Arts Desk

So Rich, So Poor, Reviewed

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.

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  • Name

    Edelman has the correct root cause of the decline of American jobs -offshoring, not the "rich" or "taxes". Executives and wall street are just the last in line to be offshored, but that's happening as well (financial professionals are being replaced by computers, foreign workers are now creating competing companies with US transferred IP). This is the inevitable result of a planet governed by open world trade. Either you want China and India in the world trade block, or you put up barriers. There's not a 3rd way. When you add 2B people, the value of your labor decreases exponentially.

    However, he neglects to mention the contributing force on low end wages of overwhelming illegal immigration which creates a larger pool of applicants working harder, for less money and the moral decline of welfare which reduces the impetus to create and look for jobs now that the job field has changed.

    You can't give people money to not work and then expect them to work. It just doesn't *work*. When you look at Ward 8, what you have is a 3rd and 4th generation born into poverty that doesn' They don't know how to wake up with an alarm clock and go look for work, because their parents don't know either and neither do any of their neighbors (see warehousing the poor). Schools can only go so far, because we've neutered principals ability to enforce repercussions and empowered teachers to resist any change that could threaten their pensions.

    The inability of a unionized and largely undereducated teaching workforce has failed to adapt standards and lesson plans to create a workforce that CAN work with a high school degree.

    The new "middle class" job is a computer programming job, but you'll be hard pressed to find computer literacy or computer literate teachers as more than anything but an after thought in public school. --And no, MS Office and Adobe Publisher are not computer literate skills. Computer programming in C, perl, etc. are the basic high school equivalent skills required to have an employable workforce.

  • Ward 4 Voter

    Interesting article.

  • Sally

    Edelman was a pompous ass for how he quit the Clinton Administration (his predictions for the immediate doom of the poor proved a wee bit off). His solution is the same , standard tropes of protectionism and higher taxes on the middle class and rich. Yawn!

  • Jim Ed

    Wait wait wait,

    A liberal college academic thinks all of America's social ills can be solved by throwing money at them??!?!?

    Well, now I've seen everything.

    Maybe next week we can review a book in which a deep south Pastor at an evangelical megachurch proposes that America can be saved by prayer and abstinence outside of marriage, because that's a new and fresh idea as well.