SEARCHING FOR AMERICA'S HEART
review by Hal Jacobs
Why are people so angry at the poor?
Is it because the poor refuse to help themselves? Because they refuse to work and discipline their children? Because they would rather loaf on welfare than go out and earn some self-respect?
Or does the real reason go beyond the simplistic rhetoric of talk radio, as Peter Edelman suggests in Searching for America's Heart, a moving and insightful look at poverty, attitudes and social programs in the United States.
According to Edelman, the middle class is so angry at the poor because they are working so hard themselves and still find themselves slipping behind.
Edelman has worked in the trenches of social programs for 30 years, most recently as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration. He has seen firsthand how attitudes have changed toward the poor. In this part memoir, part analysis, he writes about the heady days in the '60s when welfare reform meant building a better system that emphasized the interconnectivity of jobs, safe housing conditions and community involvement.
Leading the charge was Robert Kennedy, whom Edelman served first as a legislative assistant and then as issues director during the 1968 presidential campaign.
"RFK always saw poverty through the lens of children and young people," Edelman writes. "His understanding and commitment were as much in his gut and heart as in his intellect."
That positive energy, however, soon broke apart in political turf wars and dissipated completely in the era of political assassinations, Nixon and the Vietnam War, and the economic recession of the early '70s. In the Reagan years, compassion gave way to political meanness masked by Reagan's charm.
Edelman describes his high hopes for Bill Clinton's new brand of idealism when the Arkansas governor came to office in 1992. But instead of leaving office with a Kennedy-type legacy, Clinton opted for political survival. In 1996, he signed a bill that stripped away federal safeguards for children that were put in place more than 60 years ago by Franklin Roosevelt. Edelman resigned a few days later and now works as a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
In the second half of the book, Edelman lays out a proposal for a new politics based on fairness. For instance, he recommends a "safety net" that would ensure people receive a decent income from work, health coverage and help with child care.
The safety net would benefit not only the poor, but also the millions who are struggling to make a decent living on minimum-wage jobs. To back up his proposal, Edelman profiles a few praiseworthy community projects and interviews several women who have left welfare and are coping with inadequate wages and underfunded social programs.
Edelman occasionally writes like a policy wonk. But when he writes about his personal experiences, his story is an inspiring portrait of a public servant who believes government can, and should, make a difference in people's lives.
Ultimately, the book raises questions that linger. What happens to a wealthy society when compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged is seen as a sign of weakness? Or when cynicism replaces hope?
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from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2001