Peter Edelman worked for Robert Kennedy in the 1960s and later as an adviser in the Clinton administration, from which he eventually resigned after disagreeing on welfare reform. His most recent book is “Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.” In part one of their conversation, Edelman tells host Robert Scheer about Robert Kennedy’s unprecedented attention to the poor in America during his presidential campaign. He says that in spite of the unacceptably high level of poverty in the United States now, programs like Social Security and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) do work and need to be protected. And he and Scheer discuss how, for the poor, a simple unpaid parking ticket can spiral into huge debt and even incarceration.
Joshua Scheer, Rebecca Mooney
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Peter Edelman. And Peter Edelman is–I say this show is all about American originals; out of the crazy-quilt of American culture, you know, different immigrants and different racial composition and so forth, the melting pot, we do produce, you know, what I would call American originals. People who do something different and care and go against the grain. And I can’t think of a better example of that than Peter Edelman. I’ve known you since Bobby Kennedy. I had ambivalent feelings; I was the editor of Ramparts, I wasn’t sure where Bobby Kennedy was coming from. But I went and interviewed him, spent time with him, and in the course of it you ran into your work. And you were one of the people that was educating Bobby, I think, about poverty; he was a quick learner. I remember going to Bedford-Stuy in Brooklyn, when Bobby was actually senator. And I followed him right to the end; I was there at the Ambassador Hotel when he was assassinated, I was interviewing him and he broke off the interview, said “I got to go downstairs, I’ll be back” and we all know the terrible thing that happened. Because–terrible for the country, because I do think Bobby Kennedy represented the moment of greatest clarity about economic oppression in America, and what was going on, coming from a position of privilege. So why don’t we begin there, and then we’ll get to talk about your current book, Criminalizing Poverty, and the book you had a few years back on what is status. And that’s a dreary story. But let’s start with that moment of optimism.
PE: Well, first of all, he educated me, Bob. And I did not educate him. I certainly was his staffer, and I learned, because I had the wonderful opportunity to go to places all over our country where senators generally don’t go, public officials generally, nationally, don’t go. And so I went with him to meet Cesar Chavez, and became kind of the Washington, D.C. representatives for the farmworkers in 1966. But everything that we did, we would take it with us and continue to work on the issues. And so when we saw children in Mississippi with severe malnutrition, then we worked on, without getting rid of knocking something else off the agenda, we started talking about hunger in America. And so on and on, Bedford-Stuyvesant, you mentioned, he met with leaders in that part of Brooklyn in New York City. And from that came this, at that time, quite original idea of neighborhood revitalization. So it was an amazing, it was an amazing thing for me. And he did have, he was very special, not only in the going around and actually listening to people and understanding face-to-face about the travails that people had; but he wasn’t a person who had a label. The closest thing might be what we now call a progressive, but it’s not; he was a combination of both believing in strong regulation, but at the same time very, very strong against big institutions in our society, and very connected to low-income people. Race and poverty were the things that he cared most about. Of course he was, had to, very necessary, to work vis-a-vis against the Vietnam War. So that was a time which was taking us in a direction for our country–apart from the war, which was a big “apart from;” he was really taking us in a direction that would have been very good for our country.
RS: You know, I think–I find Bobby Kennedy, in retrospect, to be the most fascinating, maybe the most fascinating politician I’ve ever interviewed, and I’ve done quite a few of them. Because at first, I was very skeptical of what he was all about. I mean, after all, he’d been with McCarthy; he’d been a bit of a red-baiter, and a very moralistic view on what was wrong with the country, and all that. And he was a Kennedy, you know. And I think he’s somebody I got wrong at the time. I warmed to him; he was very open. I was able–that’s how I got to know you–I was able to travel. And by the way, I don’t want to underestimate your role. You were this Jewish kid from Minneapolis who managed, I don’t know how you went, but you went to Harvard, became Harvard Law; you clerked for, you know, a Supreme Court justice; you were a big deal. And you were very knowledgeable. And instead of going to work for the banks, as so many people have done from Harvard Law, you decided to care about what was happening to ordinary people. So when I was covering Bobby, you were my signpost of integrity. You know, I’m not blowing smoke here; I just, you were good guy. And you have been all your life, and you, I think around that time you married your wife, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. And even most recently, last year, one of your sons won the Academy Award for [the] O.J. Simpson [documentary].
PE: Yes. Yes, yes.
RS: So it’s a really remarkable family. And so just to jump ahead a little bit here, I was at the Democratic Convention this last go-around, when Bernie Sanders kind of got shafted, I thought, by the establishment. And I kept hearing “Children’s Defense Fund” and “Marian Wright Edelman,” and all this, and how Hillary Clinton had worked with Marian Wright Edelman. And I thought, wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s not the way I remember this whole thing, because I remember Marian Wright Edelman, and Peter Edelman her husband, being quite concerned about what happened in the Clinton administration. You were in it. And I cheered when you left that administration, because of something called welfare reform. So I guess we’re jumping ahead a bit from Bobby Kennedy–
PE: Yes, yes.
RS: –but you know, you have been a source of, for me, great integrity. And I lost sleep the last few days reading, rereading your earlier book and reading your current book. I should give the title: Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America. It’s a New Press book; you know, people don’t want to read about poverty, but it’s riveting. Because first of all, it’s just chock full of what happens to people in these different courts, right across the country, including California, where I’m broadcasting from. I have this sort of fantasy, California’s an enlightened place now, we do great things. But you have depressing statistics about how, to use your word, we fleece the poor to pay for the courts. And just to mention this book, and I recommend it highly, what is really going on here is the turning the poor into a criminal class. We slap so many fines on them, now that taxes got cut, and cities–even in an enlightened supposed city like Los Angeles, these–and most of these cities are run by democrats, very often liberal democrats. They are paying their salaries, their bureaucracy and everything, off the backs of the poor. So if someone gets stuck with a $100 parking fine, they can’t pay that. And then boom, they’re locked away. And when they don’t keep up with their payments–your book just documents tragedy, and it’s not just deepest Mississippi; it’s enlightened California. And so I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that, you know, we’re talking about the past, Bobby Kennedy, a long history; but you know, this book came out just a couple of months ago, and it has to be read. And I must say, a previous book that you did in 2012, I think, is really critical; I’m blocking on the name, so you can–
PE: So Rich, So Poor.
RS: So Rich, So Poor–
PE: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.
RS: Yeah, so let me just give the full, proper interview. That book is absolutely required reading, to my mind. And it has a very depressing statistic. It says that we were doing something about poverty, it was working, we had some progress in the sixties. But that 1973 represents the year of greatest success. And we’ve been backsliding. And the other thing I find depressing in your work, and depressing not that people shouldn’t read it, but that it’s depressing in terms of where we are–something awful has happened because of industrialization, the robots, outsourcing through multinationals. We now have what you can see wealthy people regarding as an expendable class. I think there’s a theme to your work. And I’m talking to Peter Edelman, look it up and you’ll become familiar with his work. If there’s a theme, at least in the earlier period–the thirties, the Depression, going through the sixties–there was a felt need for workers. Black or white. And in fact, one of the reasons we had migration from the South is we needed black workers in the North, in the automobile [industry] and so forth, the Great Migration. And I think, reading your book very carefully, it seems to me there’s a really alarming theme: that we may now have a population that we basically–”we” being the people of power, not myself–want to incarcerate, want to get out of sight out of mind, want to get rid of. And as a result, they’re actually made dysfunctional by the court system, by the policies and so forth. So tell me a little bit about where we are now, and then we’ll go back to history.
PE: Well, let’s start a little bit with the history. Because the story, of course, that you said, is unfortunately, fundamentally true. But talking about 1973, the thing that is the heart of the problem here, as well as the inequality and the rich getting richer, is that we lost the good jobs, the jobs that we deindustrialized as a country. And as you said, there’s a continuing issue about technology and jobs, but we’re already a nation that has basically low-wage jobs. So on the one hand, we need to understand that we’ve done, in terms of public policy and poverty–not necessarily in a way with a movement, but with some legislators who had some sense–we have 43 million people who are poor right now. And the research shows us that we’d have about 90 million people in poverty if we didn’t have Social Security or an Income Tax Credit, SNAP, which is food stamps, and so on, the thing. So we actually have been doing–and this is very important in the age of Paul Ryan, who says nothing works, and let’s get rid of all of it–which is a total lie. Of course, we now hear about fake facts–that’s fake facts. So we should understand that it wasn’t as though we stopped shop in 1973 and said we’re not going to help at all; we did. And the problem was not, we can certainly say we should have done more, but those numbers are really important to say that these public policies that we have do work. Well, then we still have the 43 million; we still have the problem of too many low-wage jobs. We have over 100 million people, one-third of our people, whose income is below, twice the level of the poverty line, and that’s $40,000 for a family of three, hardly enough to live on. So that, we have to start with that. Now, to come up to now, over that period of time it’s not only the low wage, it’s also the mass incarceration, which as you said is in a significant way, it’s about a form of racism in the politics as well as going after welfare, that’s on the women’s side. So that’s all very, very political. But it’s also true that it was useful to put a huge number of people out of the possibility of having jobs by locking them up. And so you put them out of the possibility of competing for jobs, and then that makes it a little easier; this is a terrible thing. And then we come to what’s in my current book, Not a Crime to be Poor, because on top of–
RS: By the way, I just want to correct your title–it is a crime to be poor.
PE: Ah, well, that’s exactly right. I say it’s not a crime, but the book is–it is criminal to be poor, exactly. And so that’s the evil sibling to mass incarceration, which kind of snuck up on us over the period starting with Grover Norquist and the whole question of shrinking the government to the point where you can drown it in the bathtub. And so it’s the anti-tax rebellion that gets across the country, and it really is across the country; we got to find the money somewhere, and so they do this awful thing of jacking up the fines and the fees big-time all over the country, and putting people in jail, and getting them hooked by payment plans on the thing that they were found to be guilty, or couldn’t pay the bail. And so if they wanted to get out, they had to plead guilty when they weren’t guilty of anything.
RS: [omission] This is an NPR audience, probably a liberal audience, yes Paul Ryan is awful, yes Donald Trump is awful; they didn’t start this. Or they’re not alone in doing this. Yes, Ronald Reagan, yes, cut the budget, cut the budget, and the cities. But the fact is, the cities are run by, very often by liberal democrats. And I think just taking it home here in Los Angeles, or even Santa Monica, where we’re broadcasting from, an enlightened community, they don’t, the city officials think nothing about charging $80, $120, for a parking ticket, and then if you can’t make it it goes up. And for a person who’s trying to get to work, what happens is, your book documents, they end up losing their driving license, then there’s another fee, and it becomes a serious crime; they’re driving without a license, and they’re caught. And I, you know, I live in downtown L.A., I look at these courts and who goes through them. And the fact of the matter is, my friends who are in government, are supervisors, are city council or so forth, they’re not experiencing that pain. But they’re a part of the conveyor belt delivering people to a life of imprisonment. Right?
PE: Well, yes. Because if we go back at the point in time where they did this, which is an awful thing, there’s no question. Within the courts, if you look at the behavior of the state, chief justices and chief judges around the country, they were saying publicly that we needed to get this money out of people because we need to run our courts. And they didn’t say too bad; they just said this, we gotta do. I mean, this is documented, you’re absolutely right. It’s changed; it’s not fully changed, but here in California, where as you know and your listeners know, California was the place that took away more driver’s licenses, suspended them, than anybody in the country. And there’s no question that people were, dems as well as republicans, were voting to do that. There–
RS: We should be clear about this. I think the figure you used is four million.
PE: Yes, four million people, that’s a cumulative number over 10 years, four million people.
RS: Right. And that means if somebody’s trying to get to a job gardening, or taking care of children, or–
PE: Right, just getting a job, yeah.
RS: –yeah, getting to a job, they no longer can use their car legally. Because they–and this has nothing to do with a driving offense.
RS: Right. They’re, but they couldn’t pay, you know, some ticket or something else. And the car is grabbed, and now–
PE: And it’s a new offense, so more money is owed.
RS: Yeah, and a more serious offense now, because driving without a license and so forth, and by the second or third, it really piles up. And they’re in this horrible world of being screwed from every side. And then if you get a car towed, my goodness, then you’re talking about $500 in collection fees–
PE: Yeah, you may never see your car again, ‘cause you can’t pay for it.
RS: Yeah. And I think, you know–well, first of all, I have to say, in this impoverished world of journalism, I mean intellectually impoverished, you know, to read your book is a refresher course in what journalism–Lincoln Steffens, or I.F. Stone–what journalism was supposed to be about. Unfortunately, it’s not being done. But anybody out there should know this is happening, because they pay a traffic [ticket]. But a rich person, or a middle-class person–OK, I got a $100 ticket, I hate it, but I’ll do it. I’ll pay it. It’s not going to destroy your life. But if you’re working, you know, taking care of somebody’s children or their garden or something, and you get that $100 ticket–well, you can’t pay it. And so it increases in value, and then, you know, you’re grabbed for another thing. And the next thing you know, your whole life is defined by this. You are made criminal. You are made a criminal; you didn’t have criminal intent, you didn’t get the rewards of a successful criminal, and you are made criminal. Because now you’re going to drive that car without a license, ‘cause what choice do you have? How are you going to make a living? How are you going to pay these fines? And I used Dickens in a real serious way. Because you’re describing a world of London back in the horrible times. You know, this is, deindustrialization is now visiting industrialization during its most–but let me stick to this partisan thing. Because I don’t want to let good people off the hook here. They’re all looking the other way, whether–OK, I’ll pay my fine on my Tesla or something, and that’s life. OK, ignoring the fact that for someone else, that fine is the end of their economic viability. And yet we go along with it. But I want to take you to the cutting edge of what happened with poverty in this country. I covered this for the Los Angeles Times, I interviewed you a number of times back in those years. And we had something called welfare reform. And I remember when Bill Clinton was first running, he was governor in Arkansas, a pitiful state for most people. And you know, and he also was head of something, the Delta Commission. And I went through the Delta area with him and everything when he was governor. And really, probably the greatest center of poverty in America, ‘cause you didn’t even grow cotton anymore or something, and there was–sharecropping looked good compared to what was then. And here was Bill Clinton, instead of really talking about ending poverty in any serious way, he was talking about ending probably the most successful program for dealing with poverty. Full disclosure, you know, my father lost his job the day I was born in the Great Depression, and my mother and father were garment workers. I lived on what was then welfare, it was called home relief. And for the first five years of my life, that was the difference between, you know, existing. That was it. And then to interview Bill Clinton at that time and hear this cavalier description of the program which was then called Aid to Families with Dependent Children; it was primarily women, and about 70 percent of the people affected were children. They hadn’t made a choice anyway to be in this, but they were the ones being paid for this. And it was just basically eliminated in two ways. And I remember interviewing him, and he told me–and I pushed him, pushed him–and he said, well, there have to be two conditions. One, it can’t be a budget saver, because if you’re really going to get people out of poverty you have to give them education, you have to help them get to work, you have to worry about child care and so forth. So, you can’t do it–well, that’s number one. That they failed. And secondly, he said, it can’t be turned over to the states, the tender mercy of the states, because they will push the poor from one state to another, California to Oregon and what have you. And he failed on that. You were in the government then. You were working, I think, for Donna Shalala–
RS: –at that time. And as I recall, in the Cabinet of Bill Clinton, there were only two people who opposed this so-called welfare–
PE: No, it was a little more than that. Bob Reich, and–
RS: And Robert Rubin.
PE: –that’s right, and Donna.
RS: Oh, and Donna, yeah, OK. So there were–
PE: And some staff. Anyway, it’s not a huge number.
RS: Well, it’s a bit of an irony to me, ‘cause I’ve smashed Robert Rubin in other books, you know–
PE: Well, there were other issues, of course. But he was good on that.
RS: He came from Goldman Sachs, and he did the deregulation. But–yes, but he was at least sufficiently enlightened to know you don’t want to destroy a program that’s primarily taking care of children. And Robert Reich, who was kind of a hero of mine, also took that position, and Donna Shalala also. But Bill Clinton didn’t listen to them.
PE: That is correct, that is correct.
RS: He didn’t listen to them, and went ahead with this program. And you left the administration. So maybe I could just ask you about that moment in your life. Because at that point, you were on a pretty–not pretty; you were on a very successful career trajectory. One of the things I find depressing, teaching in a university now for quite a while–very good university, University of Southern California–but nonetheless, we’re kind of giving the message out that careerism trumps everything. Now, you’re a guy, as I said before, Harvard undergraduate, Harvard Law School, you were a well known, you know, brilliant lawyer, you’re now, you know, you’ve been an assistant dean, and you’ve been chair, you’ve got an endowed chair. You know, Georgetown; you’re very successful. Yet you walked out of an administration in which you had clout, right? You were–
PE: Well, apparently not, since he went ahead and signed the bill [Laughs]
RS: No, but you did the principled thing. And as I sat at the Democratic Convention hearing about how Hillary Clinton had been with the Children’s Defense Fund, and Marian Wright Edelman was your wife, a great leader in this issue. And I thought about you, and I thought, wait a minute. There’s something missing in this story. So fill us in on what’s missing in that particular chapter.
PE: That issue, they were totally wrong, and we know about a number of things in terms of the number of prisons that were built while he was the president. And the money for these school resource officers, the police officers in the schools, which ended up with the kids being sent to court rather than just being kicked out of school, as if that was good. But this all over the country, and $750 million was spent on hiring 6,500 of those SROs at 3,000 schools around the country–well, that’s during the Clinton administration. So it’s a longer list than that, and it is all true. Marian, for example, and very important since you’ve raised the question about all of that, wrote–it’s kind of interesting, ‘cause I’m there in the government. And of course within HHS, with Donna Shalala, we’re pushing very hard to get Clinton to veto that legislation, so there was no conflict of interest; that’s what we were doing. But Marian in 1995, a whole year before Clinton signed that bill, she wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that absolutely let it all out. Saying this is terrible, and she cites the Bible, and she cites a whole series of things. And just, it’s as strong as it could possibly be. So the complexity there–and she should, would speak for herself–is that there’s also a long relationship. And so it has that complexity, but the disagreements are very, very unambiguous; they’re very clear for both her and for me. As far as 2016 is concerned, my own view was that the choice we had as a practical matter, with the disagreements that still existed; that she was the appropriate, after all, the first woman to be president, and a very, very intelligent person. We see in retrospect, and while it was going on, that the campaign wasn’t run so well. Bernie comes along, and there are differences on issues, where on the issues I’m more with him, but in terms of who I thought was electable, it was she. And so we did do that. But I’ve always been clear with my disagreements there, and they continue. And in that campaign, I will say, I worked very hard to get Hillary to change her view on welfare. And she really didn’t, and I’m disappointed about that.
RS: Well, you know, this has been such an interesting discussion that we need two parts on this. So we’ll come back next week with Part II of my interview with Peter Edelman. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Kat Yore and Mario Diaz are the brilliant engineers here at KCRW. See you next week.