Edelman, Peter. 2012. So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America. The New Press: New York, NY.
The Associated Press recently surveyed a diverse group of economists, think thanks, and academics – nonpartisan, liberal and conservative – and found a broad consensus. America's poverty rate is growing and is now as high as it was during the mid-1960s when President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty.
According to Peter Edelman, in his new book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America, poverty is not only high and growing, but, it is touching the lives of many groups of Americans, from the chronically underemployed to once economically secure families living in the suburbs. And, millions more can expect to fall into poverty as government assistance from unemployment insurance, Medicaid, welfare and food stamps continues to dry up.
Peter Edelman, Professor of Law at the Georgetown Law Center, is the Faculty Director, Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, and was a Legislative Assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He is also the husband of Marian Wright Edelman, President and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.
Edelman famously resigned from his job as Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services, when President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation. I decided to read his new book after seeing him interviewed by Bill Moyers.
Edelman's book should be read by anyone who wants to know why it has been so difficult to end poverty in the richest country in the history of the world, and what steps should be taken if there is ever a serious attempt to close the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This, of course, is no small task in a nation where attitudes about race and gender continue to shape attitudes about the poor, where few people empathize with the plight of the persistently poor, where most politicians are primarily concerned with the needs, interests, and desires of the middle class, and where few political leaders even utter the "p" word, which includes President Barack Obama.
According to Edelman, between 2007 and 2010, 9 million people slid into poverty when the total number of impoverished Americas reached 46.2 million people (a national poverty rate of 15.1 percent). Family homelessness grew by 20 percent. But, the Great Recession only tells part of the story; between 2000 and 2007, 6 million people joined the ranks of the poor. A total of 15 million Americans slid into poverty during the first decade of the new millennium.
Four major points are made in the book. First, Edelman discusses three reasons why despite the achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society, poverty is still with us and growing worse. The most important of the three reasons he identifies is the fundamental transformation of the American economy – which started shortly after World War II, but accelerated during the early 1970s – from a goods producing economy to a service-oriented economy. According to Edelman, "Good-paying low-skill jobs went overseas and gave way to automation, and low-wage work became ubiquitous."
A second factor is the growth of the number of single-parented households, disproportionately headed by a woman. Between 1970 and 2009, the percentage of single-parented households headed by women with children under 18 nearly doubled – from 12.7 to 25.4 percent. The percentage of black families headed by a single black woman increased from 37.1 percent in 1971 (the first year the statistics were broken down by race) to 52.7 percent in 2009. Most of the surge in single-parented households occurred during the 1970, just when the economy was undergoing its transformation. Today, it is near impossible for single parents to rely on low-wage work to make ends meet.
The third factor is how years after the dramatic achievements made during the Civil Rights and Women's Movements, toxic attitudes about race and gender continue to shape popular and political discourse about poverty and inequality. Women of color with children tend to be disproportionately represented among those on welfare. For decades white politicians have tried to aim white racial animus at single women of color dependent on welfare to advance their presidential ambitions – examples include the story candidate Ronald Reagan frequently told on the campaign trail in 1976 about a nameless so-called "welfare queen" from Chicago's west side who was arrested for welfare fraud, candidate Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign pledge to "end welfare as we have come to know it," candidate Newt Gingrich's 2012 claim that President Obama is the "food stamp president" and current Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's blatantly false contention that the President has gutted work requirements for welfare recipients.
Edelman's second major point is that "the topic is not just poverty." Since the start of the millennium, there has been a dramatic rise in both extreme poverty (people living below half the poverty line; or less than $9,000 for a family of three) and the number of people who technically are not poor, but nonetheless struggle to make ends meet, the near-poor (those with incomes below twice the poverty line; or $44,000 for a family of four). In 2010, roughly 20.5 million people lived in extreme poverty (6.7 percent of the population and 44 percent of the poor), and 2 million families (6 million people) had no other source of income but food stamps. Amazingly, during the first decade of the century, nearly 8 million people joined the ranks of the extremely poor. The poor and near-poor combined are approximately 103 million people.
It is hard to imagine, but it could be worse. More people would be in poverty if it were not for antipoverty programs such as the earned income tax credit, food stamps, and the Section 8 housing voucher, programs that are constantly under attack from Republicans and other conservatives. As an example, because there is a legal right to receive food stamps (in contrast, there is no legal right to receive welfare since President Bill Clinton signed TANF into law in 1996), 46 million Americans (one in seven people, and one in four children) were receiving food stamps in 2011, which is up from 17.2 million in 2000.
The third major point is that the wages and incomes of those who occupy the bottom half of the income ladder have been mostly flat since 1970, but the American economy did not stagnate; it grew, and most of the fruits of that growth have been concentrated in the hands of those who sit on the top of the income ladder. The gap between the rich and the rest of us is enormous and growing. The top 1 percent's share of all personal income grew from 9 percent to 23.5 percent between 1979 and 2007. During this 28-year period, the income of the top 1 percent shot up 275 percent, while the income of the bottom 20 percent grew by only 18 percent (the incomes of those in the middle barely grew also). The wealth gap is even more stunning. By 2007, the top 1 percent held a larger share of national income than at any time since the eve of the Great Depression.
The discussion of the history of antipoverty programs – what worked and what did not work – is one of the strengths of the book. So many of the attacks directed at social welfare programs is based on the false argument that the Great Society and War on Poverty were failures, and that government efforts to eradicate poverty do more harm than good. Nonetheless, despite the War on Poverty, as the subtitle of the book suggests, poverty is still with us. What would make a difference? Edelman's final point is that in the absence of a strong economy:
…if we want to make greater progress on poverty, bold action will be required on many fronts: public policy and private action, national and local initiatives, and steps across many fields of endeavor – income from work, work supports like child care, safety-net measures, health, housing, criminal justice reform, human services of all kinds, and investments in education and child development.
Without a serious and holistic approach that expands and improves educational and employment opportunities, and addresses community and family needs, what is already a dire situation will only get worse.