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Truthdigger of the Week: Peter Edelman

One of the ultimate acts of speaking truth to power occurs when one actually occupies a position of power, as is the case with this week’s Truthdigger, former Clinton administration official Peter Edelman. In 1996, Edelman resigned from his post as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services to protest the welfare reform the Clinton administration had just enacted. In resigning, Edelman told his staff: “I have devoted the last 30-plus years to doing whatever I could to help in reducing poverty in America. I believe the recently enacted welfare bill goes in the opposite direction.”

As Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer wrote Thursday:

Edelman, now a law professor at Georgetown University, was a close friend of the Clintons. His principled resignation was a rare exception to the cheerleading by Democrats who celebrated President Clinton’s betrayal of the poor as shrewd triangulation.

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Sometimes, vindication takes awhile — for Edelman, it took nearly two decades. Last Saturday, a New York Times report confirmed what he said roughly 16 years ago: The welfare reform championed in the ’90s has created a slew of new problems for poor families and those living below the poverty line in these troubled economic times.

The New York Times reported:

The distress of the last four years has added a cautionary postscript: much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared.

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Here’s a little background on welfare reform in the U.S.: In the mid-’90s, then-President Bill Clinton said he would “end welfare as we know it.” To do that, he scrapped the old welfare program — which in part delivered matching federal funds to states while giving the poor extensive rights — for a more stringent system. The current system places a strict set of restrictions on families on welfare, including imposing time limits and work requirements. It also caps federal funds and allows states to turn away the poor.

The result is harsher than what Edelman foresaw. “My take on it was the states would push people off and not let them back on, and that’s just what they did,” Edelman told The New York Times. “It’s been even worse than I thought it would be.” And on this week’s edition of Truthdig Radio, Edelman echoed that sentiment, saying that what Clinton did in 1996 “was terribly wrong.”

Edelman, of course, turned out to be correct. As Scheer noted on Truthdig Radio on Thursday, the welfare reform legislation has been a disaster. For sticking to his principles and being one of the few who stood up and said no to welfare reform when it was initially passed, Edelman earns our title of Truthdigger of the Week.

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