Law professor Peter Edelman

The Georgetown law professor and longtime anti-poverty advocate discusses his text, So Rich, So Poor, and examines the high poverty rates in the U.S.

Peter Edelman has spent decades working to eradicate poverty. A Georgetown University law professor, he's served in all three branches of government, including as a legislative assistant to Sen. Robert Kennedy and in various roles in President Clinton's administration. He's also written extensively on constitutional law, children and youth and poverty, which he analyzes as the most critical American dilemma of the 21st century in his latest book, So Rich, So Poor. Edelman graduated from Harvard Law School and has chaired and been a board member of numerous organizations and foundations.


Tavis: Peter Edelman is the founder and director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown and a former assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. He’s also a noted author whose latest text is called “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America,” and I am honored to have Peter Edelman on this program. Thank you for your time.

Peter Edelman: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: No, it’s my delight. I want to start with a quote that I pulled exactly out of the book because I think it will brilliantly frame our conversation. There’s so much in the book that’s brilliant, but let me start with this, a quote from you in this book.

“This cannot stand: ‘America’ and ‘poverty’ are words that should not appear in the same sentence. 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.”

That phrase, “That we should have poverty at all is oxymoronic,” I suspect will strike some as interesting, because even those who are Christians read a bible that says, “The poor ye shall have with you always.” So make the case for me for why poverty should not even exist in this country.

Edelman: Well for one thing, we’ve become a very rich country. Whatever was the case during the Depression and, well, really through the first 150 years of this country is just not true now, and what is really shameful is that we have the capacity – now, this isn’t a matter of just handouts.

We’re talking about people should work, people want to work, but they need to earn enough to get out of poverty and we need to have a decent safety net. Every country in the world has, industrialized country, has healthcare for everybody, they have help with housing, they have childcare, they have all of the supports, help with going to university or college.

We do some of those things; we do some of them pretty well. We do some of those things in an awful way, and we do have a huge amount of low-wage work which is keeping people just in prison and not being able to make it either out of poverty or at least up to the point where they don’t have to worry about being one paycheck ahead of bankruptcy.

Tavis: Why is it, to your point now, Peter, that poverty has not been made the priority in this country that it has been made in other countries? Let’s just start with that. Why have we not prioritized it in that way?

Edelman: Well, we need to be careful about painting with too broad a brush, Tavis, because we’ve done a lot. Starting in the 1930s with Social Security and on up through the ’60s, but really since then we have, besides Social Security, we have Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, earned income tax credit, on and on, help with housing.

So what we have is keeping 40 million people out of poverty. Instead of 46 million people who we do have in poverty, which is unacceptable, we would have 86. So the question is not whether we don’t care about it or whether we haven’t done anything about it, but why is it that despite all we’ve done we still have poverty rates that are this high.

Tavis: The reason for why they’re still this high is?

Edelman: We had a change in our economy starting in the 1970s, where the good, high-paying jobs that built much of the middle class in this country, certainly built the African American middle class in this country, along with municipal employment, those jobs went away.

They were replaced, and it’s good that they were replaced, by low-wage jobs. There’s a flood of low-wage jobs. Half the jobs in this country pay under $34,000 a year. A quarter pay under the poverty line for a family of four, $22,000 a year, and that number has been stuck for almost 40 years.

Half the jobs in this country pay only 7 percent more now, including inflation, than they did then, so that’s what’s been gnawing at us. Then the other part of it is we do have more families where there’s only one wage earner. We do have more single moms who are there, and they’re of all races.

They’re disproportionately African American, as we know, but in fact it cuts across all races, and if you only have one person to send out to work in this low-wage economy, you’re gonna be stuck in poverty or in near-poverty. So it’s those two things together.

Then I think that there’s a continuing politics here which is very connected to race that’s in the equation. I hate to say that. Fact is, more people who are poor are white than any other group. But nonetheless, too many Americans think in terms of somebody who is a person of color when they think about poverty, and they have been suggested to think that way by too many of our politicians.

Tavis: Is there a bipartisan consensus in Washington? Because if this book says anything, it says to me, to policymakers in Washington, here’s what the problem is and here’s what ought to be done. This really is a polemic that certainly lawmakers ought to take seriously and I’m glad you wrote it, and you live in Washington, obviously, and teach at Georgetown.

So since we’re talking about Washington, is there, to your mind, a sort of bipartisan consensus in Washington that poor people – I don’t want to say don’t matter, but that their issues are not as important as other national concerns?

Edelman: I think we have a politics right now that’s very ugly, that came as a result of the recession. A lot of the people who were the new poor, who I thought might be more sympathetic about the poverty of, if you will, of the old poor, said instead, “Well, help me, but those people, they’re not deserving.”

We have with the Tea Party; we have a kind of politics of anger that does want to have, in effect, somebody to look down at. If you just go back a little bit in time, talk about those 40 million people that I mentioned who would be poor except for the public policy that we do have, and two stories.

One is the story of food stamps. Food stamps now serving 46 million people, gosh, it’s good that we have it because it’s our main anti-recessionary tool for people beyond unemployment insurance, but for people who are especially at the very bottom, or people who are newly hurting as well.

We had a bipartisan consensus about food stamps until a very, very short time ago. In the George W. Bush administration, there was an undersecretary named Eric Boast who was a Texas friend of George W. Bush and in 2002, when they reauthorized food stamps, they actually rescinded some of the cuts that had been made during the Clinton period.

So this new attack on food stamps, with Mr. Gingrich calling Obama the food stamp president and with this general idea that with the food stamps are the new welfare and we’ve got to get rid of it like we did welfare itself, that’s actually a new thing.

What they want to do is they want to turn it into a block grant. Instead of it being that you would have a legal right, as you do have, which is why we got up to 46 million people, just leave it to the states, they can help or not.

That’s what we did to welfare, and that’s the other story I would tell you, because that was definitely a bipartisan – not all Democrats, but a bipartisan agreement in the wrong direction in 1996, and that’s a very sad, unfortunate, terrible story, because now cash assistance for mothers, and this is a story about mothers and children, it’s about women and children, it’s practically gone in more than half the states in the country.

In the state of Wyoming, they’re the kind of big winners on this, just barely 600 people in the whole state, mothers and children, receive TAFNFs – it’s called temporary assistance for needy families. Twenty-six states now have less than 20 percent of their mothers and children receiving cash assistance, so no wonder – you know you have six million people who only have food stamps, no other income now? That’s totally astonishing.

Tavis: Let me take both of those points in the order that you offer them, and ask a question of each, if I might. Specifically, we’ll start with food stamps. The recent days that you referenced a moment ago with this bipartisan consensus just are not a priority for needy Americans; it was really Democrats who disappointed me.

Now, you worked for a Democratic administration, Bill Clinton. We’ll come back to welfare and your role in that in just a second. But what say you about – and I know your book isn’t partisan, per se – but what say you about these Democrats who did not stand up and fight to save and to protect food stamps here literally just days ago?

Edelman: So you’re talking about the vote in the Senate.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Edelman: So let’s not over-interpret that, although let’s not under-interpret it, either.

Tavis: Okay, I’ll take that.

Edelman: Because it is the tip of the iceberg, but I don’t think that in a broader sense Democrats have turned against food stamps at all. What I was talking about in terms of turning food stamps into a block grant so that the state could help whoever it wanted at whatever level it wanted, there isn’t any Democrat that I know of who’s in favor of that.

As part of the farm bill last week, where they were making cuts for farmers in a somewhat timid way, but nonetheless moving in the right direction to cut down on direct payments to farmers, the politics of it was well, if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to do something to food stamps.

Food stamps are now 80 percent of the farm bill. Eighty billion dollars a year we spend on food stamps. So let’s not over-interpret that, but let’s be very vigilant about the fact that this Republican crowd, especially in the House, Paul Ryan and the rest of them, absolutely want to attack food stamps and to the extent that they get more power, to the extent even that there are bills where they do a bad thing, the Senate does a pretty good thing, they go to conference and there’s some compromise just in order to get a bill that hurts food stamps. That’s quite possible.

Tavis: Let me push back on you. I do this respectfully. I have the greatest regard for you and I just came off a book tour about poverty and quoted you and referenced you in my book and everywhere we went, so I have great regard for Peter Edelman, as folk will see when we talk about welfare and how much I respect him for what he did 15 years ago, standing up to the Clinton administration that he was a part of.

We’ll come back to that in a second. But I want to press you on this because I think you’re being charitable and generous, respectfully, on this. When you say, “Let’s not over-estimate what happened in the Senate,” I asked you about Democrats and you immediately jumped on beating up Paul Ryan, a Republican in the House.

Edelman: Yeah.

Tavis: You skipped right past my question, respectfully. Democrats in the House conceded on those food stamps, they did not draw a line in the sand and fight about that. I don’t know how anybody justifies austerity talk and why food stamp programs ought to be cut when we know that food insecurity is on the rise.

I’m okay – you can beat up on Paul Ryan for the next 12 minutes if you want to. What I’m specifically asking about, respectfully, is what complicity Democrats have played in the last few days in compromising on this bill that frankly cut food stamps.

Edelman: We have a difference about that.

Tavis: Okay.

Edelman: But I really want to say it’s not much of a difference, because I am really worried, and I think everybody who cares about having a decent safety net, which is already ripped, for people at the very bottom, and we now have 20 million people who are in deep poverty who have incomes below half the poverty line.

All we have, basically, is food stamps, so we have to protect food stamps, and to the extent that there’s any kind of a compromise that seems to open the door, and this is really the point where I think we’re in the same place, that seems to open the door toward further cuts in food stamps, that’s just unacceptable.

Tavis: Okay. So we’ve got some commonality. Now, to one of the many reasons why I have such great love and admiration for you, and I like Bill Clinton. He’s a friend of mine and never done anything to me, but you, courageously, 15 years ago, courageously and now famously, resigned your post, a high post in the Clinton administration over the issue of welfare reform, as it was called then.

I referred to it as welfare deform, but welfare reform. So weeks ago on the front page of “The New York Times,” there is an in-depth study about what the welfare reform bill of 15 years ago had really done 15 years later to women and children, and it was abundantly clear.

In a sentence, Peter Edelman was right. You were right, and you were castigated by many and taken to task for what you did, resigning that post. When a high Clinton official resigns and disagrees with the president, obviously, it’s going to be news.

But as you look back on that 15 years ago, and I know you’re not the kind to say I told you so and rub it in people’s face, but what do you make of that courageous effort 15 years ago and how long it took for you to eventually and finally be proven right?

Edelman: Well, I’m sorry that I was proven right. (Laughter)

Tavis: I thought you might say that. I’m sorry that I was right, yeah.

Edelman: Yeah, because people are hurting as a result of that. The hurt started immediately. Now, it was masked for the first four years or so because it was implemented, thankfully, in the middle of a hot economy, and so women went to work. Moms who had been on welfare, and some of them had been on welfare a long time, and that wasn’t good either.

The old welfare system wasn’t great. States set their own levels of benefits, as they do now, and Mississippi had 11 percent of the poverty line, so the benefits weren’t great everywhere.

They didn’t seriously – this is Robert Kennedy talked about this in 1967 when I worked for him, that it was not helping people to get on their own two feet, and that was a problem. But that’s not what the Clinton bill did. It just said to people you go get a job. It was a kick in the pants bill.

On top of that, you don’t have a legal right to get it anymore and you have a time limit of only five years. So in that first four years yes, people went to work, although what nobody talks about is that 40 percent of the people who left welfare, even between 1996 and 2000, ended up with no welfare and no job. So it wasn’t so marvelous even then.

But there was that increase. Now, that increase, which went from 49 percent of the single moms on welfare who had been on welfare to 64 percent – it’s gone back down to 54 percent – so that started, that going in the other direction started in the year 2000.

So we’ve been seeing, actually, for quite some time, that the thing wasn’t working properly, that it wasn’t really helping enough people and it was really hurting some people.

Then comes the recession, and we definitely get the – if we needed proof – and people say to me, “It turns out you were right.” I say, “I was right all along.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Even though you don’t want to be, yeah. I’ve said on this program any number of times, reminding people of how long it’s been since poverty’s been a real issue, a front-burner issue, in the last presidential race, whether you liked Obama or McCain the last time around, in three presidential debates the word poor or poverty, as you know, didn’t come up one time.

Edelman: Yes.

Tavis: Obama didn’t raise it, McCain didn’t raise it, the moderators, sadly, never ask about it. Fast-forward four years and one out of two Americans is either in poverty or low income; in poverty or, as I say, or near poverty. How, then, this time around, does poverty get to be a front burner issue between Obama and Romney?

Edelman: Poverty only gets to be a front burner issue in our country if people demand it. We need, of course, leadership. We can hope for leadership. We had our Robert Kennedy, we had our Paul Wellstone, we have others who are in the House and Senate.

But really, the people running for office tend to respond to people who push, so we have to be talking about organizing, we have to be talking about people who are doing what we’re doing here and reaching people in terms of the mass media and all the other ways we communicate.

I think young people are very important to this. I think that the next level of people up who are also being shafted here, who are not technically poor but who have those low-wage jobs and are absolutely stuck, if you look at all the mobility studies, for 35, 40 years they haven’t been having a fair chance to go up because there really aren’t enough jobs up there, instead of getting angry and saying we’re going to vote for somebody who is going to give us some help, too many of them are voting for the side that says no more taxes.

In fact, let’s cut the taxes of the people at the very top. That’s no good for those people, but they’re voting, really, against their economic self-interest. So I think that in addition to low-income people themselves getting more attuned, getting more involved, especially young people, I think it’s that next level up that’s got to be reached and say, you know what? You’re not voting your own interests. You need to think about that.

Tavis: But it is the case, though, that these days, sadly, and your wife, Marian Wright Edelman, makes this point all the time at the CDF, Children’s Defense Fund, it is the case that the younger you are in this country, the more likely you are to be poor.

Edelman: That is true. That is true.

Tavis: I raise that because if young people are going to be engaged around a particular issue, through Occupy or through any other way, it seems to me that if the younger you are the more likely you are to be poor, that would be an organizing issue.

Edelman: Exactly. Exactly. When I said youth, I didn’t necessarily mean only low-income youth.

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure, exactly.

Edelman: Because young people are the idealistic people in our society, and when we had the civil rights movement it was certainly, the heart of it, was African American young people who went to those lunch counters and said we’re not going to take it anymore.

They sat in, and I can remember vividly being in Europe as a young person just out of college, seeing all the, in the late ’50s, seeing all the activism there and wondering why we didn’t have it in our country, and then it came.

It was Black and white. It was across the board. I think this should be a national issue. It’s so important. We say that national security is important – this is national security. Our democracy is at risk here, and if we really want to be secure, our people have to be secure economically and they have to be included in our society.

Tavis: You’ve used a phrase, “the new poor,” a few times in this conversation. When I’ve used that phrase, the new poor, I refer specifically to the former middle class.

Edelman: Yes.

Tavis: I suspect we may agree on that at some level, but talk to me about how the middle class or the former middle class has been just so hit by poverty, and I raise that because I was just watching TV a few nights ago this week, so it must have been Sunday night, Lester Holt at NBC on “Dateline” did a wonderful piece where he – and “60 Minutes” did the same thing months ago.

It seems like these networks are finally getting around to cover this. So Lester Holt on NBC the other night, on “Dateline,” had a piece where he specifically spent the entire hour with three different families who had always once been firmly affixed in the middle class and they are now completely impoverished, having lost just about everything.

But talk to me, as you do in the book, about what poverty has done to the middle class as we know it.

Edelman: Well, it just turns out that you can just see it in the numbers. We had 31 million poor people in the year 2000; we have 46 million now – almost a 50 percent increase, and we’ve had a 74 percent increase in Washington, D.C., where I live, in family homelessness since the recession started.

So in the numbers, you can see it everywhere in the country, and it means for the new poor, except insofar as they have savings and so the trouble sort of sets in gradually, but there are issues about food, there are issues about kind of the psychological wellbeing of the children in particular.

We see in some of the smaller towns in this country where they’ve been declining for a long time. They were prosperous farm towns or mining towns and that’s gone away, and they end up being chronically poor. We see some of the same kinds of behaviors, there’s methamphetamine in so many of those small towns.

Unfortunately, but understandably, people’s lives fall apart, and some people have the resiliency to keep on nevertheless, and some people just don’t. Poverty is not a good thing.

Tavis: What’s remarkable about your life and that of your wife, who I mentioned earlier, Marian Wright Edelman – and first of all, there ought to be a movie about your lives. You two are a great love story. (Laughter) A great story of love and passion and courage and commitment and conviction, just lives dedicated to helping the least among us. Your entire lives have been dedicated to disenfranchised people.

How did this become so early in your life a passion for you, because you have been a long-distance runner on this issue.

Edelman: Well, thank you. Two things happened. I’m a middle class, upper middle class person from Minneapolis, Minnesota. My father was a lawyer. He was poor growing up, sold newspapers on the street, and I certainly knew that growing up, his own struggle.

But it was when I went to work for Robert Kennedy, there’s a kind of one-two here, because he was so committed on justice, both economic and racial justice, the poverty, but also the question of race and particularly where they intersect, which is a pretty dangerous intersection.

So I learned from him. We went around the country together and not just to Mississippi but inner cities, we walked together in Watts, south central Los Angeles after the urban unrest there.

That was just powerful for me to learn in that firsthand way. That’s the way he learned. He went to listen to people and to see for himself, and I got that from him. Then, of course, as you already strongly implied, in 1967 I went down with him for some hearings on the continuation of the war on poverty, the Economic Opportunity Act, and I met Marian, and that’s also when we saw children in this country – she showed this to him, and secondarily to me – who had swollen bellies.

These were families that had no income, because it was the purpose of the governor and the power structure of that state to drive Black families out of Mississippi because they were worried what the right to vote was going to do to their power. So I’ve had it in me ever since.

Tavis: So Peter and Marian hook up, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Laughter) They spend a lifetime loving each other and loving poor people, and so it is the case all these years later that this long-distance runner has a new book out called “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.” He is an authentic American hero, and I’m honored to have him on this program. Peter Edelman, thanks for the book, and thanks for your work, sir.

Edelman: Thank you very much, Tavis. Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm