May 29 is the official publication date for an important new book called So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty In America. It was written by Peter Edelman and its hard won accumulated wisdom represents the rare blend of practitioner, academic, and politically savvy idealism that has been Peter’ s career over more than 40 years of American history.
Edelman’s formative experience was working for Bobby Kennedy in the 1960’s and developing many of the anti-hunger and anti-poverty policies that Kennedy promoted. He went on to work in the Clinton Administration, from which he resigned in protest over welfare reform, and is now a Georgetown Law Professor. His unique vantage point enables him to make valuable distinctions between genuine innovations in social policy and mere re-inventions of the wheel.
I was able to read the book over the weekend. In it Peter reflects on his time with Bobby Kennedy in the Mississippi Delta, and the legislative remedies to hunger it inspired. He describes RFK as “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.” Most of the book is a well documented analysis of the ups and downs in the fight against poverty. It employs compelling facts and statistics to balance sobering realism with hope, optimism, and keen political insight.
His key points include:
“The idea that ‘nothing works’ in the fight against poverty is a canard. The policy gains outweigh the policy losses… The problem is that the policy gains have been nullified by economic trends.”
The 21st century began with the nation in the best position in poverty in 30 years, 11.3% at end of Clinton Administration, just above the 1973 low point of 11.1%. 15 million were added to ranks of the poor between 2000-2010, now equaling 15.1% of the population.
Three forces – all unforeseen in large measure in 1968 – account for the course of American poverty over the past 40 years. (1) good-paying, low-skill jobs went overseas and gave way to automation, and low-wage work became ubiquitous; (2) the substantial increase in the number of families headed by a single parent, usually a woman; (3) the fact that race and gender still matter a good deal as to who is poor and who is not.
An astonishing 20.5 million people lived in extreme poverty (less than $9000 for a family of three) in 2010, up by nearly 8 million in just ten years. 6 million had no income other than food stamps.
Half the jobs in America 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).
One estimate is that we are losing at least $500 billion per year just due to the costs of child poverty.
“The unwillingness of our national leadership to engage the nation in a straightforward discussion of American poverty is corrosive.”
Edelman concludes with a call to action that should resonate with all of us in nonprofit or advocacy work: “We have to be at it steadily all the time. This means both electoral politics and outside advocacy and organizing. We tend to lurch back and forth. My take on the Obama election in 2008 is that we put all our eggs in the electoral basket and then 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. … one lesson, which we seem to learn and then forget over and over again, is that we have to work both the inside and the outside – in the electoral world and from the outside to keep elected officials honest and make them better than they would otherwise appear to be.”
Book events are Politics and Prose on June 9 at 6, Center For American Progress on June 11 at 10:30, National Women’s Democratic Club on June 12 at noon, and Busboys and Poets on June 21 at 6:30.