration—a post he resigned in protest over the 1996 welfare reform bill. He’s also taught and written extensively on the subject, including in his recent book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.
Edelman attended Harvard Law School and clerked on the Supreme Court. But in an interview last year he told me the big change in his life occurred when he met Senator Robert Kennedy and went to work for him.
“Here was a man who really—I think unlike anybody at that level since—was just deeply committed to doing something very serious about poverty in this country and obviously the intersection of poverty and race,” said Edelman. “I had the opportunity to go around the country with him, and to learn as he learned—from listening and talking to people and seeing problems.”
Edelman said his travels with Kennedy taught him in ways that books never could have about “the different specific ways in which power disparities arranged themselves, whether in Mississippi, the Central Valley of California, Eastern Kentucky, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, or Mayor Daley’s Chicago.”
Edelman and Kennedy visited places that were invisible to most Americans, including: Watts, South Central Los Angeles, four months before the civil unrest in 1965; Eastern Kentucky, where the children of former coal miners were going hungry because the mines had closed; and the fields of Delano, in California’s San Joaquin valley, where migrant farmworkers were attempting to organize.
But the experience that clearly changed Edelman’s life forever occurred in Mississippi in the spring of 1967. Kennedy held hearings there to highlight the importance of the state’s multi-county Head Start program in response to political pressure to de-fund the program.
Marian Wright—whom Edelman met for the first time and would later marry—was then twenty-seven and head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund office in Mississippi, as well as General Counsel to the Child Development Group of Mississippi. She was supposed to testify about Head Start, but instead told the Senate subcommittee about near-starvation that was occurring in the state. The subcommittee and staff then toured with Wright to see children “who were tangibly severely malnourished—bloated bellies, running sores that wouldn’t heal.”
“It was this incredibly awful, powerful experience that’s with me all the time,” said Edelman. “I’ll never ever forget seeing those hungry children. Seeing things stokes one’s commitment to make a difference.”
Today, Edelman has an uncanny ability to zero in on significant statistics and demographic trends and shed light on their public policy implications. He also has a knack for giving voice not only to the moral arguments that support an aggressive approach to eradicating poverty, but to the equally compelling economic arguments.
For example, in a July 29 op-ed for the New York Times, Edelman takes on the popular myth first coined by Ronald Reagan, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.”
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Not so, Edelman argues. He notes work by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities demonstrating that without Social Security, food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and the rest of the safety net, “poverty would be nearly double what it is now.” Indeed, instead of 46 million people living in poverty—living on less than $22,314 for a family of four—there would be about 86 million people living in poverty.
“To say that ‘poverty won’ is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution,” writes Edelman.
Edelman suggests that the real reasons for persistent poverty include the proliferation of low-wage jobs; a “gaping hole” that’s been ripped in the safety net in terms of vanishing cash assistance for low-income mothers and children; and “persistent issues of race and gender” that lead to higher poverty rates for minorities and families headed by single mothers. He points to research by the Economic Policy Institute showing that half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year; and one-quarter pay less than $23,000 annually. Also, wages for jobs in the bottom half have increased just 7 percent since 1972.
These are some of the most significant trends Edelman is focused on these days, nearly fifty years after he began his life’s work combating poverty.
He now asks President Obama and Governor Romney these specific questions:
1) US government statistics show 20.5 million people with incomes below half the poverty line—less than about $9,500 for a family of three—up from 12.6 million in 2000. What will you do about this critical problem?
2) US government statistics show 103 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line—below about $45,000 for a family of four. This reflects the large number of low-wage jobs in the nation. What will you do to increase the income of these people who are struggling to make ends meet every month?
3)Urban concentrated poverty has climbed again close to the high point it reached in 1990. What will you do to help improve the quality of life of people who are currently isolated in America’s inner cities?
4) Rural poverty persists as a blight for people across the country, from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt to the colonias of south Texas, and Indian reservations in many places. What will you do to help reduce the poverty in these places?
5) Investments in early childhood are key to children’s prospects for productive lives. Federal assistance for childcare currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible. What will you do to increase the availability of quality childcare to more low-income children?
More questions from experts are coming soon. In the meantime, let @MittRomney and @BarackObama know you want them to Talk About Poverty, #TAP—and send them a link to Edelman’s questions.