Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope

Overview

The New York Times Book Review said that Peter Edelman adheres "to a high-minded worldview" -- and he does not hesitate to emphasize that in the Preface to this new paperback edition of Searching for America's Heart by declaring, "I have one voice, but for my part, I will continue to speak what I believe to be the truth."

The truth is -- from the time Edelman was a close aide to RFK, to when he resigned from the Clinton Administration in protest over the latter's welfare bill ...

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Overview

The New York Times Book Review said that Peter Edelman adheres "to a high-minded worldview" -- and he does not hesitate to emphasize that in the Preface to this new paperback edition of Searching for America's Heart by declaring, "I have one voice, but for my part, I will continue to speak what I believe to be the truth."

The truth is -- from the time Edelman was a close aide to RFK, to when he resigned from the Clinton Administration in protest over the latter's welfare bill (which ended a sixty year federal commitment to poor children) -- poverty continues to be a source of shame to the richest nation on earth. Fueled by a vision of economic justice he shared with Robert Kennedy, related here, he advocates an active federal government in correcting inequities in American life. Based partly on initiatives begun by Kennedy, he advocates government support for school reform and more community-based economic development initiatives.

Peter Edelman is one of those rare beings in public and political life: a man not only with a conscience, but also with a vision, and the eloquence to speak out for the poor -- and the children in poverty -- among us.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Edelman chronicles the... dramatic fall of concern for the poor in this blend of policy history, autobiography, and call to political action.... Readers who have held on to their liberal convictions will find Edelman's take refreshing." -- Publishers Weekly

"A moving and insightful look at poverty, attitudes and social programs in the United States [and] an inspiring portrait of a public servant who believes government can, and should, make a difference in people's lives." -- Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Popular opinion has shifted dramatically during the second half of the 20th century regarding efforts to address poverty. Lawyer and political activist Edelman chronicles the moderate rise and dramatic fall of concern for the poor in this blend of policy history, autobiography and call to political action. The first third of the book finds Edelman going to work for Robert Kennedy, and tells the story of the 1960s' war on poverty, especially welfare reform legislation intended to help the poor, through the eyes of a staffer in the thick of the fight. The middle third focuses on the conservative redefinition of "welfare reform," popularized by Ronald Reagan, to mean cutting back on assistance to the poor, culminating in Bill Clinton's welfare reform legislation that led to Edelman's resignation from the administration, where he served as an expert on welfare policy and its impact on children. To Edelman, Clinton's "goal was re-election at all costs," and he bitterly castigates Clinton's ability to elevate "shadow over substance in a way that has hurt poor children" and his general tendency to "make things worse for the politically powerless." The final third is a "where do we go from here" assessment of what needs to be done to rediscover an understanding of poverty as a condition to be ameliorated rather than stigmatized. Like Kennedy, Edelman thinks the key is improving the lives of children, and he communicates his vision through stories of people and places rather than specific policy proposals. Like all progressives, Edelman is an optimist; his experience leaves him searching for America's heart rather than concluding that it does not exist, and readers who have held on to their liberal convictions will find Edelman's take refreshing. 4-city author tour. (Jan. 22) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1996, Edelman resigned as Bill Clinton's Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services when the President signed the welfare reform bill that repealed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a 60-year-old safety net. Edelman here expresses his rage not only at the President's marginalizing the poor but for his "disgusting personal behavior" and for cynically misinterpreting Robert Kennedy, Edelman's role model and former boss, during the bill signing. For Edelman, Kennedy's legacy is racial harmony, the support and protection of all children, and the belief that one person can make a difference--all with the cooperation of government. He has devoted his career to this legacy and advocates a new progressivism that calls for the restoration of the safety net while providing jobs with livable wages, transportation systems for reaching them, healthcare, civic renewal, and housing assistance. The numerous examples of programs aimed at achieving these goals become bogged down in detail. Yet this book is recommended for public libraries as an action plan for fighting poverty in this relatively prosperous era and as a differing view on the role of government from that found in Martin Olasky's Compassionate Conservatism (LJ 5/15/00).--Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780878409099
  • Publisher: Georgetown University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 262
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Edelman is a professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and married to Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.

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Read an Excerpt



Introduction


On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed, with great fanfare, a law radically restricting the aid America offers to poor families with children-a measure colloquially known as welfare reform. The event was the culmination of a backlash that had been growing for three decades, and reflected an even deeper change in Americans' sense of communal responsibility and what it means to be an American. The long-building anger at some of our most powerless people had finally boiled over-ironically, on the watch of a Democratic president.

President Clinton buttressed his action with the words of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Work, RFK had said, is the meaning of what this country is all about. We need it as individuals. We need to sense it in our fellow citizens. And we need it as a society and as a people. I was then serving President Clinton as an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, and had been Kennedy's legislative assistant. I knew both men well. I knew what Kennedy envisioned was a national investment to assure that people actually had jobs. I knew that he also wanted to assure a decent measure of help for people unable to find work, and especially for their children. He wanted concrete help for all those having trouble getting by. He wanted to do something serious about poverty.

President Clinton hijacked RFK's words and twisted them totally. Instead of assuring jobs and a safety net, Clinton and the Republican Congress invited states to order people to work or else, even if there are no jobs, and with no regard for what happens to them or their children. In the postwelfareworld, no cash help has to be offered to parents who fail to find work, even when they are wholly without fault. By signing the bill Clinton signaled acquiescence in the conservative premise that welfare is the problem-the source of a culture of irresponsible behavior.

President Clinton's misuse of Robert Kennedy's words highlighted a stark difference between the two young leaders. One pressed for social justice whenever he could. The other, originally projecting a commitment to renewing national idealism, ended up governing mainly according to the lowest common denominator. A proper invocation of RFK would have brought us full circle to a new commitment. Instead we completed a U-turn.

I have watched the changing course of our attitudes from close range. In a small way, I have continued the journey Robert Kennedy was not allowed to finish. I had been headed to Wall Street before I went to work for him, but after he was assassinated that path no longer seemed right for me. Newly married to my wonderful wife, Marian, with her own passion for justice, which has brought her from the civil rights movement in Mississippi to the Children's Defense Fund, I decided to pursue my personal memorial to Robert Kennedy by carrying on in his spirit.

That my life should concern itself so much with the question of why we respond so unsatisfactorily to the poorest among us was unimaginable to me growing up in Minneapolis in the fifties. My father, whom I adored as a child, was a successful lawyer and a decent, community-spirited man, and my mother, who died of colon cancer when I was fifteen, was a smart, shy, musical woman who mistrusted country clubs and wealth. I had an instinctive but undeveloped liberalism derived from my father's Democratic-Farmer- Labor Party politics and from being Jewish in a historically anti- Semitic city. I went to public school and Hebrew school and heard often about the great-grandfather for whom I was named, a great rabbi and mystical healer in Russia. I no doubt knew poor people in school, but I didn't know they were poor. In a city that was then 3 percent black, the only people of color I met were my father's two black colleagues on the Mayor's Council on Human Relations and the black student who transferred into the class behind me at West High School (and was soon elected class president).

My parents encouraged me to get good grades and play the clarinet. My father occasionally took me to hearings and community meetings, but he never stressed much of anything besides getting all As. (The clarinet part came from my mother.) I ran for student offices, but I think my main reason for doing so was to gain certification that I wasn't a nerd. When I went away to Harvard in 1954, my father's only advice was not to join anything, it being the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

I did get good grades, and ended up serving as a Supreme Court law clerk, which led to the Justice Department and to Robert Kennedy. Something besides career development must have driven me, but I wouldn't have been able to articulate it.

The almost four years that I worked for Robert Kennedy changed everything. This was the formative professional relationship of my life. Like many who experienced so much so quickly in the sixties, I was not the same person at age thirty that I had been at twenty-five. I had been shaped by witnessing injustice in the company of a man who constantly sought it out and tried to right it. His passion to make a difference left a permanent mark. If there was a specific time when the mark became indelible, it occurred a year before he was murdered, when, in Mississippi with him to build support for the War on Poverty, I saw children starving in this rich country and at the same time met my wife-to-be.

I've tried to keep at it. At the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, where I was deputy director, we created a fellowship for young people to work in low-income communities. As a vice presi- dent at the University of Massachusetts I pressed for a College of Public and Community Service, university courses in the prisons, care by doctors from the medical school for mentally retarded people in state institutions, academic credit for students who did community service in poor neighborhoods, and admission of minority students to the medical school. As director of the New York State Division for Youth, my focus, which became con- troversial, was on improving the life chances of the disadvan- taged young people enmeshed in the juvenile justice system. At Georgetown University Law Center my teaching and writ- ing have mainly concentrated on poverty, as did my work in the Clinton administration and for Democratic candidates for office over the years.

When Bill Clinton was elected president I thought we had a chance to move forward. I had known him almost fifteen years and his wife, Hillary, almost twenty-five, and I thought I understood him. They were both friends (Hillary more than the President), and Hillary had chaired my wife Marian's board at the Children's Defense Fund. I knew his politics were more centrist than mine. Marian and I had seen him lobby to limit Medicaid expansion in the late eighties, increase state discretion in the welfare legislation of 1988, and weaken the child care legislation of 1990. I recognized that the times were more conservative, and that the deficit inherited from Presidents Reagan and Bush made money for new or expanded programs scarce.

Nonetheless, I thought this intelligent and articulate young man would project an idealism that would inspire the country, especially young people. Things started out pretty well. It was wonderful to see how many young people had worked in his campaign and then joined the administration, although their numbers had dwindled by the time he left office. And he did appoint, and keep, a number of top people who worked hard to be a good influence.

The day after Clinton was inaugurated, I found myself walking into the Old Executive Office Building for the first time in many years for a meeting of a small group charged with fleshing out Clinton's national-service proposal. It was exciting, and I was happy to accept a position as counselor to Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services. When Clinton made some moves with which I disagreed, I initially accepted them as probably necessary if unfortunate exceptions to his prevailing direction. But during the first two years there were also many positive things. I had the privilege of working on some of them, and I felt good about it.

The second Clinton presidency began in 1995 after the Democrats lost Congress. The Clinton who emerged from the ashes of that disaster was different. He had already acquired a reputation for timidity and wobbling, especially in abandoning proposed appointees who ran into rough seas. He had already disappointed many by failing to persevere in some of his own positive efforts, as in the case of the health care fiasco. But the second Clinton acquired a deserved reputation for governing by polls, press releases, and Rose Garden events. The second Clinton told donors he thought he had raised their taxes too much. The second Clinton proved that his own political survival was more important to him than any substantive issue.

Clinton had a chance to make things better. He was a brilliant man in some ways. He was a gifted and inspiring speaker. Yet he never made full use of his many talents in a consistently positive direction, and brought obloquy on the presidency by his personal behavior. I resigned from the administration to protest the new welfare law. I was shocked when Clinton decided to sign it. He had previously signaled a willingness to sign a bill freeing the states from any obligation to help anyone and imposing an arbitrary time limit on receiving welfare besides, but the version before him was even broader-especially in its failure to protect children, its harsh effects on legal immigrants, and its deep cuts in the food stamp program. I had thought he would seize on those features as the basis for a veto.

My decision to resign was easy in one way and difficult in others. My visceral reaction to this fundamental break with the longstanding commitment of the Democratic Party to protect poor children was the simple part. I didn't need a long analysis to figure out how I felt. But I had great respect for Secretary Shalala and my other colleagues at HHS who were not going to resign (although two others-Mary Jo Bane and Wendell Primus-did resign). And there is not much of a tradition in America of resigning in protest.

Wanting to make our point but not jeopardize Clinton's re-election, Mary Jo and I (Wendell had left a couple of weeks earlier) sought no publicity. I was astonished at the attention we received. Our action resonated with many people around the country, which made it seem all the more worthwhile.

I was out of the country when Clinton signed the bill, so I did not hear him quote Kennedy. I heard about it later from Rory Kennedy, Robert and Ethel Kennedy's last child, who was born after his death in 1968. She wrote me in outrage about Clinton's twisting of her father's meaning, which, she said, had the effect of bastardizing, in my opinion, his name and legacy.

The irony is, Bill Clinton could have learned something real from Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was the first new Demo- crat, the first to espouse values of grassroots empowerment and express doubts about big bureaucratic approaches, the first to call for partnerships between the private and public sectors and insist that what we now call civic renewal is essential, the first to put particular emphasis on personal responsibility. But Robert Kennedy differed from those who now call themselves new Democrats, because he also insisted on national policy, national leadership, and national funding to help empower people at the bottom and address other pressing issues. His work and his views were prescient. It is still not too late to learn from them.

Robert Kennedy was uncomfortable when anyone called him a liberal-in fact, when anyone tried to put any label on him. Yet his politics did not resemble the abdication of responsibility and commitment that characterizes too many of today's new Democrats. There could be no doubt of his passion for justice. This, combined with a commitment to results and a highly original mind, produced a view of government and of remedies for powerless people different from that of Bill Clinton. RFK also rejected the liberal label because he saw what traditional liberalism had brought us: a domino-theory logic that, in the Vietnam War, killed tens of thousands of Americans and more than a million Asians for reasons that became harder to discern with each passing month; a paternalism toward the poor at home and poorer nations abroad that promoted neither individual strength nor national competence; and a rigidity in large institutions that closed ears and minds to fresh ideas and challenges.

What I would call Robert Kennedy's new progressivism is largely absent from our politics now. Even during a long period of aggregate prosperity (for which President Clinton deserves some credit), Americans have been deeply cynical. Our attitudes toward the most powerless reflect this. Richer than any nation in history, we think of the poor as culturally deficient and rush to blame them for the circumstances in which they find themselves. We jump to the conclusion that they could earn a reasonable share of the national pie if they would only try. We fail to challenge the amazing proposition, put forward by radicals of the Right, that if we would only stop helping the poor they would be better off.

America's poor are like the homeless man we pass sitting against a building. We give him our loose change but he is still there, every day. He looks no better off despite our largesse. Exasperated, we stop seeing him and step past as though he were not there, and we never ask why he was homeless in the first place. And, concentrating our enmity on those we classify as poor, we obscure the problems of millions of others who, working as hard as they can, continually fall short of making even a minimally adequate income.

The backdrop of the last thirty years features a vicious circle of injurious economic change, national tragedy, and negative poli- tics. People were disillusioned by the additive effects of the assassinations of revered leaders, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the changes in the economy. Many blamed government for not stemming the disappearance of good jobs and the damaging combination of inflation and high unemployment in the late seventies. Millions lost economic ground. People either stopped voting or voted for the candidate who said the best government was the one that was closest to no government, except for the military. With voters opting out in droves, special interests had even more power to use their money to get what they wanted. Gaps in wealth, income, and power widened. Spurts of positive policy, especially in the early seventies, brought strengthened protections without which those at the lower end would be in even deeper trouble today, but the declines in real wages and the failure of public policies to compensate nonetheless left the bottom worse off.

The public view of the poor turned nasty. People working two or three jobs to survive were told that their problems were caused by those below them on the economic ladder. Clinton could sign a bill endangering millions of children and still get re-elected handily, by a combination of people who agreed with him and people who didn't but thought the prospect of Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Trent Lott running the country was even worse. (I was a member of the latter group. Disappointed as I am in Clinton, I have never believed that worse is better. Clinton was always fortunate in the quality of the enemies he attracted.)

The welfare system we had in place until 1996 badly needed reform, just as Robert Kennedy had said thirty years earlier. It left too many on the welfare rolls for too long, and did not help people find jobs and escape poverty. It was never an antipoverty program, although it did assure some cash income for families with children. But the new law was not real reform. It did not remove the barriers to self-sufficiency and it did not protect children. It freed the states to push people off the welfare rolls regardless of the consequences. What President Clinton signed was not a responsible policy but an abdication of responsibility.

We have been told repeatedly, by the White House and others, that the new law is a smashing success. In fact, while a few states have used it positively and more people are working, many formerly on welfare are worse off, even during unprecedented prosperity. The welfare rolls have been cut in half, but that is less than half the story. A few numbers reveal what the public relations juggernaut obscures. Of the 7-million-plus people who have left welfare, 2.5 million are adults, mostly women. Nationally, about 60 percent of those have jobs at any given time. This means that about 1.5 million have jobs and about 1 million don't. Those million people and their children add up to 3 million people. That is a big number. Where are they? We don't know precisely. They are truly America's disappeared. Why did they leave welfare without a job? Mostly because they were kicked off, and in some places because they hit time limits. Many left for a job, lost it, couldn't find another, reapplied for welfare, and were turned away be- cause of Catch-22 policies that tell people to look for work that they were already unable to find. Large numbers have lost food stamps and health coverage erroneously, compounding the problem. Welfare-to- work programs, often contracted out to profit-making companies like Lockheed Martin, add little concrete help.

We can see all of this in the statistics. The poorest 10 percent of single mothers lost 14 percent of their income from 1996 through 1998. In simple English, they lost more in welfare and food stamps than they gained in earnings. This loss, with all the increased homelessness, hunger, and other misery that goes with it, is the story people are not hearing. Moreover, often people who get jobs do not escape poverty. In 1998 the number of family heads with full-time jobs who could not get their families out of poverty was the highest it had been in the twenty-four years that this statistic has been recorded. And this says nothing of the millions who are not officially poor but do not earn even a barely adequate income. Welfare is the wrong issue anyway. Reducing the number of people on welfare is laudable only if it results in making people better off. Ending poverty and achieving a better shake for all of those in difficulty even amid record prosperity are the right goals. Welfare- cash assistance for people at the bottom-is only a small part of a strategy to pursue those goals. But it should not be a dirty word. We need it to help when the economy goes sour either nationally or locally, and for people who are not in a position to work outside the home. It should be a safety net.

The irony may be that we hit bottom with the welfare policy put into place on that August day in 1996. The coincidentally ensuing prosperity, the lancing of the boil of our anger, and the highlighted visibility of the continuing misery of some are ingredients for positive action. But major changes in policy have yet to occur. The cold fact is that nearly one child in five is still poor, and the percentage of children in poverty remains higher than it was for all of the seventies. But with a new president and a new Congress and, more important, an increased commitment of people around the country, we may be able to turn the corner.

This book is about economic justice and what that means for our country. It is not just about welfare and it is not just a story about Bill Clinton. The America that permitted him to sign a law shredding the sixty-year-old safety net for children is different in many ways from the America of Robert Kennedy's time. We are far richer materially, but too much of the increased wealth has gone to those at the top. Our politics has been corrupted by money and suffused with meanness. Trust in government and public institutions has eroded. Voter participation in elections has gone from bad to worse than worse.

I offer here a look at our journey from idealism to cynicism through the experience of one who was there when we said we were fighting a war against poverty, and was there when times changed. I explore the antipoverty legacy of Robert Kennedy, what happened to that legacy, and what that legacy means today. I suggest a strategy for greater economic and social justice that is neither neo, kneejerk, nor naive, but features a full measure of national policy while being rooted in a renewal of civic engagement by all of us.


Poverty Today: What's Wrong with This Picture?

Why do some people have so little though we are vastly wealthier as a nation than even a generation ago?

Two stories vie for acceptance.

One-the truth-says that the labor market has been in trouble since about 1973 because of deindustrialization, globalization, and technological change. Even in our current prosperity there are large numbers of lousy jobs. These big changes have made it ever harder to earn a living wage, especially for African Americans, Latinos, female single parents, and high school graduates. It is worse yet for high school dropouts, and worst of all for those who combine these characteristics.

The other explanation is much simpler. It says the problem is government programs, and especially welfare. It says welfare has produced dependency, unwillingness to work, increased nonmarital births, drug abuse, and crime. It especially emphasizes illegitimacy, and says poverty is not an issue of money at all but one of culture, which has to be changed by sanctions to change behavior. Since the 1994 Congressional elections, the second story has held sway.

Nearly all the neglected and exploited groups that achieved visibility in the sixties and earlier have been pushed back to the margins. Michael Harrington wrote in 1962 that poverty is often off the beaten track. It still is, although so often it is right in front of us. Seasonal farmworkers are still exploited, and people, mainly recent immigrants, still work in sweatshop conditions that should have ended after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. A quarter of the poor are still in rural areas far from jobs- former coal miners mired in the hollows of Appalachia, poor farmers and sharecroppers across the black belt in the South, day laborers in the colonias of south Texas, and those Native Americans not among the few enriched by casinos. A third of the poor are scattered in suburbs, often employed but still poor, and quite invisible. The face of poverty has changed in important ways, some positive and some negative. Most of the poor are still white, but with recent immigration, more are Latino and Asian. The increase in single-parent families means more of the poor are women and children. Thanks to the cost-of-living indexing of Social Security and other policy changes, far fewer of the poor are elderly. Changes in residential patterns have produced more entrenched areas of poverty in inner cities and, less noticed, new clusters of poverty in inner-ring suburbs. The huge migration of people from rural areas has cut the rural portion of the poor in half, although changes in the agricultural economy and in farm policy have created a new cadre of poor farmers, especially in the Midwest. Regional differences have eased, with the South now having only slightly higher poverty than the rest of the country. Changes in housing and mental health policy have produced new cadres of urban homeless people. Changes in opportunity have produced a much larger African American middle class, even though the percent of African Americans who are poor remains high. Changes in policy and attitudes have brought more disabled people into the mainstream economy, even though their overall unemployment statistics have not changed much. Changes in the economy have enlarged the numbers of those who work as hard as they can but are still poor or close to it.

The poverty of the sixties was disproportionately rooted in the rural economy and in the continuing pervasive discrimination against blacks. Fewer jobs required a high school education. There were fewer single-parent families, and poverty among two-parent families was more prevalent. Now, with a more educated population and more jobs requiring education, those without a high school diploma are more likely to be poor. Minorities now are frozen out less by overt discrimination and more by a mixture of weak schooling, residual prejudice, and competition from immigrants. In an economy in which having two wage-earners in a household is often essential to make ends meet, the worst off are female-headed families of color with limited education.

The number of poor people concentrated in inner-city neighbor- hoods doubled between 1970 and 1990. Most of the middle class moved away from these places when they could. Their departure destroyed community cohesion and left those remaining even more isolated from the regional economy. Things fell apart. Welfare became a staple for too many of the women and prison the address for too many of the men. Too many unmarried young women had children. The children went to schools that did not teach, and later on ran the gauntlet of adolescence torn between the values their mothers tried to instill and those offered by the young men on the street. The high-rise public housing projects in large cities presented the most dramatic instances of the destruction of community. The most persistent poverty is among disorganized families in disorganized neighborhoods. Still, we might be surprised to discover that this sort of poverty that so drives our prejudices and our politics describes only 12 percent of the poverty in the nation.

What happened in inner-city neighborhoods is a story of economics as well as race. The past three decades have not been kind to the American central city and its poorest inhabitants. Especially the older cities of the Northeast and Midwest have seen a massive exodus of people and jobs, leaving behind those least able to get out, along with disastrously diminished tax bases. The conditions that produced five consecutive summers of urban unrest and conflagration more than thirty years ago have actually worsened in the ensuing years. The manufacturing jobs that had previously disappeared to the suburbs, to nonunion sites in the South, and to other rural areas have now moved offshore as well or have been replaced by technology. Millions of white central-city residents have moved to the suburbs and exurbs. African Americans, helped by new antidiscrimination laws, have moved out in considerable numbers, too. Even to discuss the idea that the ensuing pneumonia of the inner city (as in when the economy catches cold, the poor get pneumonia) was caused by welfare would be ludicrous if it were not so ardently purveyed by the adherents of the cultural view.

The federal definition of poverty is grossly inadequate today, and it was none too generous to begin with. Since the official poverty line was established, in the sixties, the cost of living for the poor has risen much faster than the rate of inflation, especially for housing. The poverty line now exceeds thirteen thousand dollars a year for a family of three. But by the time one adds up the real cost of rent, food, clothing, transportation, and everything else, even a family earning half again as much would have a hard time making ends meet. Nonetheless, the country is angry at the poor. Feeling insecure because of their own tough sledding, many voters bought the arguments of ideologues and demagogues and in recent years took a huge whack not only at welfare but at food stamps, disability, housing aid, state programs that help single adults, drug treatment, and assistance to legal immigrants.

The reductions in free legal services were especially crippling. Not only will we reduce benefits for the poor, the cutters said, we will constrain their capacity to challenge bureaucrats who push them around. You can still get a federally funded lawyer to challenge your eviction, they said, provided you can find one after we cut the already paltry budget by a third, but we will allow no class actions and no challenges to any welfare program. So in addition to declaring war on the poor Congress declared war on lawyering for the poor-to make sure no one would talk back in court.

Worst of all, children long ago became the poorest age group. The elderly are better off, and that is wonderful. But children are much poorer, because so many of their families have steadily lost economic ground. With more children in poverty, breaking the cycle becomes harder. And the policies encouraged by the new welfare law pose the question whether we really believe that raising children constitutes a contribution to society.


Facing the Tough Facts

We have to face up to some unpleasant trends that make solutions much harder to come by.

There has, for example, been a major increase in the number of single- parent families, mainly headed by women. This trend runs across income lines, but it is more pronounced among the poor, especially the African American poor, with more than half of poor children living in families headed by a single parent. Women's average earnings are still only about three-quarters of men's. So the income of a typical one-parent family is less than half that of a two-parent family where both parents work. The children of these families lack not only a father (not that just any father is better than no father) but the money that father would earn.

Even more disturbing is the increased percentage of births to mothers who are not married, especially to unmarried teens. This, too, is a trend that cuts across class and race, but it is greater in low-income groups and most serious among poor African American teens, albeit with a slight but steady reversal over most of the last decade. (I am talking about trends in percentage rates, not absolute numbers. The total number of teen births has been decreasing for a long time.)

No one can deny the seriousness of these problems. But the answer is not punitive welfare policy and stern lectures. Nor will provision of contraceptives do the job by itself. My wife, who is wise about many things, once said that hope is the best contraceptive. Her insight is where I would start.

A second disturbing set of facts is the huge increase in illegal drug use over the last thirty years. Robert Kennedy, introduc- ing legislation on drug addiction (then mainly heroin), talked about fifty thousand to one hundred thousand addicts in the U.S. Now there are close to two million regular cocaine or heroin users, with cocaine far more prevalent and methamphetamine use on the rise. These numbers affect not only the inner city but also the suburbs and, increasingly, smaller cities and rural areas. And there is actually more drug and alcohol abuse on the job than on the street corner. The crack-cocaine epidemic of the eighties has abated somewhat, but illegal drugs and alcohol are still pandemic in the inner city. They are destroying lives wholesale. The consequences are all over the place: crack babies, children with the even worse fetal- alcohol syndrome, learning-disabled children, unmanageable foster care caseloads, grandparents raising their grandchildren, and prisons chock full and overflowing.

Serious as this is, it does not describe everyone. Even in the poorest neighborhoods most adults have jobs. There are hard-working, decent people in every neighborhood. In every public housing project, too. There are young people who make it despite everything.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition

Introduction

1. Robert Kennedy: The Man Who Loved Children

2. Robert Kennedy's Legacy: The Inner City, Race, Jobs, and Welfare

3. From Kennedy to Clinton: The Two Americas Diverge Further

4. Enter Bill Clinton

5. Life After Welfare

6. Rekindling the Commitment: Politics and Poverty in the New Century

7. Breaking the Cycle: Children and Youth

8. Finding America's Heart

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2005

    Those around Kennedy

    Basically, to know RFK is to also know the integral people around him during his short but impactfull life. Edelman has done a very good job of showing how he feels concerning what Kennedy was after and how those ideals have been mismanaged and misaligned. One thing can be said, Kennedy had many, many devoted people working for both him and his brother. A must read for the Kennedy sphere of influence.

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