Bill Moyers: Peter Edelman on Fighting Poverty

Why, in one of the richest nations in the world, are so many poor people are teetering on the edge? Bill talks with author and advocate Peter Edelman about continuing efforts to fight poverty, and what it will take to keep the needs of poor people on the American political agenda. A former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and faculty director of Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, Edelman’s new book is So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.


BILL MOYERS: During those hearings before the House and Senate, I kept my ears open, hoping someone might ask Jamie Dimon how he feels about his bank riding out the deep recession with $25 billion worth of taxpayer money while at the same time reaping profits from the poor and hungry.

That’s right: JPMorgan Chase processes food stamp benefits for the government in 24 states and makes a neat bundle doing so. As the number of people using food stamps goes up, so do the bank’s profits. Furthermore, to make even more money off the poor, JPMorgan Chase has been known to outsource food stamp debit card calls to India, whose workers can make three and a half bucks an hour answering questions from poor people in this country.

It’s all legal, it’s how the system works. But it says something, don’t you think, about the contradictions of modern state capitalism?

ERIC HOVDE: Hi, I’m Eric Hovde…

BILL MOYERS: And so does a comment made the other day by the Republican candidate for the Senate in Wisconsin, Eric Hovde.

After calling for a cut in the corporate tax rate even as he advocated austerity measures to reduce the deficit, he instructed the press to stop covering stories about low-income people who can’t get benefits and start writing instead about that deficit.

ERIC HOVDE: I see a reporter here. I just pray that you start writing about these issues. I just pray. You know, stop always writing about, oh, the person could get, you know, their food stamps or this or that. You know, I saw something the other day – it’s just like, another sob story, and I’m like, but what about what’s happening to the country and the country as a whole? That’s going to devastate everybody.

BILL MOYERS: A good thing Sister Simone Campbell wasn’t passing through town at that very minute, or Eric Hovde might have really had to pray – for his own soul. Sister Simone is leading a group of Roman Catholic nuns on a bus trip across nine states, trying to call attention to the poor and hungry. They’re challenging not only the Vatican, which has been critical of American nuns for their spirit of independence, but also Congressman Paul Ryan, another Wisconsin Republican. He’s invoked his own Catholic faith to justify his proposed federal budget that cuts help for working families and the poor.

PAUL RYAN: Our budget offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith.

BILL MOYERS: The nuns paid a call earlier this week on Ryan’s district office in Janesville, Wisconsin.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: We just had a very lovely conversation with Congressman Ryan’s staff. We gave her the faithful budget and we mentioned our concerns about the budget that Congressman Ryan proposed.

BILL MOYERS: Producer Andy Fredericks is traveling with the nuns on the bus and filing reports on our website,

Meanwhile, for anyone who wants to understand why, in one of the richest nations in the world, millions of people, even those with jobs, are teetering just a medical bill or missed paycheck from disaster – here’s a book that’s must reading: So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, by Peter Edelman.

For more than forty years, no one has fought harder or longer to keep poor people on the political agenda. Except, possibly, Peter’s wife, Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund. They met when he worked for Senator Robert F. Kennedy and she guided them through the Mississippi Delta as they investigated first-hand the devastating conditions under which impoverished children and their families lived. Peter Edelman helped shape legislation to ease poverty around the country, and was a top official in President Bill Clinton’s Department of Health and Human Services. He famously resigned when Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation.

Peter Edelman teaches at Georgetown University and is faculty director there of the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy.

Peter, welcome.

PETER EDELMAN: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s indulge in a little bit of nostalgia.


BILL MOYERS: Because 50 years ago, you and I were part of the same era. I was a young White House assistant for Lyndon Johnson working on some poverty issues. And you were a young assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy when you made that celebrated tour through Mississippi.

You seemed absolutely shocked, you and Robert Kennedy, and the party that went with you, seemed absolutely shocked at what you found. What did you see?

PETER EDELMAN: We saw children with in the United States of America, with swollen bellies, with running sores that wouldn’t heal…

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Have they had any lunch?

PETER EDELMAN: Who had something meager for breakfast if that, were not going to have any lunch, whose refrigerators were empty in their houses. They had been forced off the plantations as a political matter because of the fear of increasing black political power.

BILL MOYERS The governor of Mississippi then was pressuring the White House to cut off assistance to the children’s program that was going, because he feared the people working in it, the poverty, anti-poverty workers would encourage the civil rights movement. Do you remember that?

PETER EDELMAN: Absolutely. That’s why we went down there. This was in the spring of 1967. And the Mississippi political hierarchy saw the Head Start Program as a political threat. A group of doctors went down there a month or two later and examined hundreds of children. And found, not just pernicious anemia but rickets, and kwashiorkor and marasmus. Diseases that you only find in the most underdeveloped of countries were there in the United States.

BILL MOYERS: I remember so well when CBS sent cameras following you. Subsequently one of the CBS News reports showed a child dying from malnutrition on camera. And the racist chairman of a very powerful committee from—

PETER EDELMAN: Yeah. Jamie Whitten.

BILL MOYERS: Jamie Whitten from Mississippi was outraged about that. And he launched an investigation to see if he could find out if that scene had been staged.

PETER EDELMAN: Absolutely. Sent the F.B.I. to find out. It’s hard to know what was obviously in the head of Jamie Whitten and others. Because these things do have a serious political aspect to them but. BILL MOYERS: Were we naïve to think that we could make a lot of progress given the political opposition?

PETER EDELMAN: I don’t think we were naïve. I do think that the ’60s in retrospect were a very unusual decade in American history. We still had the optimism of having freed the world from fascism. And so there was a sense that America could accomplish anything. And then the civil rights movement came along particularly the men who had served in the war and came home to find the same segregated conditions.

And the young people who had the sense of that maybe from their parents who went out and were active. So I think that the combination of the civil rights movement pushing on President Kennedy and then on President Johnson, and the leadership that came particularly from President Johnson was a tremendous and unusual combination.

BILL MOYERS: You could not have imagined then, I suppose, that half a century later, you’d be writing a book with the title, “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.”

PETER EDELMAN: I could not have imagined it. I thought onward and upward and now there’s so many things that happened that we didn’t foresee. And it’s not just that there was the political change of Richard Nixon. The fact is that Richard Nixon was the first president who ever sent a message about hunger to Congress.

And many things that we had wanted actually happened under President Nixon. So we still looked like we were doing pretty well about these issues, housing vouchers, and the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid. Long list of things on into the ’70s. But the economy caught up with us.


PETER EDELMAN: So the manufacturing jobs went away, the good paying jobs that had created much of the black and other middle class in this country, and started to be replaced, at least they were replaced, by this wave, this ocean of low-wage jobs that we have. So that’s really at the heart of the change.

And then of course the country went in a very different direction politically. The disillusionment of Vietnam, the disillusionment of Watergate, the loss of trust in government, all those things. And part of that was a kind of maybe unconscious or subconscious sense that people were in tougher, tougher economic straits. And I’m not just talking at the very bottom. I’m really talking about the whole lower middle. And they weren’t getting any help to see themselves moving forward.

BILL MOYERS: Well what about today? You’ve got Barack Obama and Mitt Romney who are going to, are facing off each other this election, and both of them seem to not know that the word “poor” is in their political vocabulary.

PETER EDELMAN: Well, we have to say about Barack Obama. He gets elected. And when they go for having health insurance for our whole country, they added 16 million people to Medicaid. That’s phenomenal.

BILL MOYERS: Under the Affordable—

PETER EDELMAN: Under the Affordable Care Act—

BILL MOYERS: Sixteen million—

PETER EDELMAN: Sixteen million people, 18 to 64 year olds who had been completely left out of Medicaid from the time it was enacted in 1965. And that had never been fixed. So if you look at the 45 to 50 million people who didn’t have healthcare, a big chunk of them were lower income adults. We added children up to the age of 18.

And then in the stimulus legislation, in the Recovery Act, the president put in there, probably 30 percent of the money was about low-income people, was helping low-income people. So, his record is good.

BILL MOYERS: So it’s not as if nothing has been done since you and I were in our early 30s, right?

PETER EDELMAN: That is absolutely correct—

BILL MOYERS: I mean, Medicaid, earned income tax credit, children’s tax—


BILL MOYERS: —credit. A lot of programs have been inaugurated and funded.

PETER EDELMAN: And food stamps.

BILL MOYERS: Food stamps, right.

PETER EDELMAN: And so those programs added together are keeping 40 million people out of poverty. So somebody says, “Nothing works,” give me a break. These are successful policies. Now the next question then is okay, well 40 million people who would be in poverty, but why is the level of poverty prior to the recession about the same as it was during it’s the most success, 11.1 percent poverty in 1973, 11.3 percent when Bill Clinton leaves office.

We’re now up to 15.2 percent. So just take those two, 1973 and 2000 about the same, and there are all these programs that works. What’s with that? It’s about these changes that we’ve already talked about a little bit in the economy. Where there are all these low-wage jobs, and people can’t make it. And then the other things that changes in the composition of the family. And we have to put that on the table. There are so many more women who are raising children on their own. And lots to debate about, about why that is. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, you list country after country where whose rate of single motherhood or children born out of wedlock higher than here.

PETER EDELMAN: Yes. Yeah, I certainly want people to understand that. I certainly want people to understand that the rate in the United States in the white community, in the Hispanic community, it went up everywhere. It went up most in the African American community. Although it actually steadied off about the end of the 1970s and kept going up in the white and Hispanic communities.

But the economic point is all of those women trying to raise kids on their own, when the jobs that they can get are not enough for a single wage earner to feed a family fully. And so that’s what started to happen in the ’70s, and is essentially been happening ever since. The 40 million people who are being kept out of poverty, that’s great. But that just kept us even. And now we’ve been losing ground heavily, horribly over the last 11, 12 years.

BILL MOYERS: And then came of course the great crash in the fall of 2008, the recession that followed it. Is that why you conclude in the book that we’re actually heading in the wrong direction and you’re not optimistic at the moment?

PETER EDELMAN: It’s not just the recession, because the, presumably we come out of recessions. The central tenet of any anti-poverty strategy is work. Is having the job. You need to arrange the incentives and arrange the policies so that you clearly are favoring work. But everything that goes with it, having the child care making it possible to succeed. But what I’m worried about is the longer term continuance of this plethora of low-wage jobs. Of the inability of people at the bottom, and not just the poor, I’m talking about the whole lower half. The way the median wage absolutely stagnated beginning 1973. The economy grew over the last 40 years basically doubled in size. And the entire lower half got none of that. The median wage- went up 7 percent in 40 years. A fifth of a percent a year.

BILL MOYERS: And right now it’s what in this country?

PETER EDELMAN: $34,000 a year or less.

BILL MOYERS: And how many people are making $34,000 or less?

PETER EDELMAN: You’d be talking about 75 million, something like that.

BILL MOYERS: And a quarter of all jobs, I read in your book, pay less than the poverty line, which is what?

PETER EDELMAN: $22,000 for a family of four.

BILL MOYERS: So 25 percent of this country is living on that little money?

PETER EDELMAN: If they have only one wage-earner in the household.

BILL MOYERS: What does that say to you?

PETER EDELMAN: It says that there’s something wrong. It says that where there’s a really wealthy country, and we had growth from 1973 to now, and it all went to the people at the top. That’s why this book is “So Rich, So Poor.” Because you can’t look at the poor in isolation. You got to look at the inequality as well.

BILL MOYERS: I when I finished reading it, Peter, I had to ask myself if the word “democracy” still describes America, given what you underscore as the huge chasm between rich and poor. Do you think democracy still describes our political system?

PETER EDELMAN: I think we’re really at great risk particularly with Citizens United—

BILL MOYERS: The Supreme Court decision—

PETER EDELMAN: The Supreme Court decision that lets the corporate money flow in like water. But there’s increasing power of the wealthy and of special interests that particularly begins in 1973. That’s a real turning point year. And they figured out during Nixon that they needed to have much more of a play, much more sway in politics.

And they organized themselves to do that in a way that they hadn’t between World War II and then. And so they start winning politically and reinforcing themselves. And I think we’re been in a kind of vicious circle where they reinforce themselves, they’re in a stronger position, et cetera. And that’s the fundamental worry, is that our democracy is really at stake.

BILL MOYERS: So what’s your, what do you explain to yourself as you’re sitting there thinking about this, is the motive for continuing to accumulate such great wealth even though all around them, the society, the infrastructure, the school system, public parks, and the plight of the poor?

PETER EDELMAN: I think it’s the short-sidedness of the balance sheet. Now, that can’t be all of it. It’s, there’s also some kind of ideological thing, or attitudinal thing that goes with it. But everything in the corporate world is short term. How did you do in the last quarter? And if you thought about it in the longer term and said, “Over the longer period of time, we really will make more money if we have more people who are included in the economy,” they just don’t think that way.

BILL MOYERS: You say the challenge is to get people in the middle to understand which side of the line they are on.


BILL MOYERS: What do you mean which side—

PETER EDELMAN: I mean that they are in the position of really holding the short end of the stick. And they don’t have any purchase, they don’t have any hand-hold to get onto the longer end of the stick. They’re stuck where they are. And I just don’t really foresee a major change. Well if that’s true, beyond raising the minimum wage, which we need to do, although that’ll only take us so far.

Because after a while, it does have a negative effect on jobs. Really investing in the kind of work supports that a socially responsible country does, the healthcare, the childcare, the help with housing, the help with the secondary education. Those things are all income equivalents. Those all effectively add to income.

And then we have the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families that have children. It’s that area where we need a public discussion. We have to be talking, I think, as these years unfold here about wage supplements. If we’re going to have a fairness in this country that doesn’t just leave half the country to sit in a stagnated place, we’re going to have to talk about how do we raise their income so they can make ends meet? It’s not just poverty. It’s all the way up to the middle.

BILL MOYERS When you talk about a wage supplement, income supplement for people who are making so little money even though they’re working that they can’t live a decent life, you’re running right into that buzz-saw of a word “redistribution.” And you know, you hear Mitt Romney and others saying today.

MITT ROMNEY: In a merit-based society, people achieve their dreams through hard work and education, risk-taking, and even a little luck […] In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy real rewards are those who get to do the redistributing, government. The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards under that kind of system, but virtually everyone will be worse off.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s a real force in the minds of many ordinary people around this country. They just don’t believe in “my working hard to make money and paying taxes to provide somebody else with money who isn’t working hard.”


BILL MOYERS: That’s a reality. You understand that—

PETER EDELMAN: Oh, I certainly do.

BILL MOYERS: How do you overcome these built-in deep concerns about people that “Others are getting away with something I’m not?

PETER EDELMAN: We need more people who will stand up in one way or another. We, I don’t mean to say that I have a formula for a public education curriculum a massive expression by public intellectuals, a clear mobilization of individual people being organized at the local level.

I just know that what we need to do is to have other people who stand up and say, “You want to call this redistribution? That’s what you call it. I call it economic justice. I call it fairness. I call it being fair to the people in this country who are being absolutely screwed by the way things are set up. And you ought to think about the fact of why it is that we have half the people who have jobs where their wages have barely moved the needle over a 40 year period.” We need people to talk back to that.

BILL MOYERS: You resigned, as famously known, from the government, in protest over President Clinton signing the new welfare law, Welfare Reform, ending welfare as we know it, as he said, in his political speech in New Hampshire—


BILL MOYERS: —in the year he was running. And you say there was something wrong with welfare when Bill Clinton became president.


BILL MOYERS: What was wrong with it?

PETER EDELMAN: What was wrong with it is that it did not, it had not ever said to people “We really need for you to get out and get a job and earn money. And we will do that in have a policy in a way that we will help you do that. But we’re not going to just let you sit there and stay for your whole life on welfare.” If you look at the some of the families, particularly at that period of time, they had essentially gotten too used to having that check.

And 14 million people, which is the number that were on welfare when Bill Clinton took office, that was too many. We didn’t have sufficient economic crisis on our hands that there were people lined up because it was a recession, it was just because we had gotten soft about it.

BILL MOYERS: Culture of dependency?

PETER EDELMAN: Well, I don’t like the terminology, but I’m afraid that’s, find the right words, and that’s what we’re talking about, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you write that article in Atlantic saying the worse thing Bill Clinton has done because—

PETER EDELMAN: Because they—

BILL MOYERS: —it had its problems.

PETER EDELMAN: They did exactly the wrong thing. I said in that article that welfare needed to be fixed. But what they did is they said one size fits all. Everybody just go look for a job. They said it’s a block grant to the state. What that means is the state can, doesn’t have to help anybody. Which proved itself in the recession, you know, food stamps up to 46 million, welfare 3.9 million to 4.4 million.

Why? Because you go to a welfare office and they say, “You look healthy, go look for a job.” “What job?” “Oh, we’re not interested in hearing about that.” So they took away the legal right to help, they said the states could, with that block grant, do what they want. And they put in a time limit. Didn’t matter what these circumstances of the family were. It was all a basically punitive approach. And it did not more in the direction of really helping people to get the skills and the supports that they needed to succeed in the workplace.

BILL MOYERS: So the conservative who fought for ending welfare as we know it would say of Bill Clinton signing that legislation, “It worked.” We went from 14 million to four million. And when the recession came, people got food stamp help.

PETER EDELMAN: And six million of them got only food stamp help and that income is one-third of the poverty line. That’s a pretty blindfolded, myopic way of looking at it, to say that that means that it worked. What that means is that it did not work. And that in the time when you really, really you know, incontrovertibly ought to help people, because you have 9 percent, 10 percent unemployment in the country, there’s no such thing as welfare.

BILL MOYERS: And what’s the consequence of that? What’s the practical therefore?

PETER EDELMAN: The practical therefore is that we have 20 million people who are in deep poverty who have incomes below half the poverty line, below $9,000 for a family of three, and we have ripped the safety net down to having only the food stamp to it, at the very bottom. And that it means that you, in all of these states that for so many of them where it basically doesn’t exist anymore it leaves people in this incredibly destitute position. That’s what it means.

BILL MOYERS: The book is “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America” and I think it’s must reading. Peter Edelman, thank you for being with me.

PETER EDELMAN: Thank you, Bill