US Poverty: Past, Present and Future
If the federal budget is a moral document—a statement of values and priorities—then the current debate on where we will spend our money in tough fiscal times is a defining moment for the character of this nation.
Currently, a record 47 million people live below the poverty line—$22,400 per year for a family of four—including one in five children. Over 100 million people, or one in three Americans, live on less than $46,000 for a family of four.
Despite this widespread economic hardship, the current budget debate is focused entirely on cuts in domestic discretionary spending—things like childcare, Head Start, federal housing, transportation, job creation programs, job training—cuts that will have a devastating and disproportionate impact on those already struggling to make ends meet.
It seems an opportune moment to look back on how this nation has confronted poverty-related issues in the past, and where we are headed today. Few people are more able to provide that perspective than Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman, who is currently writing a book on just that subject.
Edelman has battled poverty for nearly fifty years, most notably as a legislative assistant to Senator Robert Kennedy and as an assistant secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration—a post he resigned in protest of the 1996 welfare reform bill—as well as through his writing and teaching.
He says of his time working for the late Senator, “Here was a man who really—I think unlike anybody at that level since—was just deeply committed to doing something very serious about poverty in this country and obviously the intersection of poverty and race. I had the opportunity to go around the country with him, and to learn as he learned—from listening and talking to people and seeing problems. I learned much more about what it’s like to be poor than I could have ever learned from books.”
From the moment he visited starving children in Mississippi in 1967, where he also met his wife, Marian Wright Edelman, Edelman has led a life dedicated to confronting poverty and shining a light on issues that all too often go under-reported.
Here is our conversation:
Greg Kaufmann: What are some of the most vivid memories from your work then that still inform you today?
Peter Edelman: The most vivid is going to Mississippi in the spring of 1967 where I also met my wife, Marian. We went there to hold hearings highlighting the importance of the multi-county Head Start program. There was tremendous political pressure to defund that program.
Marian was not only the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund office in Mississippi at the age of 27, she was also general counsel to the Child Development Group of Mississippi. She was meant to testify about Head Start, but instead discussed the near-starvation going on in Mississippi. So the Senate subcommittee and staff went and saw children in the United States of America in 1967 who were tangibly severely malnourished—bloated bellies, running sores that wouldn’t heal. It was this incredibly awful, powerful experience that’s with me all the time. I’ll never ever forget seeing those hungry children. Seeing things stokes one’s commitment to make a difference.
GK: What are some of the key differences between taking on poverty now compared to antipoverty work in the 1960s and ’70s?
PE: We were more of a mind to tackle poverty then.
We made food stamps into a national program, and we passed Medicare and Medicaid which have had an enormous antipoverty effect. We created Pell Grants, and vouchers for low-income housing, the earned-income tax credit—things that made a huge difference and without which we would have a much higher level of poverty than we have.
But we never focused fully on the changes that were taking place in the economy in the 1970s. The deindustrialization—the loss of the good jobs that didn’t require a lot of education—and the shift to a much more low-wage job based economy.
Also, the increasing problem of the concentration of poverty—of intergenerational and persistent poverty. It’s a smaller part of poverty, but the part that creates the political controversy. So the whole question of welfare was allowed to fester over a long period of time because we didn’t have any serious effort to help people find jobs and get off the welfare rolls.
Fast-forward to now: number one, we now have this tidal wave of low wage jobs which is different from where we were in the 1960s. The other thing is we have so many more families that are headed by a single parent, usually a mom. The poverty of households headed by a single woman is over 30 percent.
So, the change in family composition is significant in thinking about what to do about poverty. The right wing says it’s all about the dissolution or destruction or breakup of the American family. Factually, I think most of us would like to see children growing up with two parents. But how do you do that? The basic way is to do something about economic opportunity for everybody.
GK: So what are the kinds of things that need to be done in that vein?
PE: One of the things we know is that there are millions of people who have low-wage jobs, whether they are technically poor or not. You have all of these people who are doing their very best—working two or three jobs and so on. And whatever they are able to cobble together is not enough to get them to the point where they can pay all their bills.
So what do you do about that? Well, labor unions should be stronger. Minimum wage should be raised and indexed to inflation. But you’re still going to have a gap.
Very fundamentally you need two things: one, you need wage supplements—that’s the earned-income tax credit. The other is you need all the social investments that are necessary and that are the obligation of the society to provide. They’re not a wage supplement, but they have an income affect, and that’s health coverage, and childcare, strong K-12 and pre-K, access to higher education and help with housing.
But the federal childcare only reaches about one in seven who qualify for it; and federally-funded housing help reaches about one in four who qualify for it. So, all of those things cost money. And we’re not ready to admit that we have this structurally broken economy.
The fundamental question about poverty in this country—putting aside those who need the safety net—is facing up to the fact that the economy is broken. It has a structural flaw for millions and millions of people: low-wage work.
GK: And then not putting aside the safety net?
PE: 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 $8500 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.
So, the rolls that were over 14 million people in the early 1990s shrank after the 1996 welfare reform law and continued to shrink down to under 4 million people when the recession started. And the needle barely moved when the recession started, while food stamps went up from around 30 million to well above 40 million people over the last two or three years—because there is a legal right to get food stamps! Not so for welfare. So, in many, many states they continued to say to people go out and look for a job when they knew very well there was no job available.
Extreme poverty is a separate question from low-wage work. These are people who—if they have any work at all—it’s very episodic, seasonal, part-time. They may live somewhere that’s too far from a job, they may be not very good candidates for work, they’re clinically depressed, they have no skills, they are a victim of domestic violence, maybe they are caring for a child or parent with an illness—there are all kinds of reasons why they have almost no earnings. And we’re not facing up to that problem. We’ve essentially torn huge holes in the safety net.