Lacking a Sense of Outrage over Poverty: Peter Edelman’s Interview with The Nation

March 29, 2011

There was time, in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the United States was "more of a mind to tackle poverty," Georgetown University law school professor Peter Edelman tells Greg Kaufmann in an interview for The Nation.

In "US Poverty: Past, Present and Future," Edelman, an ACS Board member and husband of Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, reflected on his storied career of fighting poverty. That career included working closely with Robert F. Kennedy and serving, for a time, in the Clinton administration. (Kaufmann notes that Edelman left his post in the administration in protest over its involvement in the creation of so-called welfare reform.)

Today a sense of outrage is sorely lacking over the ever-growing number of people in poverty, Edelman (pictured at the 2010 ACS National Convention) says:

We now have over 19 million people who live in extreme poverty - that's 6.3 percent of the population - unbelievable! These are people below half the poverty line - below about $8,500 for a family of three, $11,500 for a family of four. Up from 12.6 million in 2000! You have 6 million people in this country whose only income is food stamps - which provide income at just one-third of the poverty line. We've effectively destroyed welfare as a form of assistance - that's TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the cash assistance that ought to go along with food stamps - because in so many states it's become virtually nonexistent. The states decide who gets it, and so in state after state - with a few exceptions - it's really hard to get on welfare.

Regarding child poverty, Edelman says:

Over 20 percent of children live in poverty, and over 36 percent of the extremely poor are children. Also, over half of the children in this country under age 6 who live in a household where there's a single mom are poor. That's another stunning number.

Poverty in the country continues to hit certain races and ethnicities the hardest, Edelman adds:

We still have poverty rates for African-Americans that are close to three times the white rate. Same for Latinos. But the African-American poverty rate tends to be more intergenerational, more persistent. Same for Native Americans. And what are the causes of that?

A lot of it is something that does not start in childhood in terms of the inadequate schooling that too many children of color receive. Some are issues in the community and the home that we don't talk about enough. And then there are these societal frames - and the criminal justice system is the largest one - that are just kind of traps that are out there. So, if a kid gets into the juvenile justice system he or she is much more disproportionately likely to get into the adult criminal justice system, this is the pipeline. And there isn't a national consciousness of how racialized the whole thing is.

As far as the criminal justice system itself is concerned, you look at it every stage of the way: more African-Americans arrested for the same crime; more processed through the system as opposed to the charge being dropped; more incarcerated as opposed to receiving probation, etc. It's very related to the drug policy. That all makes a major contribution to the level of poverty. My basic view is that essentially you need to treat people who are low-level dealers or users as a public health question.

See Edelman's entire comments on the nation's poverty, which includes observations about the "tidal wave of low wage jobs," and the need to reverse course and start making serious investments in reversing poverty, which, as Edelman notes, would require "making the rich people pay their fair share."

In his last column for The New York Times, Bob Herbert also hit upon the nation's glut of jobs that pay "a pittance," and rising inequality. (Herbert noted, "Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.")

It is the growing economic inequality, Herbert wrote, that may someday spark outrage, of which Edelman spoke.

"This inequality," Herbert wrote, "in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences."