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Poverty Expert Peter Edelman Explains How Low Wages and Racial Politics Line the Pockets of the Rich

To help America's neediest, we've got to raise tax rates on corporations and wealthy Americans back to the levels they paid in 2001.

Photo Credit: Georgetown School of Law


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.

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