Indiana University SPEA Dean John D. Graham

Dr. Graham assesses the potential well-being of the working poor, the near poor and the new poor in an economic recovery.

In 2008, when John Graham became dean of Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs—one of the largest public policy schools in the U.S.—he brought to the position extensive experience in university and government settings. Graham was previously dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School and on the faculty of Harvard's School of Public Health, where he founded and led its Center for Risk Analysis. He also served in the federal Office of Management and Budget, overseeing major regulatory proposals from Cabinet agencies. A native of Pittsburgh, PA, Graham earned his Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon University.


Tavis: Starting January 22nd, we’re going to once again devote three nights of this program to the issue of poverty in America. Despite lip service by some in Washington, the plight of the poor remains one of the most perplexing and ignored issues of our time.

I’m going to be joined in Washington January 22nd for that conversation by a terrific lineup of thought leaders on the issue of poverty, including Jeffrey Sachs, Marian Wright Edelman, Cornel West, Jonathan Kozol and others.

I’m also pleased to announce they’ll be joined in January by my guest tonight, John Graham, dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at my alma mater, Indiana University. Also in January, the SPEA school at IU is releasing a sober report in the form of a new text. It’s called “America’s Poor and the Great Recession.”

For a preview tonight, I’m pleased to be joined by Dean Graham, who is in Charleston, South Carolina this evening. Dean Graham, good to have you on the program, sir.

John Graham: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking how it is that we can gain traction on the issue of poverty in a bipartisan way when there are persons in this country, indeed, I might add, persons in Congress, who do feel that there is a culture of dependency in this country, that we have fostered a welfare state in this country, or as Mitt Romney put it the other day, that there are too many gifts being handed out to persons in this country.

With that as a backdrop, how do you start by getting traction in a bipartisan way on the issue of poverty being a priority in this nation?

Graham: Well, Tavis, it’s not easy, but one starting point is to remember that of the 46 million Americans in poverty, a substantial share of them are children under the age of 18, living in families who have adults who are not earning adequate amounts of money. In an economic like this, where the jobs are very scarce and people wait long times to even apply for jobs, this is a very difficult time to get those earnings.

Tavis: Where’s the evidence, to your mind, that this country really cares about children? They cannot vote, every candidate for office talks about the future, and yet I don’t know where the evidence is that we should expect that this next Congress is going to make children, poor children, a priority.

Graham: Well, I certainly think it’s not clear yet, and there’s so much pressure, Tavis, as you know, to get the federal budget deficit under control that one of the dangers we highlight in our book is that the safeguards that are now in place to protect low-income Americans may gradually be weakened, or the amount of support will be reduced. That is, of course, a major concern we have about the future going forward.

Tavis: You worked in the Bush White House; so clearly, this is an issue that has persons on both sides of the political aisle who do, in fact, care about it. For that matter, Paul Ryan mentioned it more than anybody else.

There are those who will take him to task in a heartbeat about what he intends to do about it as chairman of the House Budget Committee, but there are folk on both sides of the aisle who care about this particular issue. Do you think that group is growing at all in this country?

Graham: Well, it should be growing, and the basic facts of it are very disturbing. We’re told that the Great Recession began in December of 2007 and ended in June of 2009, but it’s been about 2.5 years since the recession was officially recorded as being over, and yet poverty in America continues to rise.

I just looked at the latest monthly food stamp counts and they’re still increasing on a monthly basis. So there may be a recovery out there, but for many millions of low-income Americans, there is no evidence that it has taken hold yet.

Tavis: Let me go right inside the text, “America’s Poor and the Great Recession.” The reason why I’m so fascinated and so anxious to read the book, and I should say, in terms of full disclosure, I was asked to write the forward for this book as a graduate of the SPEA school at Indiana University, and I was delighted to do it.

That said, what has been, as best we can tell to this point, the impact of the so-called Great Recession on America’s poor?

Graham: Well, one of the basic patterns in recessions is that poverty begins to increase during the recession, but the rise in poverty due to the downturn occurs for many months after the recession. The more severe the recession is, the longer it takes for the peak of poverty to be reached and a reduction in poverty to occur.

So we’re looking right now, the most recent data in 20011 showed no decline in poverty. The fact that food stamps rolls are continuing to rise suggests that 2012 may be another bad year for poverty. So a lot hinges on where the economy is going with jobs and prosperity, and the news so far is not real good on that front.

Tavis: So as we sit for this conversation on the eve of Thanksgiving this year, there are a lot of people who are trying to advance to a new year considering what it is that in 2013 they will, in fact, have to be thankful for, given these cuts that are going to kick in if we can’t avoid this fiscal cliff.

I say all that to ask what happens to the poor specifically in America if we can’t avoid going over this cliff?

Graham: Well, even under the best of circumstances, if the safeguards are kept in place and there is a way to solve the deficit without doing it by cutting the programs that assist the poor, we still have state and local governments, which are all, many of them, in very serious financial problems. They are already cutting back programs that support low-income Americans, because they’re required by their constitutions to balance their budgets.

So the cutbacks of the safety net are already occurring. The only question is is whether there’ll also be cutbacks at the federal level or only at the state level, and of course that’s a very sobering reality as we look forward.

Tavis: Let me circle back, Dean Graham, to where this conversation started; then I’ll advance forward again. If there are people in this country, and clearly there are, there are many, who believe, again, that we have created a culture of dependency in this country, how much does that play into the idea that we can’t ever seem to get real traction on a conversation of compassion for the poor.

Graham: I think it is an important part of the issue. If you look at the kinds of programs that are funded reasonably well by politicians, they include food stamps, which will require people to use their money for nutrition, Medicaid, which requires basic medical care, but the cash programs such as TANF, which provide cash assistance to low-income Americans, those are the least generously funded of our safety net programs, and I think it reflects some of that fear of dependency that you’re talking about.

Tavis: Given what happened on Election Day in this country, and I don’t want to color the question any more than that, is there any sort of mandate — my word, not yours — any sort of mandate that you see that this president has in a second term to address the issue of income inequality?

Graham: Well to be honest with you, Tavis, I didn’t hear President Obama campaign primarily or even significantly on the issue of poverty, so I think it’s very hard to read any specific mandate that comes out of this election that relates to day.

We also have to remind ourselves that there are a variety of members of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republicans, who were also reelected, and they, of course, could interpret this as a mandate for their continuing approach to these issues.

I think it’s going to be a lot of conflict at the federal level for the next couple of years as they try to get ourselves out of the fiscal mess we are in right now, and so I don’t see a clear mandate one way or the other for how low-income Americans will be treated.

Tavis: So into this divide comes this new book, “America’s Poor and the Great Recession.” What I love about the book is not just the historical record that it provides for us for what this Great Recession has, in fact, done to the poor — the perennially poor, the near-poor, folk who are just a paycheck or two away, and the new poor, referred to in this book as the former middle class.

So I love the historical record that it represents, but the book lays out some specific policy objectives, some public policy proposals that ought to be on the table for the White House and for Congress if we’re serious about addressing the issue of poverty. Give me some sense of what you’re trying to get at, vis-à-vis public policy, to address the issue.

Graham: Well, let’s take, for example, the good news of the current safety net, which is Medicaid and food stamps, which responded very robustly and generously to the severe downturn, and have many millions of Americans who have their food and medical care now, due to the existence and the expansion of those programs.

At the same time we have our federal housing programs and our cash assistance programs, TANF, which really did not respond significantly to the hardships of the Great Recession. What we believe is the right answer to this question is to link the spending on these safety programs automatically to the condition of the economy so they rise during bad times and then they fall as recoveries ensue.

That kind of automatic stabilization both helps low-income Americans; it also helps the economy as a whole, because these populations tend to spend the money when they get it in bad times.

Tavis: So we heard in the campaign, we saw one or two jobs reports right at the end that suggested that the unemployment problem is getting a little bit better in this country, depending on how one reads that. The other side of that argument is that so many millions of Americans have stopped looking for work.

I’m not naïve in asking this question, but going forward, what is the direct link between poor people or growing numbers of poor people, and unemployment?

Graham: Well, the number of jobs that are available and the amount of unemployment is directly tied to the rate of poverty in America, and we should be particularly concerned about the millions of households where there has been a person, the head of the household has been unemployed for longer than a year, and many of these families are continuing to get unemployment benefits, but it’s not clear that those unemployment benefits will continue in the next several years.

So Tavis, the employment rate and the earnings from jobs are crucial to bringing people out of poverty.

Tavis: Beyond the issue that you raised earlier of the children in our society and how disenfranchised they are because of poverty in this country, is there any reason beyond that that you have to be hopeful that we can get some traction on this conversation?

I mentioned at the top of this program that we’re going back to Washington in January. I’ve been at this quite a while, as you know, but going back to Washington in January, convening another panel of anti-poverty experts. This time we’re specifically calling on the president of these United States to call a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.

To bring the experts in from the left and from the right to craft a national plan that can cut poverty in half in 10 years and move toward eradicating it in 25. No matter how loud we scream and how hard I pound my fists on the table, no matter how many great Americans I bring to the table from the left and the right to talk about this, without the president using his bully pulpit to raise it, without Congress taking the issue more seriously, it’s kind of hard to see how this ball gets advanced down the field.

So other than the fact that children are falling faster into poverty than anybody else, the younger you are in this country, the more likely you are to be poor, what signs are you looking at that we’re prepared to take the issue seriously?

I think you and I both agree, pardon my English, this ain’t a school problem, this is a will problem. So where do you see the political will to take this on?

Graham: Well, Tavis, I agree with you that it will require President Obama using the bully pulpit to get focus on this issue, but I think you also have to look at this from the perspective of the Republican Party, which had some very bad news in this last election.

They had it among groups which are critical to the future of the country. They include women, Hispanics, and African Americans, and Republicans are doing poorly among all three of these populations, all of them who have significant poverty problems.

So I think if the Republican Party looks at this from the perspective of how they reinvent this party so it has broader appeal, I think that they will need to have some focus on this issue. But will it happen without President Obama’s leadership? I don’t think so. I think that’s a necessary condition for moving this ball forward.

Tavis: So you’ve been tracking this issue, you and your wonderful team at Indiana University have been tracking this issue for quite some time now. What about these poverty trends, if I can use that word, what about these poverty trends most concerns you?

Graham: Well, the thing that we’re most concerned about and which we lay out in the book is the fact that as this so-called economic recovery unfolds, the patience of our politicians to support the safety net programs appears to be waning faster than the growth and the jobs and the earnings that will allow households to proceed independently without governmental support.

We also looked very carefully at what’s happening with philanthropy in this country, and it turns out that philanthropy is extremely important for the wellbeing of the poor. Maybe $200 billion a year in philanthropy is provided, but that has also not recovered substantially since the Great Recession.

So until we have both the governmental safety net programs and philanthropy on full tilt, or until we have the employment situation back in line, we’re looking at substantial risk for low-income Americans.

Tavis: Is that your charitable and generous way of really trying to say to me that this country has poverty fatigue?

Graham: (Laughs) Well, as you know, there’s been so much focus on what’s happening to high-income Americans and middle class Americans and what their wellbeing is, I think in Washington, D.C. the conversation about low-income Americans really hasn’t begun to be waged in a serious way.

The kinds of proposals that are on the table right now are frankly not really realistic for either party to be voting for at the present time. So what we try to do in the book is we try to lay out a few modest ideas which we would hope that members of both the Republican Party and Democratic Party could rally around. Examples of those are indexing the minimum wage to the rate of inflation, which was supported by both President Obama and by the Republican nominee, Romney, in the last election.

What that means is that as the recovery ensues and as inflation begins to occur again, people at the low end of the wage scale will find their wages gradually increase with the rate of the inflation, rather than be eaten away by the forces of inflation. That’s an example of an idea that has some support on both sides of the aisle. It needs to be part of an overall approach to solving the poverty problem.

Tavis: To your point now, Dean, and when persons get the book they’ll see these ideas that you lay out in specific about what can be done in a bipartisan way, are there enough of these ideas on the table? I mentioned earlier this is a will problem, not a skill problem. It’s just a matter of whether we want to do this or not.

But let me back off that comment for a second and ask whether or not to your mind you’ve seen enough ideas in Washington on the table, where there can be some common ground to put the issue of poverty on the agenda.

Graham: Well, to be candid with you, Tavis, in our final chapter we argue that most of the ideas on the table you might think of as liberal or conservative dreams about how we will address this issue, but both of these sets of proposals don’t really have a serious prospect for being passed in Washington, given the way the power structure is laid out and given the inconclusive nature of the election that we just had.

So what our book is trying to do is offer some modest ideas, like indexation of the minimum wage, like linking block grants to the states to the condition of the economy.

These kinds of ideas are designed to attract support from both parties and move the ball in the right direction without necessarily having a conservative or liberal revolution in the area of poverty policy.

Tavis: So what agency — I hear your point — what agency, then, do the American people have to try to advance this conversation, or put another way, how do we, as the demos, push the politicians in Washington, left and right, to take this issue more seriously?

Graham: Well, I certainly agree with the basic structure of the approach that you’ve been doing, Tavis, which is to try to go around the country, go into communities, and present those facts.

We were very pleased to have the opportunity to prepare the white paper that supported your poverty tour around the country, where we’d lay out on a state-by-state basis what’s happening in poverty trends in America, what’s happening with food stamp rolls. This has the effect of raising the consciousness and the sensitivity of people to these issues.

But in the final analysis, there also needs to be some good policy analysis, and by policy analysis I mean thinking through what types of programs could potentially get support from both parties and could, in fact, slow the rate of growth of poverty and hopefully actually begin to reduce it as the recovery unfolds.

Tavis: Let me ask you a question now. We’ve been talking about Washington, mostly in terms of elected officials. Let me ask you about that other part of Washington that has a huge role in this process of what gets discussed and what gets on the table, and that would be these think tanks.

There are conservative and liberal think tanks, clearly more conservative think tanks in Washington than liberal, no doubt about that. But what role — let me just rephrase that. Not what role. Why is it if I’m right about the fact — we argue in this book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” Cornel West and myself, that poverty is threatening our very democracy.

That poverty is a matter of national security, and the argument, as you know, is pretty simple. It goes simply like this: That you can’t sustain democracy in a national where the gap between the have-gots and the have-nots continues to widen.

To quote Louis Brandeis, you can either have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few or you can have democracy, but you can’t have both. So even if we can disagree or do disagree about what the path forward ought to be for making poverty a priority, if we all agree that this kind of gap, and not having good jobs, and the growing and burgeoning rate of poverty in this country is a serious issue, why isn’t this issue taken more seriously by the think tanks?

Graham: Well, I think it’s a great question. I think if you look at the various proposals being made, a lot of think tanks have as their donor populations, whether they be liberals or conservatives, people who are looking again to what I refer to as that liberal or conservative dream solution to this problem.

Maybe the United States will adopt a social insurance system like Europe has, or maybe the United States on the conservative side, they argue, will transform all of these federal programs in to a block grand to the states.

Well, in my opinion neither of these proposals have any real prospect of being passed in the next decade, and the think tanks continue to focus on this because they are responding to the interests and the perspectives of their donors.

The reality, though, if we’re going to make progress on this issue, we have to find solutions that attract at least a dozen enthusiastic supporters in the United States Senate from both political parties, because nothing’s going to pass the United States Senate without at least 60 votes in this territory.

That means we have to have solutions that are crafted in a way that they respond to some of the concerns of people on both sides of the political spectrum, and that’s what our book is designed to do, is to try to lay out a few of those ideas that might have the prospect of drawing that kind of support.

Tavis: Let me circle back to where this conversation began, about the book and what it’s intended to do, the point you’ve just made now. Let me ask maybe an impolitic question. If you were right earlier in this conversation, and I believe that you were, that Republicans have to take this issue seriously because they are doing so horribly, they’re tracking so horribly with constituencies that matter.

Many persons in those constituencies happen to make up the poor — Hispanics and African Americans and young people. Again, the younger you are in this country, the more likely you are to be poor.

It seems to me that this would be a perfect issue for them to try to champion, the issue of making poverty an important matter in Washington and looking inside your text and trying to find out whether or not there are, in fact, some good ideas that they can put their muscle behind to advance in Washington.

So it’s almost as if Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, made poverty a priority back in the day, in the ’60s. What would be the best reason for Republicans not championing this issue right now as a way to show these constituencies that they do care about their suffering and about their condition?

Graham: I agree with you entirely, Tavis, and I would add a key population, which are women, particularly unmarried women, single women, divorced women, many of them with children.

If you look at the voting results in that last election, you’ll find this is a population that Republican candidates are doing very poorly with, and that’s a reflection of the fact that they have no policy agenda that is going to be specifically appealing to this population.

So I would add women, young people, racial and ethnic minorities, particularly the Hispanic population in terms of immigrants, people who came into the country, even if illegally originally, they’re now productive members of our society.

These are all populations that the Republican Party, if it has any serious long-term future as a majority party of the country it needs to address, the book, we’ve provided some basic ideas that provide ground for how these kinds of politicians on the Republican side, as well as the Democratic side, can support ideas that can be directed at these populations.

Tavis: So I’ll close very quickly with this exit question, Dean Graham. There is apparently some sense in Washington that to fight for the poor brings along with it a political risk.

It’s not just that these poor people don’t fund your campaigns; it’s not just that poor people don’t vote, it’s not just that they don’t have lobbyists up and down K Street. I get this sense in my work that there’s some fear that people have about pushing an anti-poverty agenda because there’s some risk that comes along with it.

Again, you’ve worked in the White House. Am I missing something? Is there some risk that politicians in Washington think they face by standing up and defending poor people?

Graham: They may perceive that, but the numbers of low-income people are dramatically different today than they were 10 years ago. Today you not only have 46 million Americans who are officially recorded as poor, you have another 50 million who are near poor and a substantial number of them who may soon in the future, due to housing foreclosure or job loss, move into this category.

So you easily have 100 million Americans who are in this situation. That’s almost a third of the overall population of the country. For both parties not to be taking that issue very seriously is both unfortunate and politically very naïve.

Tavis: His name is John D. Graham. He’s the dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. He is the co-author of the new text “America’s Poor and the Great Recession,” out in just a matter of days. He’ll be with us in January in Washington for our conversation about making poverty a priority in this country, called “Vision for a New America.”

Dean Graham, good to have you on the program. I’ll see you in January.

Graham: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: November 27, 2012 at 12:54 pm