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"So Rich, So Poor": Peter Edelman on Ending U.S. Poverty & Why He Left Clinton Admin over Welfare Law

StoryMay 23, 2012
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Peter Edelman

professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He was top adviser to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and also a member of President Bill Clinton’s administration until he resigned in protest after Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation. His new book is So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

Census data shows nearly one in two Americans live in poverty, and now the Congressional Budget Office warns things could soon get worse if President Obama and Congress remain at an impasse over the 2013 fiscal budget. House Republicans are calling for cuts to food aid, healthcare and social services, while protecting funds for the Pentagon. We discuss poverty with Peter Edelman, who resigned as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services over then-President Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 welfare reform law that threw millions off the rolls. "Basically, right now, welfare is gone," Edelman says. "We have six million people in this country whose only income is food stamps. That’s an income at a third of the poverty line. ... Nineteen states serve less than 10 percent of their poor children. It’s a terrible hole in the safety net. Welfare has basically disappeared in large parts of this country." Now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Edelman has written a new book, "So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America." "I’m very much supportive of Occupy," he adds. "The idea ... of the 1 percent and the 99 percent ... all fits together. We really should be all one country." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the issue of extreme poverty in America. Census data show nearly one in two Americans have fallen into poverty or could be classified as low-income. Meanwhile, more than a third of African-American and Latino children live in poverty.

Now the Congressional Budget Office warns things could soon get worse if President Obama and Congress remain at an impasse over the 2013 fiscal budget. Republicans, who control the House, are calling for cuts to food aid, healthcare and other social services, while protecting funds for the Pentagon. On Sunday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan defended the Republican budget and sought to downplay the massive impact it would have if enacted.

REP. PAUL RYAN: What we’re saying is, let’s get on growth and prevent austerity. The whole premise of our budget is to pre-empt austerity by getting our borrowing under control, having tax reform for economic growth, and preventing Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid from going bankrupt. That pre-empts austerity. The President, his budget, the fact the Senate hasn’t done a budget in three years, puts us on a path toward European-like austerity. That’s what we’re trying to prevent from happening in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: That was House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan.

Some analysts say the Republicans’ budget would actually add to the national debt. According to the Economic Policy Institute, it would also increase the number of people who are looking for a job, resulting in a net loss of more than four million jobs over the next two years.

For more, we’re joined by Peter Edelman. He is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, was top adviser to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and also a member of President Bill Clinton’s administration, until he resigned in protest after Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Peter Edelman has a new book out; it’s called So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

Peter Edelman, welcome to Democracy Now!

PETER EDELMAN: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it so hard to end poverty?

PETER EDELMAN: Because, fundamentally, our economy has been very unkind to the entire bottom half of our people over the last 40 years. We have terrific public policy in place, although it’s threatened now by Paul Ryan, as you just showed. But we’ve done a lot, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, to food stamps and the earned income tax credit. We’re keeping more than 40 million people out of poverty now by the public policy that we have. But that’s fighting against the flood of low-wage jobs that we’ve had over the last 40 years and the fact that people in the bottom half have been absolutely stuck, that the wages for people at the bottom have not—have grown only 7 percent over that 40-year period. So we’re fighting uphill with the public policies that we have. It’s even harder for people who are—which is single moms in this economy, who are all by themselves in this low-wage economy trying to earn enough to support their children. It’s very, very hard to do that with the flood of low-wage jobs that we have.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In February, he told CNN’s Soledad O’Briae that he is not concerned with the poorest Americans.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: You just said, "I’m not concerned about the very poor," because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.


MITT ROMNEY: The challenge right now—we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and—and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. My campaign—I mean, you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Peter Edelman, you talk about the issue of deep poverty at length in your book. So who are the very poor?

PETER EDELMAN: To say the least, Governor Romney doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We’ve had a terrible hole ripped in the safety net that we have for the lowest-income people in this country. It’s nice to hear him say if there is a problem, he’s going to fix it—not too credible, since he says he’s not even focusing. But 20 million people now—and these are census numbers—live in deep poverty, extreme poverty, incomes below half the poverty line. That’s below $9,000 for a family of three. Why is that? Well, partly because the economy has been so weak at the bottom, but the most vulnerable people have lost the safety net of cash assistance. I’m talking about mothers and children, welfare. The 1996 law turned everything over to the states to do what they want. And basically, right now, welfare is gone. We have six million people in this country whose only income is food stamps. That’s an income at a third of the poverty line. In the state of Wyoming, there are 644 people in the whole state, 4 percent of the state’s poor children, receive TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Children [Families], what we now call welfare. Nineteen states serve less than 10 percent of their poor children. It’s a terrible hole in the safety net. Welfare has basically disappeared in large parts of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: The Clinton administration presided over a drastic transformation of U.S. welfare laws. I mean, people talk about the tremendous rift in Washington between Democrats and Republicans, but you might say, on the issue of poverty, it’s a kind of bipartisan affair, even to mention the word. But I want to go back to President Clinton in 1996 at the welfare reform signing ceremony. This is when you served under him as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. The signing ceremony in 1996.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: But let’s not obscure the fundamental purpose of the welfare provisions of this legislation, which are good and solid and which give us at least the chance to end the terrible, almost physical, isolation of huge numbers of poor people and their children from the rest of mainstream America. We have to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was President Clinton when he signed welfare reform, and I’m sure you remember that day well. I spoke to you in November of 1996, soon after you resigned your post as Clinton’s assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. I think it was the first broadcast interview you did.


AMY GOODMAN: You quit over—in protest of the welfare bill. I want to go back to Democracy Now!, 1996.

PETER EDELMAN: I am deeply opposed to the current welfare law and very troubled by what happened last year in the Congress. It ends a very fundamental entitlement of assistance to children in need. The way the law used to work—and this has completely ended—is that if a family with children satisfied the eligibility requirements—and those were national, federal requirements—they could get aid. What’s happened now is it’s entirely up to the state, each state, to decide whether it will help people at all, whether it will give them cash or help them with a voucher, whether it will have its system run by a public agency or by a corporation or some private agency.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was assistant secretary of Health and Human Services—well, former assistant secretary, because he had just quit. President Clinton signed off on welfare reform just before the election. You quit right after he was elected. How hard a decision was that for you? And, well, I’ll ask the question I asked you then: why did you wait so long—why did you wait ’til President Clinton was re-elected, given how extremely critical you were of what he had done?

PETER EDELMAN: Well, that’s not correct, Amy. I quit two weeks after he signed the bill, two months before the presidential election.


PETER EDELMAN: Just so we’re clear about that. You can go back and look at the New York Times.


PETER EDELMAN: No, I did not wait. And I just couldn’t continue. I simply disagreed, as the interview with you shows.

This—it’s turned out that exactly, I’m sorry to say, what I thought would happen has happened. We had 68 percent of children in poor families on the old welfare system. There was a lot wrong with the old welfare system; it needed to be fixed. It didn’t help people to get off and find jobs. We had 14 million people—that’s too many—on welfare. But this was a blunderbuss. This was just an axe, a hatchet, that was taken. And so, that 68 percent then, with low benefits in a lot of places, but still legally entitled, as I told you in that interview, down to 27 percent now. That’s just a tremendous, tremendous drop. It’s fundamentally not there. And in this recession, when you would expect that it would be helpful to people, it turned out that there were 3.9 people on welfare—3.9 million people on welfare at the beginning of the recession. It went up to 4.4 million. Now, food stamps, which worked beautifully in the recession—why? Because there’s a legal right to it—went, amazingly, from 26.3 million people to 46 million now, almost 20 million more people on food stamps. Problem is, if you have no income—and now it’s six million people who only have food stamps for their income, don’t—can’t get the cash assistance—you get so much more terrible, deep, extreme poverty.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s extraordinary figures that you cite. One of the things that you point out in your book is that states now practically have a disincentive to give cash assistance, to give welfare. Why is that?

PETER EDELMAN: States have complete—I’m sorry, the question is why—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: States are practically given an incentive not to give cash assistance to the poor.

PETER EDELMAN: Well, states have a block grant, so there’s no legal right to it. And starting in the late 1990s, when the welfare rolls plummeted, the states actually found that they had money to spare. Instead of raising benefits or letting people who actually needed help get it, they pushed people away at the door. That’s how they got the rolls down to about four million people, from 14 million. And they started spending the money in other ways. So we come to the recession, and they’re spending the money on other programs. They’re spending money to support the child welfare system, a number of other programs, but they’re not helping families that have desperate need. And that’s because it’s entirely up to them what they do with the money, as long as it stays in some way that’s related to the question. But they don’t have to extend a dollar of benefits to low-income people. And that’s why we have such a—such a tremendous diminution in the case log.

AMY GOODMAN: The millions of people who only have food stamps? That’s their only, if you could call it, income? It isn’t?

PETER EDELMAN: Yes, yes, yes. Jason Deparle did a fabulous piece of reporting two years ago in the New York Times — and these are government figures, but nobody had really gone and dug them up — and found that—it’s an astonishing number—found that six million, 2 percent of our population, have no income except those food stamps. The food stamps is the sole thing that stands between them and being totally without any income.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with a guest who quit as a high-level official in the Clinton administration over welfare reform—that was, what, almost 20 years ago—but continues to deal with these issues with a new book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. We’ll come back to Peter Edelman after break.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to the January Republican debate. When Fox News moderator Juan Williams questioned Newt Gingrich about his food stamp comment, this was Gingrich’s response.

NEWT GINGRICH: The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.

AMY GOODMAN: He had referred to—Newt Gingrich had referred to President Obama as "the food stamp president." Peter Edelman?

PETER EDELMAN: That’s part of the attack. They have succeeded in destroying cash assistance in large parts of the country, and so now the attempt is to paint food stamps as the new welfare. And it’s just kind of mind-boggling, because with the particular weakness in the economy during the recession, there are so many people who would have been in so much deeper trouble without food stamps. And it’s one of the great policy successes of our country. And it certainly has proven to be one of the strongest for lowest-income people, one of the strongest anti-recessionary tools that we could have. So he’s just off in some la la land. I mean, it’s a totally political formulation. It turns out not to have had a lot of traction. Of course, Gingrich turned out not to have a lot of traction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also talk, Peter Edelman, about the link between wealth distribution and poverty in the U.S. You said previously you used to think of these as two distinct issues, wealth distribution and poverty alleviation, and then you came to change your mind. And one of the things, the striking figures in your book, you say that in 1979 the top 1 percent took in 9 percent of all personal income, but that figure went up to 23.5 percent in 2007. So, were rising levels of inequality, which persist to this day, one of the reasons that you thought the two should be brought together?

PETER EDELMAN: Yes. I think it’s really impossible, as it turns out, wholly apart from just the merits of the fact that people at the top ought to pay the fair share of the cost of having our democracy, but now it’s a question of resources. And it’s not just taxation of the wealthiest. We have to figure out how to get—as we get out of this recession in the coming couple of years, how to get enough money to run our government for all purposes, and then have an argument about the priorities, that we should do enough about poverty and about the environment and healthcare and many things, and we should be more careful with the way we spend our money on defense.

I think that we’ve reached a point of inequality—and I’m very much supportive of Occupy and the idea that was such a—such a clear, crisp statement of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, that we really have to think about the whole population here. We can’t just isolate and say there are people here we should help. It all fits together. We really should be all one country. And there’s a moral decay, I think, at the point where we get so much, so much stuck at the top. You know, over the last 40 years, it isn’t that we had no growth; it all stuck at the top. The number you read shows that. And the entire bottom half, not just people whom we call poor, have lost out in that. So we really have to talk about inequality. And Occupy started us. It’s now not quite as visible or as active, but we need to talk about inequality. And in the 99 percent, we need to talk about everybody, all the way down to the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Edelman, you traveled the country with Robert F. Kennedy. You traveled the country with him from Native American reservations to Appalachia, and you saw deep poverty. He talked a great deal about poverty. Longtime civil rights activists you are, together with your wife Marian Wright Edelman. You had a split with the Clinton administration. You had—personally, you were close friends. But after—what happened after you walked out of the administration in protest on welfare reform? And where do you think the Democrats also stand today, including President Obama, when it comes to poverty? Compare Obama with Robert F. Kennedy, your mentor.

PETER EDELMAN: I think that there are two things I would say about President Obama. One of them is that, actually, his record on poverty is quite good. The health law, the Affordable Care Act, adds 16 million people to Medicaid, adults between the ages of 18 and 64, who had been left out of Medicaid since 1965, when it was enacted in the first place. A big, big, big hole has been filled now, and I hope we can keep that. I hope the Supreme Court, at least on that part of it, and hopefully on the whole thing, will uphold it. But that’s a big thing. Secondly, the Race to the Top effort on education—one can argue about the policy, but it’s about improving the education of low-income children. And thirdly, in the Recovery Act, the stimulus—

AMY GOODMAN: Many say that is shifting money away from public school education, though, to charter schools.

PETER EDELMAN: That’s not true. Race to the Top is money that went to reform school systems. And the Obama strategy does include charters as one element of reform, but you can’t reform all of education by only focusing on charters. Ninety-plus percent of children go to traditional public schools. And this administration has focused properly on that.

In the stimulus legislation, well over $150 billion of the $800-and-some billion went to low-income people. So his record is good. And then, of course, after 2010, all bets were off, because the Congress, especially the House, was just completely unresponsive, in fact was attacking all and is attacking all these programs.

The place where I’ve been somewhat critical is that I think that—I understand the political importance of talking about the middle class. That is the kind of economic backbone, and they are being squeezed. There’s no question about that. As I’ve said, the squeeze is not only on the people who suffer the worst. But I don’t hear what I call the "P-word." I don’t hear explicit discussion of poverty enough. And we need to get that back into the dialogue. That’s the place where I have some concern. But I’m 100 percent supportive of President Obama overall, and I do think in this area the substance is good. It’s true of a lot of things that he’s done. He’s done a good job on things and doesn’t take proper credit for them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the causes that you point out in your book for increasing levels of poverty also has to do not just with jobs, but with a living wage. You point out that 50 percent of jobs pay $34,000 or less a year. I want to turn to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He compared the city council’s living wage bill to communism. The bill would raise worker wages at city-subsidized developments. Bloomberg made the comment in an interview on WOR Radio.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The last time you really had a big managed economy was the U.S.S.R., and that didn’t work out so well. You cannot stop the tides from coming in. We need jobs in the city. It would be great if all jobs in the city paid a lot of money and had great benefits for the workers—not good for the employers. But if you force that, you will just drive businesses out of the city.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Peter Edelman, your comments on what—

PETER EDELMAN: Respectfully, I disagree with the mayor. The mayor has done a lot of good things. I think in this area maybe some of his business experience got the better of him. There are living wage ordinances in cities across the country, and San Francisco being a good example, and there hasn’t been any huge flight of jobs. Living wage is a part of a strategy. It reaches a relatively small number of workers in any community, but it’s something that we should be doing more of. We have to get at the question of low wages across the board. It’s just not sufficiently in our conversation that there are 103 million people who have incomes below twice the poverty line, below $36,000 for a family of three. And those are people who are struggling every day. They’re not poor. They don’t think of themselves as poor. But they are definitely having a huge difficulty in making ends meet every month.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also talk, Peter Edelman, about the racial dimension of poverty in the U.S. You say that between 2005 and 2009, the median wealth of Hispanics fell by 66 percent, of African Americans by 53 percent, while whites lost comparatively little, 16 percent. And yet you point out that the vast majority of the poor in the U.S. are white.

PETER EDELMAN: We have to keep two ideas in mind. One is that the largest number, not 50 percent, but the largest number of those who are poor are white, and anything that we do in terms of the earned income tax credit or food stamps, whatever it is, the beneficiaries, the largest group are white. So, politically, that needs to be understood better. But—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why is that important?

PETER EDELMAN: It’s important because you need a majority to pass things in the Congress. You need majority support for what you do. But at the same time, we have to have an emphasis and a focus in an honest discussion of the role that race plays in this, and gender, as well, although gender is really about—largely, about women of color, at the lower economic end. So we have disproportionate poverty among African Americans and Latinos. It’s been true always. And even with the progress we’ve made in building an African-American middle class, at the bottom that’s still true. So, we have to have race and gender on the table in our discussion of poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Edelman, have you ever spoken to President Clinton again?

PETER EDELMAN: Oh, yes. The relationship is not the same, but wounds heal at a personal level. I disagree strongly with—still, and I think the facts bear me out, in terms of what has happened to welfare. But I think if you look at things that he did as president, there are some other things that I disapprove of, but I think it was an important presidency, and it had many, many positive parts to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Edelman, we want to thank you very much for being with us. His book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

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