* Board member of the Center for Community Change, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Public Welfare Foundation, and the American Constitution Society
* Former board member of the Center for Community Change
* Former trustee with the Center for American Progress
* Former advisory council member with J Street
* Law professor at Georgetown University
* Strongly opposed the 1996 welfare-reform bill
Born on January 9, 1938, Peter B. Edelman was raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After earning a joint degree in law and public policy from Harvard University, he clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Henry Friendly (1961-62) and Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg (1962-63). From 1963-64 Edelman worked in the U.S. Justice Department for Assistant Attorney General John Douglas, and from 1964-68 he was a legislative assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In 1968 Edelman married Marian Wright [Edelman], who would establish the Children’s Defense Fund five years later.
From 1972-75, Peter Edelman was vice president of the University of Massachusetts, and from 1975-79 he directed the New York State Division for Youth. Also in the Seventies, Edelman served as chairman of the New World Foundation, a position later held by Hillary Clinton.
In 1980 Edelman was hired as the issues director for Senator Edward Kennedy‘s presidential campaign.
In 1982 Edelman became a professor at Georgetown Law School, where he was still active as of 2022.
In the early 1990s, Edelman took a temporary leave of absence from Georgetown in order to serve as counselor to President Bill Clinton‘s Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and then as the Clinton administration’s Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.
Edelman was a passionate critic of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which was intended to move large numbers of people off the welfare rolls and into paid employment. According to Edelman, this welfare-reform proposal would not only deprive the poor of a vital safety net, but would also increase poverty rates by pushing many single mothers into low-paying jobs. After President Clinton signed the bill into law in August 1996, Edelman characterized it as an act of “war on the poor of the United States,” and “the worst thing” Clinton had done during his presidency. The following month, Edelman resigned from the Clinton administration to protest the bill’s passage. (For details of the legislation’s actual effects on America’s poor, click here.)
Notwithstanding his disagreement with President Clinton regarding welfare reform, Edelman in 1998 joined 429 fellow law professors, including such notables as Laurence Tribe and Cass Sunstein, in signing a letter to Congress expressing opposition to Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice.
In September 2002, Edelman participated in a Democratic Socialists of America event in Washington, DC, along with such notables as political science professor Frances Fox Piven, Lawrence Mishel (executive director of the Economic Policy Institute), and Tom Woodruff, (executive vice president of the SEIU).
In 2005 Edelman served as a trustee with the Center for American Progress.
In October 2006, Edelman lent his name to a letter rebutting accusations that MoveOn.org was an anti-Semitic entity. Fellow signers included Eric Alterman, Heather Booth, Todd Gitlin, and Michael Lerner, among others. The controversy over MoveOn had begun when that organization cited, approvingly, a CounterPunch piece depicting American Jews as dual loyalists who, when evaluating government policies, consider Israel’s interests as much as America’s.
Just prior to an October 2007 Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, Edelman was a signatory to a letter addressed to President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A joint initiative of the New America Foundation, the International Crisis Group, and the U.S./Middle East Project, this letter urged the U.S. government to engage in open dialogue with the genocidal terrorist organization Hamas; called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state; advised that Jerusalem be divided along religious and ethnic lines, “with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty”; and exhorted the White House to address “the Palestinian refugees’ deep sense of injustice” by providing them with “meaningful financial compensation.” Other noteworthy signers of this letter included Joseph Wilson and Morton Halperin.
In December 2009, Edelman co-authored (along with Barbara Ehrenreich, Deepak Bhargava, John Cavanagh, and others) an Institute for Policy Studies report titled “Battered by the Storm,” documenting “the government’s inadequate response to the human suffering caused by the [economic] recession.”
In a June 2012 article titled “The State of Poverty in America,” Edelman blamed the nation’s allegedly systemic racism for the disproportionately high rates of poverty experienced by nonwhite minorities. “[W]e must face more squarely that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are all poor at almost three times the rate of whites and ask why that continues to be true,” he wrote. “We need as a nation to be more honest about who it is that suffers most from terrible schools and the way we lock people up. Poverty most definitely cuts across racial lines, but it doesn’t cut evenly.”
In July 2012, Edelman wrote a New York Times opinion piece identifying four major reasons why poverty in the U.S. had not declined appreciably during the preceding four decades: (a) the “astonishing number of people” who work at low-wage jobs; (b) the large number of single-parent households; (c) “the near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children—i.e., welfare”; and (d) discrimination against nonwhite minorities, who comprised a disproportionate percentage of the poor.
In that same opinion piece, Edelman’s prescription for poverty was straightforward and concise: “[M]ake the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, [and] provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like.” With Democrat President Barack Obama‘s re-election bid against Republican challenger Mitt Romney less than three months away — the question of whether American voters preferred an ever-growing welfare state or a free-market economy was becoming increasingly significant. Regarding the tension between those two distinct value systems, Edelman wrote: “A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed.”
Edelman’s 2012 book—So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America—took up a similar theme. Asserting that “the wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else,” the book suggested that a key strategy for “attacking inequality” would be to “roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.” Some additional noteworthy excerpts:
In 2017, The News Press published Edelson’s book Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.
In November 2017, Edelman published an article titled “How It Became a Crime to Be Poor in Trump’s America,” wherein he claimed that the tax cuts of the Reagan era had laid the groundwork for an epoch wherein the American criminal-justice system’s bias against nonwhites and the poor rose to new heights. Some key excerpts:
“Mass incarceration, which has disproportionately victimized people of color from its beginning in the 1970s, set the scene for this criminalization of poverty. But to understand America’s new impulse to make being poor a crime, one has to follow the trail of tax cuts that began in the Reagan era, which created revenue gaps all over the country.
“The anti-tax lobby told voters they would get something for nothing: the state or municipality would tighten its belt a little, it would collect big money from low-level offenders, and everything would be fine. Deep budget cuts ensued, and the onus of paying for our justice system – from courts to law enforcement agencies and even other arms of government – began to shift to the ‘users’ of the courts, including those least equipped to pay.
“Exorbitant fines and fees designed to make up for revenue shortfalls are now a staple throughout most of the country. Meanwhile, white-collar criminals get slaps on the wrist for financial crimes that ruin millions of lives. Though wealthy scofflaws owe a cumulative $450bn in back taxes, fines and fees from the justice system hit lower-income people – especially people of color – the hardest.
“’Broken windows‘ law enforcement policy – the idea that mass arrests for minor offenses promote community order – aided and abetted this new criminalization of poverty, making the police complicit in the victimization of the poor. Community policing turned into community fleecing. Enforcing ‘quality of life’ rules was touted as a way to achieve civic tranquility and prevent more serious crime. What it actually did was fill jails with poor people, especially because those arrested could not pay for bail. […]
“Public school children, particularly in poor communities of color, are arrested and sent to juvenile and even adult courts for behavior that not long ago was handled with a reprimand. The use of law enforcement both to criminalize homelessness and to drive the homeless entirely out of cities is increasing, as municipalities enact ever more punitive measures due to shortages of funds for housing and other services.
“In addition, low-income people are deterred from seeking public benefits by threats of sanctions for made-up allegations of benefits fraud. […] Budget cuts have also led to the further deterioration of mental health and addiction treatment services, making the police the first responders and jails and prisons the de facto mental hospitals, again with a special impact on minorities and low-income people.
“Racism is America’s original sin, and it is present in all of these areas of criminalization, whether through out-and-out discrimination, structural and institutional racism, or implicit bias. Joined together, poverty and racism have created a toxic mixture that mocks our democratic rhetoric of equal opportunity and equal protection under the law.”
In addition to Edelman’s aforementioned organizational affiliations, he also has served as a board member of Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Center for Community Change, and several other nonprofit organizations; board chairman of the Public Welfare Foundation, the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, and the National Center for Youth Law; an advisory board member of Wellstone Action and the Brennan Center for Justice; an advisory council member with J Street; and chair of the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission.
Over the years, Edelman has made a number of campaign contributions to Democratic candidates running for political office. Recipients have included, among others, Bill Clinton, Ralph Neas, Tom Udall, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Robert Reich, Joe Kennedy III, Donna Shalala, Paul Wellstone, Stacey Abrams, Joe Biden, Val Demings, Jamie Raskin, Thomas Perez, Ed Markey, and Barack Obama. Edelman also has contributed to such organizations as J Street and 21st Century Democrats.
Further Reading: “Peter Edelman” (Law.Georgetown.edu., Nasi.org/member, KeyWiki.org)