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Disparities endanger U.S. democracy

Fri, Nov 2, 2012

Federal, state and business policies can raise standard of living

American democracy is in danger if today’s disparities in race and income continue, said Peter Edelman, a long-time Democratic Party policymaker, in a Chicago lecture on his new book, So Rich, So Poor, Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.
“This is a much bigger problem than the question of poverty,” Edelman said October 10 in his lecture sponsored by the National Public Housing Museum at Northwestern University Law School’s Thorne Auditorium.

Peter Edelman

“I think our democracy is in danger; I don’t think we can have so much power at the top,” Edelman said. “This is a question of inequality as well as poverty. We can’t have such power at the top, from big corporations and wealthy individuals, without becoming a very different country. We can’t continue this way with these disparities [and be] the democracy that we say we are. We need a different politics, people to come to their senses, people who organize who start this work and help bring people together.”
Edelman is director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, and professor of law at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. He is a former legislative aide to Robert F. Kennedy and served as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration. However, he resigned in protest to the President’s welfare reform law, arguing that it destroyed safety nets for the poor.

Edelman touted policies of President Obama going into the November 6 election and at one point said that if Republican Mitt Romney were elected “we should all move to Canada.” Yet his talk was broader, with a separate emphasis on effective policies at both the federal and the state/local levels, and on work that could be done by foundations, business and civic organizations. Activists themselves, he said, must make poverty real to the American people. And he acknowledged that “we have to have the revenue it takes to run this country, which we do not have at the present time.”

Low-wage work means that 108 million Americans have income below twice the poverty line, or $38,000 for a family of three, while another 20 million have incomes below half the poverty line, or $9,500 for a family of three, Edelman said. This number has doubled in the last 40 years; it has gone from 3.3 percent to 6.6 percent.

Many of these low-wage earners are single mothers who are the only adult worker in a family with children, Edelman said. They need supplemental income from the federal government, he said, and he contrasted welfare reform with food stamp use to show why.
Before the 1996 welfare reform law, 68 percent of children living in poor families were receiving cash assistance. Today, only 27 percent of children in poor families receive such help; in half the states, the number is less than 20 percent.

Food stamps, on the other hand, have been “a powerful antirecession tool:” 26 million in 2007 and 46 million today. The 20 million increase included people at the bottom who had nothing, those who had low-wage jobs, and those who lost jobs in the recession.
In comparison, TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) did not serve as many people during the recession, when it was most needed, he said. TANF recipients are down to 3.9 million people from a high of 14 million, a figure that Edelman said was too high.

“The old welfare system needed to be reformed. It was not helping people get off welfare and get a job. But it was reformed in exactly the wrong way: with block grants that let the states do whatever they want – no more legal rights and five years as a time limit. So in the recession when people needed help there were 20 million more people on food stamps and 500,000 on TANF.”

Edelman called out Romney for a commercial in which he wrongly said that Obama was getting rid of the work requirement on welfare. “This was total fiction, to me just sort of sick humor, there isn’t any welfare to get rid of anymore.”

American debate has become counterproductively ugly, with too many politicians using both welfare and criminal justice to do “racial politics,” he said. As an example, he cited Ronald Reagan’s woman who went to the grocery store in a white Cadillac to buy the choicest cuts of beef.

“Everyone knew he was talking about an African-American woman on welfare.”

The reality, however, is that while blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor, whites are the largest group of poor people. “We ought to be able to express both of those. That there are more white people than people of color needs to be in our conversation.”
Federal policy should also monitor trade agreements for their effect on U.S. low-wage workers, Edelman said. For example, was the US tough enough on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to enforce fair labor and environmental standards? he asked rhetorically.

And while he said that “there is a point where it does destroy jobs,” Edelman said that once the recession is over, he would favor raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, indexed to inflation.

Federal policy that raises standards of living simultaneously addresses poverty. “I think the public responsibility in a sophisticated society is to have the health care, also the investments in child care as an income equivalent. If we have better housing policy that includes housing stock and adding to vouchers, that is an income equivalent. Helping people get post-secondary education is the same thing. All have an effect.”

More people on Medicaid since the Obama administration and the stimulus program have added to income equivalence. An audience member, however, noted that neither Obama nor Romney addressed jobs in the first presidential debate.

What would happen if Romney won, he asked.

Peter Edelman, author of So Rich, So Poor, addresses the audience at Northwestern University Law School’s Thorne Auditorium.

“There’s a concerted effort to change food stamps into a block grant and they’re serious about turning Medicaid into a block grant, which means instead of federal standards about who can get it, they just lump the money and let the states decide. They have all this rhetoric about states being closer to the people and on and on. They wanted to do that to Medicare but backed out of it. The Paul Ryan budget was very scary. I can go through a list of things. If the way we are going to reduce the deficit going forward doesn’t involve looking at all parts of the budget, doesn’t involve having new revenues at least going back to where it was before George W. Bush was elected, what you get is, they will have to take all of that out of domestic discretionary spending. So the housing budget gets smashed, the whole series of things that aren’t big ticket things get smashed.”

Apart from national policy, Edelman said ending concentrated local poverty is a civic and local responsibility. It takes local leadership from the business community, from labor unions and from local foundations.

Early childhood development is especially important in breaking the cradle to prison pipeline and also the “cradle to nowhere pipeline.

“So many kids are not finding what they are needing in school, not being on the pathway to jobs for the 21st century.” He estimated there are two million to four million “disconnected” young people age 18 to 24 who are neither in school nor employed. They are disproportionately of color, in inner cities across the nation.

An audience member asked how to get past the sound bites and Tweets to make poverty real to the electorate.

Edelman responded that his own book was too heavy in numbers and sparse in human faces. “We need more Marketplace on NPR; it’s radio so you’re not seeing but there are a lot of stories. People involved in simulations of what it is like to apply for food stamps. My wife [Marian Wright Edelman] and the Children’s Defense Fund [she founded it and is now president] does child watch in communities around the country where she takes civic leaders to justice facilities, to emergency rooms of public hospitals, to schools. That’s what we need: a way to see the way we all are as human beings.”

The National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) is scheduled for phased openings next year in the last building of the Jane Addams Homes on Taylor Street. Its mission is to interpret the experience of public and social housing and the resilience of working class families of every ethnicity.

Co-sponsors of Edelman’s appearance included Facing History and Ourselves, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, the Center for Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. Host committee members included Marjorie Craig Benton, John Bouman, Justice Anne Burke, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, state Sen. Mattie Hunter, Jane Ramsey, Bettylu Saltzman and Marilyn Katz.

Written by Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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