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.