I was happy to see that Peter Edelman decided to grapple with the problem of poverty based upon his work with Sen. Robert Kennedy in the mid-to-late 1960s. I have tremendously admired the valiant oeuvre of his spouse, Marian Wright Edelman, who, during the same period sought to increase the voting rolls in Mississippi and accompanied the senator in that state to observe the level of indigence people faced there. She, upon the urging of Kennedy, discussed with Martin Luther King, Jr., the need to press Washington into redressing those impoverished conditions through effective legislative measures. She went on to become the strongest advocate for the rights of children in the history of this country under the auspices of her Children’s Defense Fund. But I digress.
Edelman’s book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, is written in recognition of the fact that people are not paid a living wage and yesteryears’ welfare and social programs aimed at mitigating the plight of the poor are today token and virtually insubstantial. He does a yeoman’s job in supporting the warp and woof of the War on Poverty (particularly in chapter two), and he makes the claim that this programmatic and administrative concentration on reducing poverty helped to escort some working- and lower-class folks inside the border of the middle class. This harking back to the halcyon days of the Johnson Administration, minus the escalation of the war in Vietnam, is a wonderful trip down Memory Lane for those who lived in and/or researched (and an excellent educational journey for many born after) that period when social movements intermittently converged in an effort to forge a more perfect union and world.
Chapter one is a marvelous examination of current poverty with hardscrabble facts and little fanfare. In chapter three, Edelman attempts to identify how we have stymied and stalemated ourselves in constructively addressing poverty through an inadequate comprehension of the depths of poverty and its ramifying effects throughout society and culture. The decline in wages generally and for those without a high school diploma, the curtailment of unions culminating in the Reagan presidency, the influx of new wage earners by immigrants and women, and the pushing down of income through multinationals’ use of cheaper labor suggest why we are unable to augment our efforts to alleviate poverty. Edelman does ask the hard questions about minimum wage and income inequality, but he himself falls short of tendering substantive approaches to improving the circumstances of either. He critically appraises the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which give employers a pass, yet provide some dividends for families. He asserts the failure of Medicaid to attend to the needs of poor adults, a program catering to the elderly and the physically/mentally challenged. Albeit a polemical tour de force, this fourth chapter on “Jobs: The Economy and Public Policy Goes South” resorts to the desperate cry for workers to get outraged and demand change without any promising answer to the “64-gazillion-dollar question,” as he avers.
Edelman is noted for his resignation from the administration of Pres. Bill Clinton because of the latter’s surrender to the welfare reform mantra conservatives and moderates chorused in 1996. In the fifth chapter, Edelman delineates how ineffectual poverty programs are and have been in ameliorating the conditions of the really, or deeply, poor. He argues for income supplements that take away the burden from employers, on whose shoulders a major part of the problem of poverty can be laid, but nevertheless help in increasing early income and allowing people to transcend their ingress-and-egress movements related to deep poverty. With Aid to Families of dependent Children (AFDC) in the cemetery and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) no longer entitling the poor to benefits, the progressive advocacy for the poor is virtually nonexistent. Praises, perhaps, are due to the persistence of the food-stamp program under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, even this program is assailed, despite the fact that no substantive antipoverty endeavor should have at its core the attainment of a food subsidy scarcely adequate enough to feed a family!
In the sixth chapter, Edelman attempts to tackle the issues of race and racism. I believe he gives a satisfactory nuanced view of the poor—making sure he does not fall into the quandary of characterizing inner-city indigence as a “culture of poverty.” Edelman takes a bow towards Dr. William H. Cosby and Juan Williams when he gently castigates blacks and other people of color for not incorporating in their manual of antipoverty rhetoric and actions a chapter on personal responsibility. Such a salvo misrepresents the multiple and cumulative effects of long-term poverty—including the myth that blacks simply genetically want to be or ineluctably will be poor—while building credibility with an array of ignorant and elitist stakeholders regardless of pigmentation.
Edelman bounces back in the seventh chapter, where he pays respect to his partner and once again regales the life and work of Sen. Kennedy, by lifting up the importance of education and children’s programs as elemental to any war against poverty’s intransigence. Investment in our youth is key, and it must be done in a holistic manner fraught with nearly unlimited available resources. We fret about competition from other countries, yet we fail to strengthen our own by undergirding all of our children with the developmental skills and capital they need to meet those future challenges. What brand of patriotism is it when we equip only certain people to succeed and abandon the rest because of our multilayered xenophobia?
By the concluding chapter, nothing is new that Edelman ventures. In this sense, like the toothless recommendations made in The Rich and the Rest of Us, the ideas are risk-averse and the possibility of real radical change is tacitly dismissed. We seek to put bandages on the wounds that capitalists invariably perpetrate, because we are not prepared to dismantle its failures and construct a democratic society whose members fully acknowledge, appreciate, respect, and embrace their fellow human beings. The noble quest for the beloved community remains truncated and crippled because we cannot transcend the narrow confines of our individual selves to understand and practice a more other-centered modus operandi.