Poverty Expert Peter Edelman Explains How Low Wages and Racial Politics Line the Pockets of the Rich
Photo Credit: Georgetown School of Law
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Peter Edelman, one of the nation's foremost academic authorities on the subject of poverty in the U.S. has lived a life on the front lines of history and politics, holding positions ranging from senatorial aide to state bureaucrat to official in a presidential cabinet. But in his storied employment history, he is perhaps more famous for quitting one job than for holding it: in 1996, Edelman resigned his post as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human services to protest President Bill Clinton's signing the Republicans' welfare-reform bill into law. Since then, Edelman has held fast not only to his critique of that law -- which, he says, has left some 6 million people with no income other than food stamps -- but to his assessment of why poverty in the world's richest nation has become so intractable.
Edelman finds his answers in the tangle of racialized politics, mass incarceration, displacement caused by globalization, the explosion of low-wage jobs and the dilution of democracy by moneyed interests. In his 2012 book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America, Edelman writes, "The American economy did not stagnate over the past 40 years: it grew, but the fruits of that growth went to those at the top."
Edelman's interest in American poverty began when, as an aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-NY, he accompanied his boss on fact-finding trips to the poorest parts of the nation, including the Mississippi Delta, rural Kentucky, California's San Joaquin Valley and Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. More than four decades later, the quest to end poverty is still his mission, now conducted from his office at Georgetown Law School, where he is a professor. "Had I been part of the exodus from ancient Egypt," he says, "I would have made it to the promised land by now."
But Edelman is not without hope; in fact, he seems to find hopelessness something of a cop-out. Instead, he points to recent push-back by voters against an anti-union law in Ohio and an anti-abortion referendum in Mississippi as indicators of what might be possible if the electorate were truly engaged in the fight. He spells out in his book a plan for for fuller employment in decent jobs through a combination of accessible education, subsidized childcare and a safety net adequate for keeping families working together. But to make that happen, he says, the government needs the kind of revenue it can only get by bringing tax rates on corporations and wealthy Americans back to the levels they paid in 2001.
I met with Edelman in his office at Georgetown Law, a spacious and airy book-lined room near the U.S. Capitol, the day after the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester officially took effect. Also known as sequestration, the spending cuts were signed into law by President Barack Obama as part of a deal to allow the U.S. government to pay its debts by lifting the cap on government borrowing, which the Republicans had blocked.
Obama agreed to the deal with the expectation that Congress would prevent the cuts from going into effect because of the impact on the defense budget. Instead, Republicans refused to cut a deal to forestall the sequester, and government agencies are set to furlough workers and mothball programs.
Adele M. Stan: Two things have happened since you published the book: the sequester, and the president's proposal for raising the minimum wage. Of course, the president's minimum wage proposal is a dollar short of the $10-an-hour rate you were suggesting. But we're told because it is linked to the cost of living -- indexed to rise with the cost of living -- that in some ways it might be better. However, few believe that even this modest proposal has a chance of getting through Congress.
Peter Edelman: The president made three important proposals in his State of the Union message. One was about minimum wage. The second was the proposal for early childhood development and the third was the "race to the top" for so-called STEM -- science and technical education -- and especially having that reach all the way down to lower-income young people. Each of those is not going to be something that is likely to be achieved during the course of at least the first two years of this second term, because they all, regardless of sequestration, they all run into the Tea Party, and the fact that the Tea Party effectively controls the Republican Party now.
Those three proposals are out there because they're the right thing to do, and because they will have an effect in changing the discourse around the country. Some states will raise their own minimum wage. Some states will respond by doing more with early childhood development. Some states will do more about getting people the education they need for the jobs of the 21st century. This is not only about getting Congress to act.
AMS: You're saying just by injecting this into the conversation, it spurs action in the states.
PE: Yes. It's helpful. Now, in some states that are completely red, it's not going to make any difference. But state revenue is beginning to go up -- although sequestration cuts against that. You can look at what's happening in California now. There's the economic recovery going on and they're beginning to look at the various sorts of measures that were completely off the table [before the recovery began].
The minimum wage is what it is. It's not a living wage or a near-living wage. [The benefit of the proposal is] in terms of the effect that it has. It goes in the right direction, but it only gets part of the way to where we need to go. But we shouldn't disparage it, it's very important. At the margins, $9 an hour is a substantial increase over [the current rate of] $7.25. It will total a few million people out of poverty. He's the first president that proposed indexing it to inflation. That's all to the good. In terms of getting to a living wage, it might be, I don't know, 10 percent of the way or something like that.
Still, I'm glad he made those proposals. I think each one of them is absolutely at the heart of something very important.
Sequestration, of course, changes the subject, which is exactly what the Republicans want. And there's only one thing that they agree about. They're flaking off on immigration. They're flaking off on gay marriage and they flaked off recently on the Violence Against Women Act. They're fraying a little around the edges, but they...
AMS: ... You mean by allowing VAWA to pass.
PE: ...Yes, by the fact that there are [Republicans in Congress] who don't toe a monolithic party line on those three examples I just gave you, and others. The one thing where they will all agree to not confirm judges who are appointed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, and so a genuinely centrist and moderate woman like Caitlin Halligan gets totally pilloried that they absolutely make up stories about her that are zero true. Zero true; not 1 percent, not 2 percent, zero truth, and that's a Republican game, right?
The place where the Republicans are absolutely staking the heart of their position is cut, cut, cut, and of course, cut, cut, cut doesn't mean cutting Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security to the same degree as other things -- or even the defense budget, even though ostensibly that's being cut by the same amount just at the moment.
The brunt of the budget-cutting comes on the domestic discretionary programs. What are those? Those are things about educating children. Those are things about helping people with housing. Those are things about training people for jobs. Head Start. It's all things that hit the most vulnerable people, the WIC program. The fact is that the day after sequestration started, everything didn't come crushing down. That's just a matter of the process.
AMS: It's almost a dangerous feature of the sequestration.
PE: Well, that's exactly right. Exactly. Oh, well, the world didn't come to an end last night. But it's a very big thing. It turns out that this is exactly what the Republicans want. They want to force the people who oppose them, namely the Democrats, to focus on resisting sequestration and then they can't do anything else. It's brilliant in a very negative way.
AMS: Right. Well, you observe that the Republican party is, in fact, controlled by the Tea Party at this point in time -- and it's very clever the way they control it, too, because it's not as if they even control it through a majority of the majority.
PE: They're exactly in place where they control the sand and the gears.
AMS: Your observation about how the racialization of the image of poverty, or the image of people who access government social safety programs -- be it Head Start or Temporary Cash Assistance to Needy Families (the program most often described as "welfare" in everyday language) -- how that cuts into political support for those programs is chilling. And your description in your book abouthow almost inaccessible TANF is to most people who need itwas a real eye-opener to me.
PE: White or black, or Latino.
AMS: Right. What I'm wondering is you've got this party, the GOP, that is very invested in, as you say, cut, cut, cut, and particularly these sorts of programs. You've got this party supported electorally, such as it's supported, by a lot of people who are basically middle-class white people, right? The old saw about people voting against their own self-interest may very well hold true here.
I'm wondering how the racialization of the image of poverty and of the people we think of using these sorts of programs and the rise of the Tea Party -- which some of us believe foments a certain amount of racial resentment or is fueled by it -- how do those two things work together?
PE: There has been a racial element to conservative politics, going back to the end of the time when the George Wallaces of this world simply stood up and used the "N" word. Then that became incorrect to say, and we have to remember that it was President Nixon of whom sometimes people say, "He wasn't so bad."
AMS: Right. By comparison, he looks almost liberal.
PE: Well, that's a somewhat careless rewriting of the history because he's the one who invented the Southern strategy. What was the Southern strategy? It was about saying to conservative white Democrats in the South that they really would find a much more congenial home in the "modern Republican Party." Lyndon Johnson had said when he signed the Voting Rights Act that the price would be sort of the end of the Democratic Party as we know it and the loss of the South for a generation.
AMS: It turned out to be several generations.
PE: Well, he was quite right, and it's interesting if you unpack it with a little bit more detail because there were all those very interesting governors in the South in the '80s. Not just Bill Clinton, but Dick Riley in South Carolina, Bill Winter in Mississippi, Lawton Chiles in Florida, Jim Hunt in North Carolina. It was a considerable list. There was a kind of a New South for a while and Democrats did win, but now it much more reflects a fulfillment of Nixon's strategy.
There were two things that the Republicans did to make sure that there was a racial element to their politics. The most important was what they did, around the country, to the criminal justice system, because the number of people who are in prison in 1970 was a fraction -- a small fraction -- of the number of the 2.3 million who we now incarcerate, and of course, the drug war is connected to that, but not [it's not the] only [reason], because [you have to consider] the whole system of mandatory minimum sentences and the “three strikes and you're out” laws. It's [both of those things] together, so that if you look at the prison population in this country, you actually find that two-thirds of the people who are in our jails and prisons are older than 25 years old. Crime is an activity of the young disproportionately. What's happened is people that are in [prison for much longer]. The prisons now have their geriatric units now. The prisons have all these people who have been there for long, long periods of time and they're aging, literally aging, as inmates.
That all was a major piece of racial politics, and then, secondly, that was about the man, [and removing him from the family]. And of course, that has an enormous effect in racializing poverty as a matter of fact, as well as in the politics of it, because if you have these guys who, when they do get out of prison, have absolutely no prospects and the law makes it extremely difficult to put their lives back together again. For that whole period of time that they're imprisoned, the men aren't in the community and it has an enormous terrible effect on family structure, and has a horrible effect on kids, the self-worth of children and their sense of possibility in their lives.
The companion piece of the racial politics was what [Republicans] did to welfare, starting with the war on welfare that goes all the way back to the very late '60s and into the '70s. And it's just this steady attack on welfare recipients as being lazy and wanting to collect their checks. The image that is conveyed is a racial image. Ronald Reagan talks about the woman who drives up to the supermarket in her white Cadillac and goes in with her food stamps and buys the choice cut of meat. Everybody knew who he was talking about; he never said it: an African-American woman who lives in New York City who's on welfare.
We've had this inculcation of racial politics in those two major ways, and so it has these two interlocking facts, because on one hand, partly it's a consequence of the criminal justice policy. You have a racial disproportionality in the poverty itself and then you have, as a consequence of the changes in family structure in the neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in the biggest cities, you would have some bad things that happen in terms of behavior. Then it becomes easier to make the racialized stories stick in the politics. You end up with 27 percent African American, Latino, Native American poverty -- which is actually down over the decades from where it was. It was 55 percent in 1959 -- African-American poverty -- when they started measuring poverty, so we actually made progress on that, even though white poverty is 10 percent.
It's really a vicious circle because the image of African-American poverty feeds the negative politics.
AMS: Right, and then white people don't see themselves as people who could fall into this, too.
PE: The fact is that the largest group of people in the country [on welfare] are white.
AMS: Right, of course, which is not the image that people have. My personal opinion is it encourages white people not to identify with the people who avail themselves of public assistance.
Getting to all of this, the difficult conversation is, as we euphemistically call discussions about family structure, is this is a mine field. I'm a feminist, and there is always a delicacy within the feminist communities about talking about this issue as one that is too easily used to blame women for the plights of their families.
PE: Yeah. Well, I don't think I would blame anybody; the first thing we have to understand is the question of women having children in an instance where if they're not married to the father, that's a worldwide phenomenon. I mean, it's all over. It's in Europe, as well.
AMS: That fascinated me because I have observed this within my own family and community. I've seen it among young white women who are, broadly speaking, middle-class, but who might be considered on the cusp of the working-class.
PE: Right. While it's true that there is a racial disparity in the numbers, in fact, if you look at the trends and the numbers of origin, increases [in babies born to single women] in the African-American community took place in the 1970s. It's been pretty steady since then, and in fact, in terms of [the birth rate among] adolescents, that's going down. It's still too high, but it's still on the decline. The increases in births to unmarried women -- all of the increases since 1980 have been [among] whites and Latinos. Who knows that?
Talking about what's happening across the board, the trends, well, they're higher in some groups than in others...And you even have Charles Murray, who draws lots of conclusions that are wrong, [talking] about the kind of change of behaviors in the white community.
But this is about how the economy functions. This is about what's happened to the job market. This is about the flood of low-wage jobs. The conversation about poverty much too easily turns to welfare -- and there is a big problem in terms of the huge holes that we've got in the safety net at the bottom.
But in terms of the heart of the problem, without the intrusion of race into it, the heart of the problem is about low-wage jobs. Half the jobs in the country pay less than $34,000. And a quarter [of those jobs] don't pay even up to the poverty line for a family of four, [which is] $23,000. No wonder families are falling apart.
AMS: You also referenced your knowledge of the Great Depression early in your book and I think I recall reading that during the Great Depression, the abandonment of families by men was an issue.
PE: Abandonment? They could not find any work in their own community and then went off and hopped on the road to see if they could find something somewhere, so they could send money back home! This is what happens.
We're not facing up to what's happened. Well, there's a structural change in the economy. Globalization has taken away the jobs that built the middle class in this country, which, by the way, you didn't have to have a high school education to have. It was at the height of -- which was never so high in the United States -- but at the height of union influence. In those manufacturing plants, there was organizing. We were by ourselves in the world. The infrastructure of Europe and Japan had been destroyed. We were at the top of the roof in the world and so we built the middle class. The modern middle-class was built between 1945 and 1973, and it included a significant increase in the income of black men during that period. The statistics that we have about the situation of black men begin to turn downward in 1973, after having gone steadily upward from 1945 to 1973.
You have globalization as a factor for the entire lower half, and of course, the economy isn't stuck. There is more income [than before]. It's just all going to the top.
AMS: That was quite stunning -- even though I suppose I should have known that. But to see the data as plainly as it is shown in your book, because we're so used to this mantra of the economy, of course, since 2007-2008, being a mess, right? That when you look at the aggregate overall picture, we're really pegging all of these problems to something that happened in 2008, when it all began long ago?
PE: Right, right. It started happening a long time ago. That's absolutely right, although it continues, 2009 to 2011. The income of the top 1 percent went up by 11 percent, and over that three-year period in the height of the recession, depth of the recession, the [income of the] other 99 percent went down by 0.4 percent...We really are not focusing on the fact that so many people in this country just can't make enough money....
I think that in terms of the economic, any woman or man who is, by themselves, raising children ought to be able to earn enough by herself or himself to support those children. Of course, if it's a woman, right there for openers, she's likely to have 77 percent of the income of the man, and then she's much more likely to have one of these low-wage jobs. We know that by herself, just for openers, she's likely to end up in poverty or near poverty.
It's very much a terrible interaction between the wave of low-wage jobs and how many single moms are out there. The largest group of poor people in the country is the children of single mothers, almost 50 percent across racial lines.
There's a responsibility of women and men. You need to separate out the structural issues that affect everybody and that have to be dealt with as such, but you'd also need to be talking about responsibility. It's important to somebody who fathers a child to take responsibility for that child. It's important, too, that the father, A) have that kind of wherewithal to pay child support, but B) pay the child support...we all have a parental responsibility and people need to live up to that.
It's not enough to say that there's a cradle to the present pipeline. There is. It needs to be fixed, but insofar as people who are not even trying because of some attitude that they have, there has to be work to change that. Insofar as people are having children and haven't got the least idea of what it means to be a parent, there have to be ways that are respectful to reach out to those parents to help them understand what their responsibility is...Anybody who says the whole problem is structural is just wrong, misguided, whatever it is -- anybody who says it's all a matter of personal responsibility is, of course, making a horrible mistake.
AMS: But can you ever really separate it out? How do you make a distinction between the evolution of economic structure and the evolution of culture. I mean those two things go together, right?
PE: That's such an important point because when we talk about the personal responsibility, this isn't saying that somebody was born and they were irresponsible. They were born as a baby and then they grew up, right? There's no irresponsibility gene...I mean we just really have to pursue all of this, and if we could just get more kind of wide in the middle, if you will...You ask: how do we do those things? And in terms of what I'm suggesting, the hows about the different politics and the different politics is about people who organize and advocate in order to--the people will participate and act in a way that that really addresses problems that they have.
AMS: The numbers that you have on child poverty are really mind-blowing. You report that the U.S. has the highest rate of child poverty in the industrialized world.
If you have so many kids growing up with that experience in poverty, how does that shape them for finding their way through life?
PE: It's terrible, and it's a terrible interaction between the poverty, the child poverty and what happens at school. Forty percent of black children are born into households in poverty. Forty percent.
Twenty percent of African-American children grow up in poverty for more than half of their childhood. Twenty percent.
AMS: This gets back us to what you were talking about concentrated poverty and why you think that's such a critical issue even though we have widespread poverty -- the increase in the suburban poverty and the rural poverty.
PE: The increase in suburban poverty is very important. With rural poverty, there are diminishing numbers of rural people, but rural poverty is in some places quite hopeless, [as in] Appalachia, the Indian reservations, Mississippi Delta, Colonias in South Texas, and so on. If you're in a neighborhood where you have -- [according to] the census tracks are all 40 percent poor or more -- we know what happens, right? The schools are going to be terrible. Too many of the men are in prison. Too many children are born to people who aren't married or to a mother who is not married, and there's violence all over the place.
The most persistent poverty is intergenerational poverty. It's the people who are the least included in the larger society. It's the place that we've done the very worst and it is true that part of our efforts have to be to promote personal responsibility, but not by preaching. Let's actually do something that creates some hope and possibility.
AMS: Right. Some of what you advocate is creating community centers around schools, such as the Harlem Children's Zone program.
PE: Well, let's start with schools that teach before we go to community centers. Let's do everything we can to get effective teachers.
AMS: That's another controversial thing in the progressive movement, because we have seen school reform used as a means to cut into unions...
PE: ...I think that's a very complicated subject. I think there is polarization in both directions. There surely are people who want to destroy the public school system and voucherize everything and have charters that are really for-profit businesses, and to have a market model. There surely are such people.
To say from a progressive point of view that charters are, blanket, a bad thing or that any criticism of the union is being a union-buster, that's not right either. But there are some things that a broad scope of people do agree on. The left -- and certainly many conservatives -- we want a public school system that works for every child. Anybody who thinks that you're going to charter your way out of these problems, it's conceptually wrong. There are school systems -- look at Union City in New Jersey, which David Kirp has [written] a book about and [who] had a terrific piece in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times.
It's a gritty town -- and there are lots of places in the United States that are similar that have terrible schools -- and they have just done a wonderful job. I will say that one of the things that happened there is, in New Jersey, they have a piece of litigation that's still going on, Abbott vs. Burke, which is to force the state under its own constitution to provide adequate funding for the poorest districts in the state.
There are places where there are things going on that actually bring effective teaching to low-income children. Well, let's figure out what's going on and do more of that. If you take the union question -- [there are] some places where the local unions are cooperative and they're working very hard on the reforms, and to paint with a broad brush is totally wrong. You'll find other places where, I'm sorry to say, they're part of the problem...
AMS: Okay, fair enough. You make a very strong point about the proliferation of these low-wage jobs, problems with our education system, concentration of poverty, all that stuff. But you don't see that changing in a big way anytime soon, right? You don't have a fix for the low-wage job thing. Nobody does, right?
PE: I have some partial fixes. When it comes to low-wage work, beyond the minimum wage, the major things that we can do which would be quite substantial if we did them, are to do, in a full and complete way, the things that a decent society does for all of its people. There should be childcare for every family that needs help with it. The federal funding for childcare reaches 1 out of 7 children who qualify for it now. We have a housing affordability crisis in this country -- and not just from mortgage foreclosures. We had the problem before and we have it now.
AMS: Rents are crazy.
PE: Rents are crazy and...housing vouchers only reach 1 out of 4 people who qualify for those things. The other things that are a lot better in healthcare, where we've made a major move with Medicaid and the financing of post-secondary education -- well, if we actually provided help on childcare and housing, so that everybody who needs help would get, it would be a very substantial increase in the effective income of people. The heart of this is you have to do everything you can do to raise wages and pay attention to that, and more leadership that calls in people and essentially says to Walmart: "How come you're different from Costco?" Get that out in a much more public way...
AMS: Do you think that's a failure of rhetoric and framing, or is it a failure of activism?
PE: It's partly a failure of activism, and to some extent, a failure of message, yes.
Fundamentally, there is a structural flaw in the economy -- no question about that. And that's difficult to change, but the amelioration could be substantial. We should celebrate the fact that we have 40 million people that we're keeping out of poverty because of what we've done in public policy...we would have 86 million if we didn't have Social Security and food stamps, which is a great success, and the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.
We need to be having a discussion in this country about the real meaning of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which are income supplements, because if jobs are not for, as long as we can see, going to pay enough to live on, we need to be talking about the role of public policy in having a wage supplement in this country. That's not even on the table now.
AMS: Right. Now, of course, there are some progressives who say: "Well, that's subsidizing corporations so that they don't have to pay a living wage."
PE: I understand that. It is, and it would not be my preference -- I prefer to raise the minimum wage more than I do to have wage subsidies...
AMS: But we're not going to have a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
PE: Well, you would have to have a tension between a minimum wage and Earned Income Tax Credit. The businesses would love it if you never raise the minimum wage and you gave them the wage subsidies. That's wrong. There has to be a tension in that, and of course, you want to avoid unnecessarily giving a gift to the business side of it. That's wrong.
AMS: You make the point that activism -- that there's a danger in the activism being focused on the wealthy side of the inequality and not as much in the language and rhetoric dealing with the other side of it.
PE: I think Occupy did some very good things, but I wish that there had been more sustainability to it.
AMS: To the actual people in the streets?
PE: Well, just in general that it should have--in a variety of ways have reached large numbers of people and activated them for political change in this regard. The people with more capacity like the Service Employees International Union certainly tried, and there were others. Yeah, there was more attention in inequality for that period of time and for quite a while on inequality than we had had in many, many years. It was effective.
AMS: They certainly did shift the discussion away -- temporarily -- from the debt and deficit to this question of inequality. Now, we seem to be back.
PE: Yes. Well, the nature of the politics as such that it's difficult to have that conversation when you have essentially a block of people in the Congress who are capable of just putting sand in the gears in order to grind everything to a halt. The president was successful, as we know, in giving at least some of the cause of the huge inequality that comes from the tax structure, a modest amount of change, and just getting us partway back to where we had been before 2001.
I often said -- and I say it in my book -- that not only do we have to talk about the 1 percent. Let's talk about the 99 percent, but be sure that when we talk about the 99 percent we mean everybody down to zero, because clearly, the person in the 99th percentile is quite different from the person in the 1st percentile.
AMS: Even different than those in the 50th, right?
PE: In the 50th [percentile] is somewhere in between -- but not just in the law of averages. It's qualitatively different from both ends. That's quite right. That's the challenge. We have to deal with the question at the top for multiple reasons. One, very simply is that in order to run our country in a way that's consistent with the values that we espouse, we have to have more revenue. In a way that income is divided, the people who can afford to make a greater contribution in the revenues than we receive are the people at the very top.
That's for a lot of reasons. That's not simply because the people at the bottom have so much less income. That's about the quality of life, and it also relates to power because those people at the top, the more economic wherewithal they have, the greater their political wherewithal. They are in what looks at the moment like an inexorable march [of the 1 percent] toward greater power and greater hegemony and it becomes more and more difficult to resist that. Citizens United is the headline, but the additions to political power through the translation of the money into governance is deeply troubling.
AMS: Thank you for having me in.