Peter Edelman never quit the War on Poverty and still keeps the positives upfront when he measures progress against poverty. America has done a lot to combat poverty, he said. “We cut poverty in half in the 1960s.”
He can rattle off statistics about ground we’ve lost, but he also focuses on how much better off we are now and collects stories of progress as he travels the country for speaking engagements.
Edelman is a law professor at Georgetown University and a veteran of government service and political engagement. He was in Seattle to speak at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance awards dinner Tuesday.
In an interview before his talk, Edelman chided the political left and right for inflexibility and offered his take on the persistence of poverty and on possible solutions, especially jobs that pay living wages.
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Edelman said there are people who believe the fault is all structural and people who believe it is all a matter of personal responsibility. Neither is the whole truth.
Any program that is to be successful has to acknowledge the role that both societal and personal factors play, and that means it should address people as individuals because each case is unique.
“There is a moral question about a country this wealthy that would leave anyone behind,” Edelman said, but what is likely to lead to support for action to fight poverty is getting more Americans to understand a more pragmatic matter. “It’s expensive to have so many people living in poverty,” he said.
He cites a paper from a task force on poverty he participated in six years ago. A group of economic researchers estimated the annual cost to the U.S. economy that result from children growing up in poverty is $500 billion a year. The calculation includes reduced productivity, and increased crime rates and poorer health.
That report came out just before the recession caused an upswell in the number of people living in poverty. But we’d been losing ground even before that, he said.
In the 1960s, both political parties supported programs that targeted poverty, the economy was good, and civil-rights gains added black people to the growing middle class.
But a lot changed beginning in 1973 when the economy began to be hurt by globalization, he said. That was the year of the second Arab oil embargo.
Edelman listed several factors that have fed poverty: Politics got uglier, the number of single-parent families increased, immigrants took some lower-level jobs and depressed wages, we started locking up record numbers of people, and the deepest poverty became concentrated in certain urban areas. Race and gender discrimination remain issues.
Changes like welfare reform in 1996 hurt, too, though its impact was masked by the good economy at first, he said. Sixty percent of women who’d collected Aid to Families with Dependent Children, found work in its aftermath, but 40 percent didn’t.
While Edelman foresaw the cost of ending AFDC, he also says the program had a significant flaw in that “it wasn’t tied to helping people get work.”
When he lists solutions, preparing people for work is high among them. He said it doesn’t help that the Department of Labor has the major responsibility for federal job-training programs rather than the Department of Education, which has a much larger budget.
He said we have to start at the beginning to help young people develop the skills they’ll need to enter the workforce. Families need safe, stable housing. He champions cash supports for families in which parents work, but don’t earn enough to cover the basics.
And politics needs to improve. He recalled that Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax cut helped people at the bottom. When Mitt Romney talked about 47 percent of Americans taking but not giving, Edelman says, lumped in that group are the low-income workers taken off the tax rolls by Reagan.
Edelman recalls his own realization of the depth of poverty. In 1967 he was working on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and traveled to Mississippi with the candidate. (He met his future wife, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund on that trip.) Edelman was stunned to see children starving, to see the bloated bellies associated with famine in countries far away.
It energized him and other people to work toward a better society, and as a result of that work, we no longer have that kind of poverty, he said.
Medicaid dramatically reduced the infant-mortality rate, Edelman said. Food stamps helped reduce hunger. The quality of housing is much better than it was in the 1960s.
And without our antipoverty programs there would be 86 million poor rather than 46 million. That’s still too many poor Americans, but those early victories help him to remain positive about the future.
And, he said, he continues to see innovation at the local and state level, where he sees “civic, neighborhood and community-based groups that are making a difference.”
Last week he visited a program in Tulsa, Okla., that works with young parents and their children at the same time. It helps the parents, mostly moms, get jobs and learn better parenting skills.
In Des Moines, Iowa, he recently toured a community learning center that meets a range of needs in a neighborhood with significant poverty, including training for real, existing jobs.
“Some of these things happen one by one,” he said, “but you add that up and it makes a difference.” In the long run those differences will help the entire country.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org