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Peter Edelman has battled poverty for nearly half a century — first as a top aide to Senator Robert Kennedy, later as a state and federal official, and currently as a key figure at a widely respected law and public policy center in Washington.
Over his years in and out of government, Edelman has probably earned as much respect as anyone in our nation’s public policy community. Back in 1996, he did something few high-ranking federal officials ever do. He resigned in protest when President Bill Clinton signed a law that Edelman could not support in good conscience.
Edelman, then an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, publicly warned that the “welfare reform” that Clinton signed into law would be devastating for the nation’s most vulnerable children. He turned out to be right. The number of children living in deep poverty — kids in families making under half the official poverty threshold — rose 70 percent from 1995 to 2005, and 30 percent more by 2010.
America’s elected leaders didn’t listen to Edelman in 1996. Now they have another chance. Edelman, currently a co-director at the Georgetown University Law Center, has just released a new book — So Rich, So Poor — that aims “to look anew at why it is so hard to end American poverty.”
You get the feeling from this candid new book that Edelman would be astonished if our elected leaders actually paid attention to his poverty-fighting prescriptions. So Rich, So Poor seems to address a different audience: the millions of decent Americans, from across the political spectrum, who share his outrage about our continuing deep poverty.
These Americans have a special reason for paying close attention to Edelman’s new book. The author, one of the nation’s most committed experts on poverty, has changed his mind — not about poverty and the poor, but about wealth and the rich.
“I used to believe,” Edelman writes in his new book, “that the debate over wealth distribution should be conducted separately from the poverty debate, in order to minimize the attacks on antipoverty advocates for engaging in ‘class warfare.’ But now we literally cannot afford to separate the two issues.”
Why? The “economic and political power of those at the top,” Edelman explains, is “making it virtually impossible to find the resources to do more at the bottom.”
Figuring out how we can achieve a more equal distribution of income and wealth has become, Edelman advises, “the 64-gazillion-dollar question.”
“The only way we will improve the lot of the poor, stabilize the middle class, and protect our democracy,” he notes, “is by requiring the rich to pay more of the cost of governing the country that enables their huge accretion of wealth.”
What about those antipoverty activists and analysts who still yearn to keep poverty — the absence of wealth — separate from the concentration of wealth? Many of these folks, Edelman notes, argue that the rich as a group have no reason to oppose efforts to help end poverty.
Edelman’s response? “More than anything else,” he observes, the wealthy “want low taxes,” and they know the taxes on their sky-high incomes will rise if government ever starts spending money to really help people in need.
“The wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else,” Edelman sums up in So Rich, So Poor. “Money breeds power, and power breeds more money. It is a truly vicious cycle.”
Only average Americans have the wherewithal to end this cycle. Middle- and low-income Americans need to join in common cause. If they don’t, Edelman bluntly adds, “we are cooked.”
Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, editor of the journal Too Much and author of The Rich Don’t Always Win, Seven Stories Press, New York, forthcoming 2012.
This column is distributed by OtherWords.