On Tuesday, November 12th, Georgetown Law Professor and self described ACS “lifer” Peter Edelman spoke to students about poverty and policy in the United States. His talk, aptly titled “Is Paul Ryan Right? Did we really waste $19 trillion on the poor?” gave students a glimpse into the policy decisions made over the last fifty years that have, in fact, not been a waste at all. He predicts that with the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty approaching, progressives should prepare for more conservative attacks on the efficacy and justification of poverty targeted policy.
Edelman presented key points that progressives should adopt to refute the imminent attack. First he pointed out that the “$19 trillion” figure is inaccurate; the number is much lower, approximating $900 billion. Half of this money has gone to health care, which has not been wasted; we’ve seen the public benefits of this spending, supporting millions through Medicare and Medicaid and decreasing the U.S. infant mortality rate. Only $300 billion has gone toward direct anti-poverty spending, and the majority of people received this support as a supplement to their working income. These policies have cut number of poor people in half and have especially impacted minorities. The accusation that the War on Poverty has been a “waste” is untrue.
So the next question is, why are 46 million people still poor? Edelman confesses that policy makers didn’t foresee some of the major changes the country would undergo in the next several decades. The transition to a low-wage, service-based workforce, changes in family structure, and emergence of concentrated urban/place-based poverty produced new challenges that we were ill-prepared to address. He believes recent dismantling of public benefits, such as welfare reform in 1996, is to blame for the much of the extreme poverty today. To address poverty he particularly advocates for quality public high school education and fixing the school to prison pipeline. Law students are in the best position to continue the legacy of the War on Poverty and push for policy that will support the poor instead of setting us back further. He ended with a quote from Rabbi Heschel: “We’re not all guilty, but we are all responsible.”