As reported by Greg Kaufmann in The Nation:
“When it comes to public policy and poverty in the United States, few people know more about it than Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman. He has battled poverty for nearly fifty years, most notably as a legislative assistant to Senator Robert Kennedy and as an assistant secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration—a post he resigned in protest over the 1996 welfare reform bill. He’s taught and written extensively on the subject, too, including his new book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.”
Mr. Edelman says:
“The problem is that we have so much low-wage work and too many people who are coping as single parents trying to live on income from one low-paying job. A second problem is that we have so many people who have incomes below half the poverty line—who are in deep poverty—and we are doing very little to help them. Since 2000 we’ve seen a rise in the number of people living in deep poverty from 12.6 million people to 20.5 million—they are living on incomes of less than about $11,000 annually for a family of four. And then we have the even more challenging problem of persistent and intergenerational poverty.”
“I hope that the book does some good in the context of the current election campaign—that people will want to discuss the question of inequality not just at the top, not just the 1 percent, but also the 99 percent all the way down to the bottom. The table has been set by the Occupy Movement for a national discussion of inequality that includes the reasons why people are hurting so much at the bottom as well as why some people have so much at the top. We need to talk about poverty. The p-word needs to be in the discussion.”
Indeed the p-word needs to be in the discussion, so let’s talk about it “all the way to the bottom”. Mr. Edelman says there are 20.5 million Americans in deep poverty, about 6% of the U.S. population. That is true. So why do we keep arguing for the 99% - isn’t it the 6% we need to help? The fact is that we that we spend twice the money today on our combined federal welfare programs than it would take to pull all Americans out of poverty, including those in extreme poverty. (See Poverty Gap). When those in extreme poverty are hurting it is because the 93% are taking the bulk of the money. We have plenty of income redistribution in America; it just stops short of going to the poorest Americans.
Mr. Edelman is correct – extreme poverty is a problem that needs attention. But that attention should be more focus within our federal safety net on the poorest Americans, not more expansion of the overall system. Is that what the Occupy Movement was arguing for? Were they standing up for the 6%? Or were they using the 6% to argue for more benefits to the 93%?