The Way of RFK

Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope, Peter Edelman. Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $26.00.

Peter Edelman views the last decades of twentieth-century American social policy through a unique lens. As an aide to New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then as policy director for Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, Edelman watched and participated in Kennedy's transformation into a powerful political warrior against poverty and injustice. Three decades later, he was serving Bill Clinton as assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) when Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation that cut many poor American families off at the knees. In signing the legislation, Clinton quoted Robert Kennedy: "Work 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."

Edelman's loyalty to the administration ended with that stroke of Clinton's pen. He resigned soon after the signing, earning some brief measure of national attention. The fact that Clinton used the words of RFK as a benediction for an action undercutting 60 years of Democratic Party commitment to the poor became a burr under Edelman's saddle. He spent the next several years examining the impact welfare reform had on the poor and writing this book to set the record straight. Indeed, the first two-thirds of the book serves as the social policy equivalent of "I knew Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was a friend of mine. You're no Bobby Kennedy."

There are, of course, similarities between Clinton and RFK. Both connected emotionally with large parts of the electorate. Both seemed to feel the pain of people who were marginalized during decades of relative prosperity. Both saw themselves as outsiders. Clinton was raised by a working-class mother under difficult circumstances. Kennedy, a son of privilege, is characterized by Evan Thomas in his recent biography (Robert Kennedy: His Life) as the runt of the family, the mama's boy in a family dominated by its patriarch, the self-doubting introvert in a family of overreaching extroverts. And maybe most important for the argument of the book, both Kennedy and Clinton were political leaders who voiced doubts about our system of welfare and extolled the value of work.

Edelman is determined to show where the similarities end. Most volumes in the pantheon of Robert Kennedy biographies chart his growth and transformation from insulated rich kid to the political daredevil diving into the mosh pit of enthusiastic campaign crowds--from the aide to Joe McCarthy to the senator sitting down with children on the floor of a sharecropper's house in Mississippi. They exist along a continuum from the nonbelieving Ronald Steel [see Victor Navasky, "What Would Bobby Do?" TAP, February 28, 2000] to the still-believing hagiographers. Edelman's book can be grouped with those that show RFK as an increasingly powerful force for justice and the poor who was cut down before his vision could be realized. While giving Lyndon Johnson a good deal of credit for the federal commitment to combat poverty (to a degree unusual for a member of the Kennedy camp), Edelman writes, "No high public official was more at the forefront of thinking and action about poverty than Robert Kennedy."

He documents Kennedy's firsthand investigation of hunger and poverty as a senator, including his visits to Mississippi, Appalachia, and California, where he met with farmworkers. As a result, Congress appropriated more money to fight hunger, and food stamp regulations were rewritten to provide greater access for those at the lowest income levels. Edelman reports how Senator Kennedy goaded colleagues and corporations into helping establish the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in New York to support housing rehabilitation, mortgage financing, and small-business loans in order to revive the inner city.

At the same time, cracks were beginning to appear in the 30-year congressional allegiance to welfare programs begun in the New Deal. Kennedy was among those questioning the over-dependence of some recipients on government and extolling the virtues of work. He hammered away at the need to create jobs "with possibilities for further education and advancement." Edelman takes pains to show that Kennedy's advocacy of employment did not make him a harbinger of the 1996 welfare reform legislation.

But it's easy to see how, as LBJ's Great Society met the escalating war in Vietnam, some may have worried about Kennedy's welfare message. In May of 1967, under the headline "Kennedy Assails Welfare System," The New York Times re-ported on a speech in which Kennedy described welfare and other assistance to the poor as a "system of handouts, a second-rate set of social services, which damages and demeans its recipients." New York's other senator, Jacob Javits, warned that such talk might "get [welfare] thrown out right now."

For the first time in years, that seemed almost a possibility. The costs of the war in Vietnam were mounting. Republicans had gained seats in both houses of Congress in the 1966 election. In 1967 the House gutted Lyndon Johnson's proposed welfare legislation. His plan required states to fund welfare based on a standard of need that would be adjusted annually to the cost of living. But LBJ's proposal was hijacked by a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats, who favored freezing the percentage of children receiving federal funds in each state. For the first time, work requirements were written into the bill, even for women who had never previously been employed, at a time when women comprised a much smaller percentage of the workforce. The legislation did provide payment for day care services and other benefits, but at the time it was a great leap backward.

Kennedy drafted several amendments: proposals requiring minimum wages for welfare recipients who found work, exemptions for mothers with children at home, and inclusion of two-parent families. All of his amendments died along the way. With the emergence of the conference report on the bill, Kennedy spoke on the floor of the Senate, arguing that the measure seemed "to punish the poor because they are there and we have not been able to do anything about them... . We will never succeed in restoring dignity and promise to the lives of people ... until we develop a system which provides jobs... . Welfare is neither the cause nor the remedy. But welfare has its role: helping those in need." Kennedy was one of 14 senators who voted against the final legislation. He continued to advocate for job creation, family support, and a welfare safety net.

Then the assassination in Los Angeles. And the election of Richard Nixon. What a falling off there was. With one hand, Nixon signed legislation to expand the Food Stamp Program, to index Social Security to inflation, and to expand Medicaid and Medicare funding, while with the other he was dismantling the War on Poverty. The inner city and welfare recipients became favorite political targets. Rising oil prices and the dramatic changes in the world economy during the 1970s led Congress and successive administrations to draw the belt ever tighter around public-assistance programs--from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Government began to back away from its responsibility for the welfare of the poorest citizens.

With Clinton newly elected, Edelman was recruited to work under Donna Shalala at HHS. He was inclined to be optimistic that poverty would once again find its place on the public agenda. Though Edelman knew about Clinton's record as a southern governor and leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, he also recalled Hillary Clinton's work with the Children's Defense Fund, which was led by Edelman's wife, Marion Wright Edelman. Clinton had campaigned on a vow to "end welfare as we know it"; still, Edelman thought he was "demagoguing the issue a bit, but I felt I knew him and that he was not being destructive... . I thought the unspoken premise was that if the promised public jobs weren't created, people could continue to receive cash assistance."

Edelman soon found out that his hopes for an antipoverty agenda were going to be disappointed. As part of the 1993 budget reconciliation bill, the administration was able to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit given to low-income workers. The Clinton welfare reform proposal, though stalled in part by the health insurance donnybrook, emerged in 1994. It was the product of the ongoing battle within the Clinton administration between the social policy progressives and the deficit-reduction hawks. As a result, it was a fairly conservative expansion of the 1988 Family Support Act, which had been backed by many Republicans. It included time limits on welfare benefits, although these were coupled with the understanding that people would receive cash assistance if they were still out of work and weren't provided with a public works job. It would not have meant the end of welfare as we knew it. And the proposal didn't become law. Instead, the Newt Gingrich revolution of 1994 intervened.

With House Speaker Gingrich saying that children should be taken from parents too irresponsible to land a job, the Republican House crafted a bill that virtually eliminated the federal safety net for poor children and their families. Edelman characterizes Clinton's response to the act as "wimpy": The president picked around the edges of the worst parts of the legislation but never directly attacked its basic premise--that government was no longer responsible for its citizens in greatest need. In the fall of 1995, Clinton did veto a version of the legislation that had come out of the conference committee far to the right of the Senate version that had gone in.

But in the summer of 1996, as he ran for reelection, Clinton agreed to sign the reconfigured Republican legislation. (This, after his 1996 State of the Union address, in which he declared, "The era of big government is over.") The welfare legislation placed strict time limits on benefits, denied most federal benefits to legal immigrants, made large cuts in nutrition-and-feeding programs, strictly limited food stamp eligibility, and provided no assistance to children whose families crossed the welfare time limit. States were no longer required by the federal government to help needy children.

Edelman writes that Donna Shalala, Robert Rubin, Robert Reich, Henry Cisneros, Leon Panetta, Harold Ickes, and George Stephanopoulos argued for a veto, while Al Gore, Mickey Kantor, and Dick Morris urged Clinton to sign the legislation. When he signed, Edelman writes, Clinton "broke faith with America's children."

Many states took advantage of the legislation's "caseload reduction credit," which allowed them to cut off welfare recipients in order to meet funding targets, regardless of whether these recipients were able to find work--and which sent many families into free fall. Stricter requirements also led a number of states to pull food stamp and Medicaid support from previously eligible families.

Edelman spends the last third of his book discussing the victims of this legislation. The good news is that during the virtually uninterrupted period of economic expansion that marked the Clinton presidency, the number of Americans living in poverty was reduced by seven million. From a high of 14.4 million in 1994, the number of people on welfare dropped by more than 50 percent. Yet during this era of prosperity, the gap between rich and poor increased markedly. The poorest are getting poorer, and this largely can be attributed to welfare reform. Between 1996 and 1998, the poorest 10 percent of single mothers lost 14 percent of their income; whatever they gained in earnings was less than what they lost in welfare and food stamps. In 1998 the number of heads of households who worked full time but could not get their families out of poverty was the highest it had been in a quarter-century. Of the more than seven million people who have left the welfare rolls, one million adults (mostly women) and two million children are members of families that have not moved up. They have moved down the economic ladder and are without assistance or work--people Edelman calls "the disappeared."

Clinton apologists point to the fact that Clinton was able to remove welfare and poverty as favorite targets for the right. Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council told The New York Times that crime and welfare debates were surrogates for debates on race and that "by taking both of them away as political issues, we did a lot of good for minorities and low-income communities." In the process, however, poverty and the poor have virtually fallen off the political agenda.

Edelman was determined to document the situations of the newly "disappeared." He reports the stories of several women he met while visiting transitional shelters across the country. He found women turning to prostitution to feed their children, women whose food stamps were cut off, and increasing numbers of malnourished children at the Boston Medical Center. He found a declining commitment to public institutions of all kinds. "Public schools, public welfare, public hospitals, and public housing," he writes, "are all in egregiously worse shape when their clients are people of color, and the remedies that are fashionable today tend to put a wrecking ball to the institutions rather than pursuing the more complicated task of setting things right."

To right this situation, Edelman calls for a comprehensive system of support similar to Robert Kennedy's prescription for ending poverty: a safety net for the poor, to provide food, housing, and health care; the creation of jobs at living wages; job training; community empowerment; and better schools. Nothing new, particularly. Nothing that would have been considered off base in the age of Robert Kennedy. But unfortunately, even in this age of plenty, such a program seems highly improbable given the fact that the "compassionate conservatism" of the incoming president seems to reach no further than the church soup kitchen. Coming from a state infamous for it parsimonious treatment of the poor, Bush fought the Texas legislature in an attempt to impose stricter limits on the eligibility of poor children for health coverage. He lost the fight, and then during his campaign took credit for the increase in child health funding. The work to put the needs of the poor back in front of the public will have to come from the grass roots. With Tommy Thompson as Bush's handpicked secretary of health and human services, it won't be coming from Washington. Thompson made his reputation as a Wisconsin governor who cut public assistance and reduced the number of families on welfare in his state by 84 percent. Given current policy, when the proclivities of the new administration meet the rising unemployment of an economic downturn, many more Americans could suddenly find themselves without any kind of safety net. And in 2002, when the welfare law comes up for reauthorization, the Bush team will have a chance to turn the screws tighter.

Edelman wants more than a change of programs. He calls for a change of heart. And it's Robert Kennedy's heart that he is seeking. In his RFK biography, Evan Thomas wonders whether Kennedy would have succeeded with an increasingly fearful and conservative electorate and won the presidency in 1968. Would his political courage and willingness to face the country's most difficult problems--poverty, war, racial inequality--have led this country in a different direction or would it have foundered? Thomas concludes that, in such a difficult time, failure was a likely outcome. But "had [Kennedy] failed, he would have failed trying his utmost to lift up the poor and the weak." What Edelman asks for is a government that once again believes "we can do better." What we may be getting is a government that will do much worse. ?

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