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.

GK: Where does child poverty fit in this picture?
PE: 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.

We have to invest in all of those aspects of what happens to children, and that truly is an investment. It’s an investment in that child’s future, and the country’s future. Economist Harry Holzer has shown that the cost of sustained childhood poverty is more than $500 billion per year, or 4 percent of GDP. Clearly, from under-education and under-inclusion in the economy you can see there must be obvious costs in terms of crime, public benefits, lost consumption.

Child poverty is family poverty—and the families with children that are clearly, hugely worse off are the families headed by single moms. It’s disproportionately a factor of the situation of the single mom, with an overlay of race and ethnicity.

And so if you want to tackle that you have to talk about the situation of the mom. The conservatives say, “She should get married.” But she ought to be able to earn enough to support her children without being required to get a second income. So, the question of child poverty comes back very fundamentally to the question of work, and income from work. And we just don’t talk about it that way.

The second issue about child poverty is education. Because if that child is going to grow up and get out of poverty, he or she has to have a good education and have the maximum chance to get a good job.

The fact is there are millions of young people who are out in the streets—very disproportionately young people of color—who are out of school, out of work, and not in trouble with the law, but who face lives of not reaching their potential. There’s no serious strategy to look at the pathways from youth to adulthood.

There ought to be—instead of the cradle-to-prison pipeline—everything that creates the childhood to adulthood pathway that is maximally successful for young people. And two things are essential: it’s heavily in the K-12 experiences of especially inner-city young people; and then it is the employment opportunities that are available to them. That’s a subject that needs to be lifted up to a very high degree of significance.

But—and there’s a big but here—what is the future of jobs in this country? And I think we have a serious thing to worry about in that regard—not just the amount of low-wage work but the amount of work overall. We need to be thinking about everything we can do to make sure enough jobs are there and we need to be doing the education and training. And you have to start by making the rich people pay their fair share. Because you need to have the revenues so you have the money to do the social investment.

GK: You mentioned an overlay of race and ethnicity that contributes to child poverty—can you say more about that?

PE: 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 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 huge 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.

GK: With one in three Americans—over 100 million Americans—now living at less than twice the poverty threshold, how does that group achieve political salience?

PE: It seems to me that if we could put it on the table and get people to see that essentially they’re in a place where they really are not getting a fair shake, that there’s a politics in it.

But I also know there are an awful lot of people who have a lot of amplification capacity who don’t want people to understand that. But still I really do wonder why we don’t have people who hold elected office who speak more clearly? Where is the Robert Kennedy of this generation?

Something has to happen to get people off their tail, to get people back to the level of commitment and enthusiasm that they had—it turns out ever so briefly—when they elected Obama to be president. And to get out into the streets—both literally and metaphorically. We had Madison, which we might say was our Cairo. And we need people all over the country to stand up in the same way and say, “I’m opposed to the direction that these things are going.” There has to be some sense of outrage about that and the only way that’s going to be is if people will stand up and speak up for themselves. Any sort of sustained change from the progressive side has got to come from the grassroots. We’re the side that depends on people power.

GK: Do you ever think about what Bobby or Ted Kennedy might say at this moment in terms of where we are and what we need to do?

PE: I think they both would be saying exactly what we’ve been saying in this conversation—which is that we have to be helping people who need help and we have to be insisting on a proper contribution to the running of the government from people who can afford it easily. And they would speak to the extent to which there are disproportionate effects on people of color.