New Orleans I’ve know Peter Edelman since my days as an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) at the end of the 1960’s. He was a policy centered advocate for many of our positions and gave our organizing some credibility when we needed it. My respect grew for him when he resigned as a Clinton HHS official in protest and disappointment for President Clinton’s TANF program and the non-existent reform of “ending welfare as we know it.” In this Age of Inequity, when he asks the question Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It? in the opinion pages of the New York Times, I read him with the hope that some folks out there will pay attention and follow closely.
Edelman these days is Debbie Downer, not because he chooses that course, but because his litany of facts and statistics paints him into a corner where little is left but hope:
- 15% of USA population, 48,000,000 are poor
- 104 million people or one-third of USA population make less than $38,000 per year or less than double the poverty level.
- 50% of USA jobs pay less than $34000 per year.
- 25% of USA jobs pay less than $23000 per year, which is below the poverty line for a family of four.
- 40% or more of families headed by single mothers are poor.
- 20.5 million earn below 50% of the poverty line, less than $9500 for a family of three, up 8 million from 2000.
- TANF has changed welfare so that even in the Great Recession only 27% of poor children receive welfare compared to more than 66% 15 years ago before the “reform.”
- 6 million people have no income other than food stamps, which means $6300 for a family of 3. Edelman wonders “how they survive.” Answer: poorly!
- 46 million people receive food stamps now, up 20 million over the last 5 years since 2007 and the Great Recession.
- 27% of African-Americas, Latinos, and American Indians are poor along with 10% of whites.
Edelman is no dreamer. He also thinks the chance of change is small because of the emergence of the right, the envy of the middle class for the rich, and the devastatingly effective way that the rich have consolidated their own entitlements and power, particularly with the impact that their money now has in politics.
But, he still has hope in a way that the current generation may not fully appreciate, because he has seen movements develop, like civil rights and welfare rights, and knows their power and promise, despite the odds. He ends his somber piece with just that bittersweet nostalgia tinged a dare for change:
I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.
Peter knows that it actually takes a whole lot more than that, but for now it is clear from his piece and any good look around us that the answer to the question, “why can’t we end poverty?” is tragically simple: we don’t want to.
And, that won’t change because of hope and prayer.
There’s no way to sit out this fight. It won’t be on television or the internet. It will take organizing that puts people in motion to demand and force that change, and the sooner we all come to that conclusion the better for everyone in American and the world.