Q+A with Peter Edelman

By Alanna Vaughns, August 24, 2015 - 10:52am

"There are people around our country who are treating low income people with respect and working on not just the structural problems of our labor market and our schools and our housing and our mass incarceration. There are things that people are doing effectively to build human capital - to help people get from here to there within the context of those structural problems."

Peter Edelman is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University and author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. Last week Mr. Edelman spent time with Community Solutions’ Brownsville Partnership to learn more about our approach to revitalizing low-income neighborhoods and to share his experience.

Our Communications Manager for the Neighborhood Initiatives, Alanna Vaughns, caught up with Mr. Edelman to learn more about his views on poverty in the United States, understand what he believes can be done on a neighborhood level, and to see what he thinks about Community Solutions’ approach to strengthening neighborhoods.

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AV: Your book - starting with its title - speaks to the fact that we live in a country defined by both its incredible wealth and incredible poverty. Given our nation’s abundant resources, what is it that is currently holding us back from confronting and really squashing this extreme inequality?

PE: I think what’s holding us back in the United States the most right now is our politics. Why do we tolerate as a country that there are a few people who control so much wealth and income and a huge number of people who are either in poverty or have very low wage jobs and struggle to make ends meet? That is a structural question, but the most immediate questions are how we can intensify people’s political activities to make a difference in who represents them at all levels of government and at the same time intensify their efforts to do everything they can to improve quality of life in their communities.

AV: What has brought you to Brownsville, Brooklyn and Community Solutions’ Brownsville Partnership? How do you see this larger conversation about poverty in America playing out right here?

PE: I am writing a new book which is about two things. One is about the criminalization of poverty, which is also a racial question. To some extent there is an implicit bias and sometimes overt discrimination that piles discrimination on top of the disproportionate poverty among people of color. And that’s the first part of the book. And the other part is why I’m here. There are people around our country who are treating low income people with respect and working on not just the structural problems of our labor market and our schools and our housing and our mass incarceration. There are things that people are doing effectively to build human capital - to help people get from here to there within the context of those structural problems. And, specifically, I am here to understand better the work of Community Solutions and the work of the Brownsville Partnership and the Hartford Partnership.  I wanted to see for myself the work that is going on.

AV: What do you believe are some of the key concerns that need to be addressed in order to start meaningful, productive conversation about a neighborhood like Brownsville that has largely been defined by a narrative of hopelessness?

PE: We do need, in a variety of ways that Brownsville can’t solve by itself, structural changes. We need to tackle as a country the fact that there are so many low wage jobs. How do we make up for that in income supports? We have to have school reform. We have to tackle the mass incarceration in our country. We have to tackle the shortage in affordable housing. 

Some of those things are hard for any one neighborhood to affect but there are things that can be done within the framework in the moment to help people get jobs that are available. One specific possibility is that we can work to help people get new jobs that will be created under the Affordable Care Act and the new Medicaid. We can help people who are on the edge of homelessness to hold onto their housing and not be thrown out. We can build community within a neighborhood with resources that are available to bring people together and to give them a sense of efficacy within their own community. All those things can happen in Brownsville with leadership within the community and people in the community who get more involved and active.

AV: What is your impression of Community Solutions’ approach to tackling concentrated poverty?

PE: Community Solutions, talking about its track record over a long period of time, of course has done a phenomenal job of creating supportive housing all over the country. But then Rosanne [Haggerty, president of Community Solutions,] and everybody involved saw the importance of thinking in a community building framework. So it’s not either or. It’s both and. It’s continuing to create supportive housing but secondly to demonstrate in Brownsville and in Hartford that it's possible to empower people starting economically but simultaneously doing community building.

It’s exciting to come to Brownsville and see what Community Solutions and the people in the [Brownsville] Partnership are doing. Some of it’s already visible out there in the neighborhood. And over the next months and years we’ll see the concrete results of pursuing the significant goal of getting people who live in Brownsville and in Hartford to get to work or get better jobs.

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