With 103 million poor and near-poor in the U.S., and six million with no income other than food stamps, while billionaires reap huge tax breaks and corporations hoard cash rather than create jobs, it is fair to say, as many have, that income inequality in this country is extreme, pernicious, and glaringly unjust.
Someone who says this very well is Peter Edelman in his new book, So Rich, So Poor. Edelman, a Georgetown University professor, who resigned from the Clinton administration in protest over that president’s near abolition of welfare, is a longtime antipoverty activist, who cut his teeth working for Robert Kennedy. He has a sensibly low tolerance for those who blame the poor for their plight and deploys statistics to prove that jobs moving overseas have made us a low-wage nation.
Gone are the factory and machinist jobs that people could snag straight out of high school and that, largely due to the power of unions, served as ladders to the middle class. Now we have jobs for waitresses, bartenders, and aides changing bedpans. The only bright spot in this gloomy vista is that those jobs cannot be offshored, and so, he observes, it should be easier to demand higher pay for them—-by increasing the minimum wage.
Edelman argues that food stamps have been a “powerful tool to cushion the devastating force of our Great Recession.” He criticizes House Republicans for trying to shrink the program into a block grant, thus eviscerating it and leading directly to hunger, just as turning welfare into TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) led to its “near uselessness in the current recession.” Before the destruction of welfare, “there were always people in deep poverty, but nothing—-not even close—-to what we have now,” he says. Currently welfare has four million participants. Before Clinton axed it, it had 14 million.
Edelman’s statistics devastate the conventional wisdom that eliminating welfare has been a success. On the contrary, he shows that “two out of five who left welfare in the early years [when it became TANF] did so without finding a job… The unavailability of welfare is a major contribution to deep poverty.” Edelman details how right-wing rhetoric based on distortions about welfare queens has given this country the dubious distinction of being the only wealthy industrialized nation without “a guarantee of a baseline income, at least for families with children.”
Edelman zeroes in on D.C.’s Ward 8, the poorest in the city, devoting nearly a chapter to its low-income residents, who exemplify the Northern, urban portion of an American underclass that mostly resides in the south and in rural areas. Even though Ward 8 residents live within a half hour of some of the highest-income and best-educated working people in the United States, most Americans don’t identify with them: “As long as middle-income voters think they have more in common with the people at the top than the people at the bottom,” says Edelman, “we are cooked.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s lost all hope. He cites the Occupy movement as evidence that there are still Americans out there who give a damn about the growing gap between rich and poor. “I am an optimist,” he says. “I have to be or I wouldn’t have written this book.” Let’s hear it for the optimists.