Rating: 3/5Even the hardest-core conservative can admit that we have a problem with poverty in this country. Whether it stems from a lack of personal responsibility or of opportunity, far too many people depend on the social welfare programs that Congress and states are too eager to cut in lean times. Longtime poverty expert and author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, Peter Edelman most famously resigned from his position in the Department of Health and Human Services when President Clinton enacted the 1996 welfare reform legislation. In a long career of advocacy, Edelman traveled from 1960s Mississippi with Robert Kennedy to the University of Massachusetts and the Georgetown University Law Center, studying and advising on poverty from a position of proactive compassion. So Rich, So Poor is Edelman’s dense little treatise on poverty programs, analyzing what poverty is, why it persists, which programs have helped and why the others have been less successful. He reframes many of the ideas and arguments that seem rote, which makes much of the book a satisfying challenge, even though his subtitle reflects how reading 160 pages isn’t going to do much.
By its nature, poverty is hard to define. Our current estimates starts too low, a “poverty wage” falling far below the cost of living in most of the country. Then income measurements fail to account for in-kind benefits and tax credits, artificially depressing already-low incomes and potentially keeping some below the poverty line in error. A great number of Americans live in a gray area of financial instability, their wages stagnant and jobs available only above or below their skill level. Edelman then explains that the financial programs many view as indicators of poverty—food stamps, housing vouchers, etc.—were designed as income supplements to draw families out of poverty. That six million Americans have no income besides food stamps and that despite the unsavory reputation of low-income housing, waiting lists are months to years long in some cities, speak to fundamental failings in our economy and our safety net.
The history of poverty programs is as gripping as the laundry list of needed changes and Edelman’s prose is accessible beyond his trade press audience, even if he occasionally sacrifices a precise word for a simpler explanation. Though an intelligent and necessary support for his arguments, the lists of statistics can be dry and abstract. Later chapters lack the first half’s illustrative and episodic sketches of research results, Congressional hearings and historical figures’ first experiences with poverty. If, as Edelman posits, wealth inequality in America is “gross enough to have a moral dimension,” why are his discussions of recent policies so dry when compared to the excitable pages of history? To wit: when Edelman and Kennedy visited Mississippi in the ‘60s, they brought photos and video of starving American children to national attention, creating a climate of sympathy that pushed Congress to create the food stamp program. Indeed, as Edelman points out, most poverty programs are enacted under a cause that downplays the p-word. Hunger, housing and care for children and seniors? Sympathetic. “Welfare queens,” reentering convicts and single, childless adults? Less so. Opponents have hijacked the dialogue on poverty and though he praises past poverty PR, Edelman does not offer a direct counter to the seemingly endless stream of attacks on women, students, people of color, unions, the LGBT community, you name it. Edelman advocates broad changes to education, tax credits and benefit programs but with no control of the conversation, defenders of social welfare programs find themselves perennially on the defensive.
Edelman’s reasons that it’s so hard to end poverty in America do not paint a flattering picture of modern American politics. We have pitted human interest against corporate. We’ve built an immense economy that relies on foreign labor and erased blue-collar jobs in America. We fail to balance personal responsibility with keeping opportunities available to all. I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the idea of a “safety net” protecting the poor in America. Nets are porous, easily torn and best suited for catching carp or butterflies. The net Edelman describes has a tight weave to replace its current gaping hole, if only we can move beyond the slapdash patch job being scrabbled together recently.