Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty

by Mary C. Piemonte 

Anti-poverty activist and scholar Peter Edelman during a recent lecture at Northwestern University Law School sponsored by the National Public Housing Museum. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

It will take “a national groundswell of concern if we are going to make the progress we need on poverty,” said Georgetown Law Center Professor and author Peter Edelman during a lecture hosted by the National Public Housing Museum at Northwestern University Law School, 375 E. Chicago Ave., on October 10. Discussing the “growing chasm between America’s wealthy and poor,” Edelman said that “America has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world,” with 46 million people living below the poverty line, a situation that could cause problems in the future. “Our democracy is in danger,” he said.
Edelman, faculty director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., is an antipoverty advocate and former legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy who served as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration but resigned from his position to protest President Clinton’s support of welfare reform. The free public lecture, based on Edleman’s latest book, “So Rich, So Poor: Why it’s So Hard to End Poverty in America,” was part of the National Public Housing Museum’s “Profiles in Color: Race, Place and Identity Series” funded by the Ford Foundation and the Boeing company.

Peter Edelman being interviewed by National Public Housing Museum CEO Keith Magee. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

Before a packed audience in the law school’s Throne Auditorium, Edleman declared that people needing assistance can no longer depend on the federal government assistance to pay their rent and utility bills. “We have become a low-wage nation, our safety net has big holes, and we are not investing wisely enough in our children to prepare them for the jobs of the 21st Century.” Cuts to social services have trapped families in a cycle of poverty and “There isn’t any welfare to get rid of anymore,” Edelman said, adding that “We need to end the cradle to nowhere pipeline.”
While talking about government policies that he blamed for the increasing number of poor and impoverished citizens, Edelman said that the nation is losing “large numbers of disconnected youth,” mainly people of color in inner-city communities. Nevertheless, he added that the majority of people living in poverty were white.
Edelman said the late 1960s were “optimistic times” when enough progress was made with the food stamp program, the earned income and child tax credits and public housing to where people thought poverty would be eradicated by the early 1970s. Instead, he said the opposite has happened and since then, “Children have become the poorest age group in our country.”
Edelman said that 50 percent of the income of those in poverty comes from working wages, especially for mothers with children. “As a result of globalization, of de-industrialization, we’ve become this low-wage nation,” Edelman said, citing statistics that half the jobs in the United States pay less than $34,000 while a quarter of the jobs pay less than what it would take to raise a family of four above the poverty line.
Contrary to belief, Edelman said that President Barack Obama has done a lot for the poor, including reforming the student loan program, adding 16 million more people as educators as a result of the Affordable Care Act, and for the establishment of the “very expensive” and “controversial” Recovery Act, federal stimulus legislation that Edelman said “helped low-income people race to the top.”
Speaking in the weeks before the election, Edelman said, “You don’t hear about it much in the campaign, and that’s totally understandable. Certainly frustrating but, speaking for myself I’d like to see him re-elected,” he said to the delight of the audience.
“But with that said, we’re really in a position here we need to get this question of low-wage work on the table. And talk about what we need to do as a country.”
During the question and answer period with Edelman, a member of the audience said more needed to be done to reach the “hearts” of wealthier Americans to consider the plight of the poor.
Edelman answered that to get more wealthy citizens engaged, more news on poverty needs to appear in the mainstream media and that other factors were important, including “stronger worker unions (and) better organization strategies for low-wage workers by international unions such as the SEIU (Service Employees International Union).” He also endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act “so that there would be a fair shake for unions in the regulatory process for collective bargaining and on fair labor practices.”
Edelman added, “We should be raising the minimum wage. All of the kinds of things that should be there as part of a just society should be in place.”
In answer to a question from Keith L. Magee, executive officer of the National Public Housing Museum, Edelman said America has the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world, a situation that he predicted will cause problems down the road. “We’re going to have what we have now,” he said, “You’re going to have a whole population that’s left behind.”

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