Event Summary:

Peter Edelman presented his book “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America” at the Rumi Forum. Famously known for his resignation from the Clinton administration in protest against the Welfare law of 1996, Edelman is widely considered an expert on poverty. During the event, Edelman described the dominant themes of his book and answered several questions regarding the issue of poverty in the United States of America.

Edelman begins by acknowledging the positive progress the United States and its government have achieved over the years. From 1959, the year we began to measure poverty, to 1973, the national rate of poverty was cut in half, down to 11%. Edelman emphasizes that while the media and public opinion tend to create a pessimistic discourse, the U.S. government has engaged in tremendous efforts to tackle poverty for many years. In fact, as of today, through the use of food stamps and safety nets, 40 million people are kept out of poverty in the United States.

The professor then shifts his focus towards the remaining problem of poverty in America, and the factors that cause it, seeing as more than 46 million people currently still find themselves in poverty in the United States. Edelman explains that “lots of things go into making poverty, but if you have to name one thing it would be low wage work.” The professor reminds that 60% of families stuck below the poverty line have at least one worker among them. This phenomenon, later referred by the moderator as “an oxymoron” demonstrates the importance of low-wage work in creating poverty. In fact, half of the jobs in America pay the minimum wage. Minimum-wage is simply not high enough to raise a family and take care of basic human necessities.

Despite the overarching issue of low-wage work, Edelman emphasizes other socio-economic aspects of American society that create poverty. For example, in the last few decades, the “economy changed”, and the manufacturing industry, which the United States’ economy historically relied on, slowly transitioned to more competitive countries. This externalization of jobs has caused growing unemployment.  The cost of higher education has also skyrocketed, widening the gap between higher and lower classes. The lack of education of the bottom class is even more problematic seeing as nowadays “you can’t drop out of high school and go work in a windmill”. In the 21st century, Edelman reminds that obtaining higher education is a significant pre-requisite to enter the job market.

Family structure also plays a significant part, according to Edelman, seeing as the number of children growing up without one of their parents has been increasing. This is particularly problematic with single mothers who find themselves unable to both raise their children and work at full-time employment. In fact, Edelman reminds that “the question of low wage work is mostly an issue involving women and children.” Race and gender are also influential factors, seeing as Edelman emphasizes that “you cannot talk about poverty without mentioning these two factors.”

Edelman concludes that, while poverty is growing, the richest are getting richer, even in times of crisis. The issue of poverty and growing inequalities should however not just be tackled by governmental policies, seeing as many progresses can be made at the grassroots level. Moreover, Edelman emphasizes that the debate needs to be restructured towards the points previously made, rather than what the government and media have been focusing on for the past few years.


Book Summary:

If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor?

So Rich So Poor

In this provocative book, lifelong antipoverty advocate Peter Edelman offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle. The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top.

So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics, and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood. This is crucial reading for anyone who wants to understand the most critical American dilemma of the twenty-first century.

“A national treasure composed by a wise man.”

George McGovern, former US Senator

“If there is one essential book on the great tragedy of poverty and inequality in America, this is it. Peter Edelman is masterful on the issue [and] makes a brilliantly compelling case for what can and must be done.”

Bob Herbert, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and formed Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times

“An accessible and inspiring analysis. I urge all who are committed to ending poverty and to creating a brighter tomorrow to read this book.”

Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO, Policy Link

“This book says, in a very clear and readable way, a great deal about poverty in America that needs to be said. [Peter Edelman’s long experience in Washington gives him a unique historical perspective that provides important insights for policy makers and socially conscious citizens today.] ”

Henry A. Waxman, US Congressman

Bobby believed that, “as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” Much has changed in forty-five years, but as Peter eloquently reminds us, far too many Americans remain trapped in the web of economic injustice. His compassionate and singular voice awakens our conscience and calls us to action.

Ethel Kennedy


Peter Edelman is a Professor of Law at Georgetown Law Center. On the faculty since 1982, he has also served in all three branches of government. During President Clinton’s first term he was Counselor to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and then Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Earlier in his career he was a Legislative Assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Issues Director for Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1980 Presidential campaign. He also served as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, special assistant to Assistant Attorney General John Douglas at the US Department of Justice, vice-president of the University of Massachusetts, and Director of the New York State Division for Youth. Mr. Edelman’s new book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, was published by The New Press in the spring of 2012.