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 books include “ So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s so Hard to End Poverty in America” and more recently, “Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.” In part two of their conversation, Edelman and host Robert Scheer discuss how the historically progressive Democratic Party shares some of the blame for the dismal number of those living in poverty in the US today. Edelman says while California has had flawed policies in the past, including sky high levels of incarceration, the state has become a model in many ways. And Edelman tells Scheer the United States’ changing demographics and activism make him optimistic about the future.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Peter Edelman, who was so interesting in the first part of this interview that I’ve invited him back for a second half. And you know, try to grapple with this issue which I think is the paramount issue for civilization, really, which is: Do you take care of your own? And his most recent book is a book about imprisoning our own. And it’s something we have to address, and that’s what we’re going to do now. I think we’re getting to the heart of a very important issue, which is the conscience of the liberal, or what happened to liberalism in America. And by liberalism, I’m using this sort of rough connection of concern for the most vulnerable people in this society, and a view of social responsibility that I guess I associate with Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, my own personal–
PE: That would be fine for me–too–
RS: –my own personal, I was at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and I was with ADA, Americans for Democratic Action, that Eleanor Roosevelt was the head of, and with Stevenson and Kefauver and so forth, in ‘56. And there was just no question that what you meant by liberalism–and you know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt embodied a lot of it, but we all felt without Eleanor at his side, he too could have sold out or gone that way. And that idea that you must care about the other, whatever your own class background, that the society–I mean, I even found it in Nelson Rockefeller, believe it or not; I profiled him once, and some other people. That you have to do something for the fourth generation, the fifth generation; you have to keep the thing together. I remember John Kenneth Galbraith, you know, I thought a very good, socially concerned economist, also became ambassador. Wrote a book called The Affluent Society, in which he argued, yes, you can become more affluent, but if you don’t spread it around–and by spreading it around, that means having good schools and good transportation and good health care available to everybody. If you can spread it around that way, you can have stability. And if you don’t, you’re going to have instability. And you bring up, in your book Ferguson you bring up, you know, the alienated society; you bring up instability, why we have riots, why we have crime. And I think liberalism, under the Clintons–I don’t mean to provoke an argument between you and the Clintons, but it was a big argument. And the big argument is that move to the right by the Democratic Party, the embrace of Wall Street, the embrace of a certain pragmatism, the abandonment of a key part of your base, which is–not key part, but really your basic base of working people, whether they’re white, black, or brown. And I think we need to discuss that.
PE: There is a change in our politics over the last 40-plus years. In Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton; not so much Barack Obama, who I think is more aligned with me than those two. But the framework, it’s just not the same as the thirties; it’s not the same as the sixties. There’s some lack of understanding that I have in terms of all the ways in which the country moved to the right, but it did. I do think that the Democratic Party was, in a more constructive way, was not where it should have been. When the country went into being a low-wage country, the Democratic Party really was not there. And to me, that’s something that’s very, very fundamental. So I think you have to paint this picture on that underlying situation of the country moving to the right for a bunch of reasons. You know, they move away from unions; they just don’t have the same kind of enthusiasm for the kind of New Deal politics. We don’t have the choices. I’d like to see much better underlying organizing, getting people who are on the margins. Present to them things like Robert Kennedy in 1968 here in California. People came out in droves. African Americans, especially Latinos. And he carried them in the primary. It can be done. Fundamentally, I do agree with what you say; I’m disappointed with the Democratic Party over that whole period of time. It’s really two parties; it takes on this relationship with Wall Street which, to me, is destructive for the country; it’s destructive for the Democratic Party. And it leaves a lot of people very skeptical who don’t have that sort of capacity and resources and so on. And so they go in a different direction, which we can say isn’t rational, but they’re angry. I mean, you know, it came to a complete visibility of that anger in 2016, but it had [been] boiling up for a very, very long period of time. And after a while, when there’s no real rational choice, you end up with Trump, because the Democratic Party is really not speaking to the needs of the people. And not just people we call poor; I’m talking about people, really, essentially half of the population of our country is sitting there with not a decent income.
RS: The real issue is, do you impoverish your own working people? And Galbraith made the argument, no. The way to have, first of all, just to have stability is you got to take care of your own. Taking care of your own can be done, first of all, with sensible trade agreements in which you don’t use child labor and people have the human right, the right to organize and unionize should be a human right; we push in China, we push anywhere else. You know, that kind of thing. But I’m just saying, Galbraith was so far ahead on this. But the other thing is, OK, so if you don’t have these jobs you still have the people. And then one reason you want to have good schools, and also schools that teach about life and citizenship and not just some trade that is needed at the moment. You know, that was the whole idea of public education and land-grant universities, but also free medical, decent medical system for people, and support for housing, and help subsidize housing, is–OK. If the high-price jobs have been taken by GE, you know, which had two-thirds of its jobs abroad, you have to do something for your own people. That’s what I think the democrats lost.
PE: I agree.
RS: And I want to give you a positive–I’m going to be a California chauvinist here for a minute.
RS: The fact is, the deepest blue state is California. And it wasn’t always blue; it gave us Richard Nixon, it gave us Ronald Reagan, it’s gone a lot of different ways and it’s had bad policies. But the fact is, and here my wife Narda Zacchino wrote a very good book on the California Rebound and Jerry Brown. And what she was able to document is that in California we followed a different model than the Clintons. And that actually was Jerry Brown, running against Clinton, when he was first running, who compared Clinton and Dole, and he said “it’s the evil of two lessers.” Was his thing.
RS: And here in California, and I’m not going to whitewash the whole thing; we have a big prison population, we have a lot of real problems. But on questions of undocumented workers, on trade unions, the SEIU, organizing hotel workers, and going back to the farm workers–on a whole series of issues, the Democratic Party in California is associated with progressive politics of the kind that you, I think, would support. And that is the split from the model of the National Democratic Party.
PE: Yes. But the very fact that it exists in California, that we’re not just talking about out in the blue sky somewhere, is really, really important. Because it’s a combination of who are the people that live in California–so that’s important–and there has been, particularly this time around, Jerry Brown has been important in a positive way. The legislature, I think, has moved in a good direction. And so without saying that everything is perfect, it’s been, this state has been moving in a kind of politics that I do think we should be trying to push, and argue for that around the country. And so that’s very, very important. This is a rich country. We’ve got a lot of resources. So we have the capacity to deal with the fact that we don’t have enough jobs, enough good jobs to go around. And as you say, we have that duty. And in fact, in terms of civic, having a sense of a real civic commitment, we absolutely should be doing all of that to get people maximum, to get their jobs paid as much as we can that works in the economy, and then look at the ways of supplementing incomes that we have the capacity. We even know things that we could do, in terms of child care, in terms of housing vouchers, things that add to–and of course what we did do with the Affordable Care Act and the new Medicaid is an example of that. It makes health better, but it also has an effect on people’s income. So we know how to do this; we have the capacity to do it; we need to have a politics that will let us do that.
RS: And if you don’t believe we can do it, you should read Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America. It’s a New Press book by Peter Edelman. And you have a really positive message in this book, and one statistic that caught my attention was that if we had any serious income redistribution, we could make everyone in the country middle-class. The resources are here. You know, it used to be the old fantasy, oh–redistribute the money, it doesn’t do anything, ‘cause you have, you know, there’s not enough at the top.Nowadays there’s a lot at the top; in fact, I think the last statistic I saw, there are three or four Silicon Valley people who have as much wealth as the bottom half of the country just by themselves, or you could throw in another two or three folks. And so suddenly, income redistribution is a big deal. And here in California–again, I don’t want to hold us up as the answer to everything, because we have a terrible prison population situation, and a lot of small towns up and down the state, their main living is imprisoning other Californians.
PE: Mm-hmm. I want to talk about that in a minute.
RS: Yeah. And we should talk about it. But I do want to say, take something like here in L.A. county and city, passing a serious increase in the minimum wage, not yet to the point of a living wage. And people have accepted; the restaurants haven’t gone out of business. You know, now I notice the Trump administration is trying to say, well, your tax will increase and your tips will blah, blah, blah. But the fact of the matter is, very prosperous, Los Angeles county, Los Angeles city, and the economy here is doing quite well compared to most others. And yet we’ve introduced already an increase in the minimum wage. And that’s the kind of thing you can do. The other thing your book stresses is these local politicians, mostly democrats, have sat silently–you have a few exceptions, the chief justice in Florida and a few others. But I was filled with outrage reading your book, because these are people we know, and–this is not Donald Trump. These are people who claim to have a conscience, and they sit there in a court and say, I want my money, where’s the money. That’s a judge saying this–where’s the money, and you’re going to go to jail. Why? Why? Why is somebody going to go to jail because they couldn’t pay a $100 fine and they don’t have a job? I mean, it’s outrageous! And you bring up the Bible, and your wife once quoting it. But the fact is, if there is a consistent message in, certainly, the New Testament, it is: You can’t do that. You can’t punish people for being poor. And again, as I said, Not a Crime to be Poor–the only thing wrong with this book is that title.
RS: You actually argue, we have made it a serious crime to be poor.
RS: And you will live a life of a criminal, you will be incarcerated, if you are poor. And it’s being administered by well-intentioned people. So I can–you know, people listening, call up your supervisor; probably a democrat, right? Call up your local supervisor, call up your city councilperson, right down there in the court system there on Spring Street or so forth. People are being incarcerated because they parked their car and the meter ran out and somehow that has now spiraled to dominate their life. But how much is owed by prisoners in this country now? It’s a huge–
PE: Yeah, $50 billion is the estimate.
RS: Well, spell out that statistic, and tell us a little more about the book and what you wanted to accomplish with it.
PE: Well, I wanted to do exactly what we’re doing in this conversation, which I appreciate. People should know about this. One of the things that I do here–
The statistic, give them the statistic.
Again, there’s 10 million people who owe court debt. And this has to be an estimate; they haven’t run it down to the ground. And they are, the amount that they owe is $50 billion total around the country. Two out of three people, either in jail or present right now, or out, owe money, owe court debt. And that’s two out of three of people who are connected to the jails and the prisons of our country. So it’s a very big deal. I mean, it’s big business. And it’s inexcusable. We have to say that in parts of the country, including here in California, which did bad–I mean, you know, to get to a point where you have 4 million people cumulative have lost their driver’s license–that’s terrible. But there is leadership now that’s going in another direction. For example, state senator Robert Hertzberg has been a leader, and people on the outside–
RS: That’s here in California.
PE: Yes, here in California. The Western Center on Law and Poverty has worked very, very hard on this. And every year for the last three or four years, the state as a consequence is gradually coming back from that terrible situation, and getting rid of the addiction, poisonous apple if you will, that they bit into some years back. And so this year there was another piece of legislation that says you cannot take away somebody’s license for not paying a fine. And of course all these things, so much of it has nothing to do with cars. And so there’s been, step by step, the number of people now who have suspended licenses is going down in this state.
RS: In California.
PE: In California. Are they moving this way in other states? Not so much. But Massachusetts is on the edge of a big, 150-page law that’s been passed by both the houses of their legislature. And shortly, we hope, we’ll see that kind of reform there. So, and we have leadership from chief justices, from other, from legislators in other states in the country, some conservative. People of both parties should be in favor of this, because among other things, when they throw people in jail–and this is true of mass incarceration generally, and as you know, the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are, actually want to reduce the number of people who are in prisons. Why? Because it’s wasting money! It’s not a moral thing.
RS: [omission] What’s depressing about your book–and again, I’m using the word depressing not to get people to avoid the book, but they need to know about it. And because you have so many examples of the tragedy visited upon–just think, anyone listening to this, just think, OK. You’ve gone to your car–I did this with John Burton, who was the head of the Democratic Party, and we were in San Francisco, and we went to his car and there’s a ticket. And oh, damn, another what, $80, $90 fine. Well, as he said, OK, I can pay it, you know. But he had the good sense to say, what if this happens to somebody who’s cleaning my house right now, and they just didn’t get back there in time, you know. And it’s that tough-love program. You also connect it with broken windows, another policing program to harass–you know, “We haven’t been tough enough on poor people, we haven’t been tough enough, they need more moral fibre.” And that has all backfired. The fact of the matter is, you can destroy people. And you know, they got their kids, they got to, try to do things, but they get out there–and think about it. That $100 ticket, you know, is not the same for a city councilperson as it is for somebody cleaning that city council person’s house. You know, that suddenly destroys their whole budget. That means they’re going to miss the rent payment, you know?
PE: Yeah. I guess I’m saying two things that are a little bit conflicting. Because on the one hand, this is a very, very serious problem. We’ve got people who are working to change things. We need the public to now about all this. I think we do have a movement about mass incarceration now, and we need to be doing the same thing about this. So when I tell you there are people who are making a difference about these things in various states, I don’t want to say, oh, well, we solved it–absolutely not. We need to get public support understanding how widespread this is, and it’s not just in the South in some red, red, red state; that it’s in the state of Washington, that it’s in Wisconsin, that it’s in Massachusetts; a lot of parts of the country that have this. So the message has to get to ordinary people to speak up. Now, people here in California did Prop 47, and that was organizing. That was the people, the people legislating. And it’s made a terrific difference. It’s not all the way there–
RS: Well, tell us about it.
PE: Well, Prop 47 changes a whole bunch of crimes that misdemeanors end up not being crimes at all, or just civil violations. And the consequence of that is both retroactively, the people who had already gone through it, but they have the collateral consequences if they don’t, if they don’t get the expungement or actually the use of this law; we really are shrinking the number of people who are in the jails and prisons with that. Well, that’s something that–
RS: In this state, but let me–
PE: In this state, yes.
RS: Let me–
PE: And, but she, Lenore Anderson, who’s the organizer, she’s going around the country now looking for, as we’re talking here today, find ten more states to work in and organize and get the people there, do the same thing that was done, the good thing that was done. It’s not the end. And by the way, you do decarceration, the people are out there on the streets; we need jobs, we need housing, we need mental health services. So it doesn’t stop with emptying or lowering the number of people who are in the jails and prisons; we’ve got to do the whole thing.
RS: You wonder whether the very soul of the society has now turned so harsh–and now you have, let me be, do a little bit of Trump-bashing. You have a president who actually celebrates cruelty and indifference–
RS: –and contempt for the “other,” you know. And but on a much more subtle basis, all of us who work in a city like Los Angeles or San Francisco, they may–it’s amazing to me. I teach at a university and then I go two miles to where I live–I’m going through Calcutt at its worst in the old days. I mean, I’m going–you’re seeing humanity out on the streets in the most horrible of circumstance. And I think we’ve been a little bit too kind about the anti-Trump side, you know. Because I think the indifference of the Clinton administration and the new democrats to what was happening, and to caring about people, and the celebration of the affluent, of Wall Street and turning to these folks on Wall Street–we created a situation over the last 40 years of increased income disparity, but startling, of shrinking programs that help people. You know, and Trump is the result. And I’m frightened–you’re a very knowledgeable person–I’m frightened that the answer after Trump on the other side is a kind of fascism. It’s coercive state power, that imprisonment is an aspect of it, and just to get rid of people who are an inconvenience; you don’t need them for your factories. Isn’t there something quite ominous in the air?
PE: There is. There is, and people have to fight back. They did with regard to the Affordable Care Act and the new Medicaid; we’ll see where that ends up. But that was democracy from the streets, from at home, telling them: Don’t do this. I say we have demographics over the period of, the next period of time that can be on our side. If we organize, we’ve got people who have the vote, if they will use it; they have to have a sense that it’s worth going out and voting, which is a responsibility of leadership to say that. But at the same time, we have to give credit where it’s due. Here, in this city of Los Angeles, there’s a lot of things, I hear you; but there’s a lot of good things happening, both in the county and the city, in the leadership. What’s being done now to make an effort on homelessness, which is such a terrible problem here in Los Angeles, and to work on mental health in the jail; it shouldn’t be in the jail at all, but it is happening in a positive way. So there are things happening. We have to give credit for that. This is not something that is just 100% terrible and we have to start from zero; that’s not where we are. So we have to keep both of those ideas in mind.
RS: You know, it’s interesting. I first interviewed you, I guess it was back in ‘67 or ‘68 when you were working with Bobby Kennedy. And there’s a tension in the conversation; I can’t say that you’re wrong or I’m right; I can’t, I can’t. Because you worked within the system, you know. And you tried to make it work, and I’ve been more or less the critic from outside. And I was wrong about Bobby; I have to say this. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I didn’t give Bobby Kennedy enough credit for having, you know, had a revolution of the soul. When he saw how people lived, and when he visited, you know, migrant camps, and when he visited Native Americans and so forth, there was a transformation in the man. And I was maybe too–not maybe, I was too cynical in appraising that. And actually now, I’m in the position of wondering, where can we get another Bobby Kennedy? You know, where can you get this kind of leadership? Where can we get another Peter Edelman? You know, I’m really worried. I mean, your alma mater, Harvard, has–I spoke there at the Kennedy School. I said, how did this place become such a den of iniquity? You know, look–you know, in your book, you point out, white collar crime is not punished. These people have impoverished millions with their shenanigans on Wall Street; no accountability whatsoever. But somebody misses a payment on their car fine, and they’re going to be incarcerated and end up for five years in the long run and a whole life of criminalization. So I think of this elite institution, and it’s the last point I want to end with you on. You have all the credits. You’re, what are you now, you’re the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at [Georgetown.] [Laughter] You’ve had many distinguished jobs, you know. We ain’t gettin’ any younger; you’re pushing 80 here now. So I’m a little worried we may lose folks like you, and–
PE: [Laughs] But let me tell you, my students–and you see this, you see the people who go to be the civil legal aid lawyers, ‘cause I’m a lawyer guy, and the public defenders, and people who work on these policy things. There are wonderful younger people, young and younger people, who are doing all of this. This is the hope. There is–I mean, first of all, you’re making me way more important, and so on and so on, and I appreciate that. But we have a next group of people who are coming along here, who are our hope. And they do exist, and they’re out there fighting for justice.
RS: I am worried that–I’m not making you too important, I’m worried about why over these last 40 years, when the Democratic Party, as much as the, or in cooperation with the Republican Party, oversaw a situation of increased income inequality, neglect the ordinary people, outsourcing the jobs to the rest of the world, which would be fine if those people were making a decent living in these other countries and so forth. I mean, total contempt, really. And this comes through your book; I mean, I’m not editorializing. It’s what your book really lays out, because the people running these court systems and everything, they’re as often democrats as republicans. And something terrible has happened, and you document it in your two latest books. And what I’m concerned about is that maybe you are–and your wife Marian Wright Edelman, and OK, we’ll take it down to your grandchildren, maybe it’s an exceptional family, and maybe where your law students are. But when I look at the major universities in this country and the people who go to Wall Street, the statistics are there. And the great skills that they’ve learned at these law schools and everywhere else are put to the service of people who are, to use your word, fleecing the rest of us. These are schemes that are scandalous. I mean, you know, the collateralized debt obligations that Bill Clinton endorsed while the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and the financial services–these were get-out-of-jail-free passes for people who should be regarded as criminals. I mean, that’s the way I look at it. We said something nice about Robert Rubin before, but my God, he and Lawrence Summers and this whole cast of characters. And so my concern is, as I ride home in the car now I’ll be thinking, wait a minute; this guy’s great. And Peter Edelman’s great, and Marian Wright Edelman’s great, and great, great, great. But when it really comes to criticizing the Democratic Party, didn’t we in that interview go a little bit too easy on them? Because after all, it was, if you want to trace this trajectory of criminalization of the poor, of neglect for the poor, of concentration of power, of increase income inequality, which are the themes that run through your last two books, OK–it wasn’t done under Donald Trump. Now, he’ll make it worse for sure. It was done under the people that we like to have dinner with, and that we have voted for and we have supported. Isn’t that really the depressing story here?
PE: I guess I think a little bit differently. Because I agree with all of that; I wrote what I think, and I continue to write what I think. But I also think about how do we move forward, and how do we change all of that. And we have to–I have to have the belief, and I do have the belief, that it’s possible to make a difference, and that we can go in a different direction. And in fact we have the possibilities, in the demographics of our country and in the young people of our country, and that the politics can be changed and that these issues, these damages, these awful things that are happening can be changed.
RS: Well, there is an American original. And I applaud your consistent pursuit of this, your optimism, and you know, I hope it’s valid, because otherwise we’re finished. [Laughs] And we are finished with this interview. I want to thank Peter Edelman for being willing to do this. 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.