Iam sitting in the immense ballroom of the New York Hilton, and everyone is crying. Over 3,000 people are wiping their eyes and sniffling into their chicken francese and radicchio salad on the third day of the annual conference of the Children's Defense Fund this past March. No, it is not the food. Nor is it a boring speech. This is the "Beat the Odds" lunch, held annually at the national CDF conference and periodically in cities around the country, and its purpose is to pay tribute to young people who have overcome extreme obstacles to academic success—and to make you cry.

Certainly the six kids being feted deserve both the applause and the scholarship money raised by CDF. There is Miguel Rodriguez, who lost his mother to illness and his father to jail, who himself has done time at New York's Spofford Juvenile Center, yet has managed to pull himself together and gain acceptance to John Jay College. There is Shi Zhi Chen, a 19-year-old Chinese immigrant, who after two years scraping by as a busboy while sending money back home to his family and teaching himself English, has been accepted at SUNY Binghamton. But this orgy of whoops, ahhhs, and tears does not really seem to be about congratulating six deserving kids. It is feel-good showbiz, where hard knocks are the entertainment.

The mistress of ceremonies, the poet Maya Angelou, an enormous, almost mythic, presence in her gold necklaces and giant hoop earrings glittering off her white silk suit, wipes her eyes with a flourish and sighs deeply after the videos narrating the biography of each honoree (donated and produced by MTV). Then (on a stage decorated by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia) she wraps her long arms around each of them (dressed in clothes contributed by tony clothier Paul Stuart). "I have long wanted the Kleenex concession for these lunches and dinners," she jests, in her sonorous James Earl Jones voice, and we laugh through our tears.

There are a few awkward moments: Shi Zhi Chen's formal bow as he receives his award hints at the dignity that has been sacrificed for the sake of the Oprahized audience. And though Angelou claims repeatedly that these kids are proof of CDF's fine work, only one of the six long-struggling honorees, all of whom thank their teachers and relatives, mentions the sort of social program the organization champions as making a difference. But swept away in good feelings, no one seems to notice.

The Children's Defense Fund and its near-legendary founder, Marion Wright Edelman, may have lost some power after welfare reform, but no one could argue that they don't still have influence. The line of people waiting for Edelman to autograph her latest book—teachers, social workers, domestic-violence counselors, child-welfare workers, foster care workers, after-school program organizers, nurses, pediatricians, psychologists, priests, and ministers—wound in and around the hallways of the Hilton's conference floor like a line of pilgrims at Lourdes. And CDF continues to be a media and corporate darling. Harper's Bazaar has crowned Edelman "America's Universal Mother"; Family Circle has given her its lifetime achievement award. Powerful corporations like Sony and Citigroup rush to get on her donor list.

Edelman can outscold Pat Robertson any day, but no one seems to hold it against her. What other person in political life could call on Old Testament prophets and Jesus Christ to denounce her ideological opponents—as Edelman did during the debate over welfare reform—without Frank Rich reaching for his vituperative pen? And what other organization could give so much play at its national conference to MTV, a television station that feeds the young soft porn and violent music videos, and still represent itself as the protector of children—without anyone saying a word?

But the danger so clearly on display at the Beat the Odds lunch is that Edelman's nearly three-decade effort to keep alive the moral and biblical spirit of the early civil rights movement is finally collapsing into empty sentimentality. Certainly, by most practical political measures, her empire is in big trouble. Only six years ago, CDF appeared to be in a position to write social policy for the Clinton administration: Donna Shalala, a former board chairwoman, was secretary of Health and Human Services; Edelman's husband, Peter Edelman, was one of Shalala's top assistants; and Hillary Clinton, another former chairwoman, was First Lady. Two years later, when the president signed the welfare reform bill and both Edelmans angrily estranged themselves from the administration, they suffered a profound political loss, but at least they could take the moral high ground. Today, that is no longer possible. As evidence that welfare reform may actually be improving poor children's lives begins to mount, CDF's defeat has become a rout—politically, ideologically, and, yes, morally.

Edelman has even lost control of her trademark rhetoric; now just about every politician and lobbying group in the country has taken up the rallying cry of children. Not long ago, a group of poor black mothers in tee shirts with the words SAVE THE CHILDREN appeared in front of a congressional subcommittee: they were not demonstrating in favor of Head Start, health insurance, or WIC, all of them favorite CDF causes. They were demonstrating in favor of school vouchers, a cause usually associated with Edelman's ideological enemies.

Still, while the Children's Defense Fund may be weakened, like liberalism in general, it is not ready to give up the ghost. Though primarily focused on Washington and dedicated to federal programs, the organization is scrambling to expand its grass-roots base and local influence as power and money shift back to the states. Though wedded to increasingly discredited assumptions and models of poverty, it struggles to insist on its moral authority. Yet, if the three-day conference in New York suggested that much of that authority has evaporated, leaving behind the sticky dregs of sentiment, it also hinted how CDF and its liberal allies will adapt to life in a post-welfare nation.

When she founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973, Edelman, occasional advisor to Martin Luther King and the first black woman lawyer in Mississippi, was making a self-conscious effort to breathe new life into a faltering civil rights movement. With Nixon in office, many activists, who had successfully fought some of the more glaring racial injustices and helped to initiate the massive War on Poverty, seemed to be turning inward, ready to cultivate their own gardens. Not Edelman. She had been indelibly affected by her own experiences of racial cruelty and the poverty she had seen in the rural South; it was Edelman who in 1967 had given Robert Kennedy a tour of the grinding poverty of the Mississippi Delta. Still devoted to the causes to which she had given her youth, and doubtless remembering the emotional impact of black children being spat upon and jeered as they integrated southern schools, she came up with a brilliant notion, one that continues to reverberate in American politics to this day: keep the movement going by making it about children. "When you talked about poor people or black people you faced a shrinking audience," she has said. "I got the idea that children might be a very effective way to broaden the base for change." And so it was that the poor people's campaign, which she herself had recommended, on Bobby Kennedy's advice, to Martin Luther King, became the poor children's campaign.

But if the symbolism of the sad-eyed, shabbily dressed child captured the plain moral truths of the poverty and racism of the Jim Crow South, it largely obfuscates the realities of today. Poverty has undergone a sea change since CDF came into existence. Even though the income gap between rich and poor has widened, the average poor person today still lives better than the average person in the 1950s. Today's poor are as likely to suffer from obesity as hunger. Medicaid now ensures them pre- and postnatal care and childhood vaccinations. Nearly 20 percent of those below the federal poverty line are immigrants like Shi Zhi Chen, who came to the United States because they knew that it offered more opportunity in the long run. Indeed, even in the short run, both their earnings and their standard of living improve substantially (see "Doing Better Than We Thought," page 7).

Moreover, since the mid-1960s, long-term poverty has been largely a problem defined by welfare-dependent single mothers and their children.  As of 1994, the last year for which data on chronic poverty exist, over half of the long-term poor lived in female-headed families; nearly 18 percent of female-headed families were chronically poor. According to a recent Urban Institute report, children born outside of marriage are almost twice as likely to be poor than those born to married parents. In fact, single parenthood has become a more reliable predictor of child poverty than race; there is no substantial difference in the poverty rate among blacks and nonblacks when controlling for marital status. Likewise, study after study has found that single parenthood strongly correlates with the poor educational outcomes, criminal involvement, and teen pregnancy that are likely to perpetuate poverty.

These thorny realities, which have made only rare appearances in Edelman's speeches and books, continued to be missing in action at CDF's 2000 conference. What dominated instead was a melodramatic Manichaeanism pitting CDF and its caring allies in a battle against the racism, greed, and self-indulgence that apparently besets much of the rest of the nation: in other words, the old poverty paradigm. "Children are poor because we have lost our moral bearings," Edelman wrote in her 1987 Families in Peril; and, 13 years later, "Ending Child Poverty As We Know It," a plenary session at the conference moderated by Peter Edelman, continued in that vein. The panel, consisting of William Spriggs of the National Urban League, Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change, and Jacqueline Marte and Shana Turner, two young former welfare recipients, was asked: "Why do we have so many poor people even at a time of such prosperity?" Turner, now a student at the University of Massachusetts, was the star of the session. The problem, she announced, could be captured in one word: "greed." "Instead of giving money to an organization, they [the rich] go on vacation for the third time in a year. . . . People with money don't care." The audience, which apparently did not include moneyed representatives from the many corporations underwriting the conference, applauded enthusiastically.

Sexism, according to Spriggs,  is another cause of child poverty; women earn less than men, he said, and this puts their children at risk. But it was what he didn't say that tells the real story. Economists are now finding that women earn less not because they are women, but because they are mothers. Child care appears to limit women's hours and possibly their ambitions; men and women without children and with the same education and work experience have nearly identical earnings. If Spriggs had said this, he also would have had to admit the obvious way to alleviate this particular cause of child poverty: a working (or, for that matter, a stay-at-home) father to compensate for the loss of income inevitable when there are children to tend to.

But he couldn't say it even if he wanted to. Single parenthood was the elephant in the ballroom that everyone was determined not to see. When Peter Edelman finally did raise the issue— "Someone who disagreed would say the problem is illegitimacy; it's not all this other stuff"—he clearly intended only to mock it. Predictably, he directed the question toward the two former welfare recipients, one of them a single mother herself. Jacqueline Marte avoided the question, calling for more jobs for women in the form of a public jobs program. Shana Turner was simply indignant. "They take away people's basic rights to shelter, food. . . . You tell a person they cannot reproduce, [which] is every person's human right." Generous applause once again greeted her summation: "These people do not look at poor people as human!"

Turner's outburst and the audience's response throw into sharp relief the poor fit between old poverty thinking and new poverty realities. The issue, of course, is not whether people have a right to reproduce, but rather whether they have the right to expect that their neighbors not only feed, clothe, and house them, but provide medical care, child care, early childhood education, and intervention services when they do bear children. Old poverty thinking, which views America as being in the middle of a stark battle between racial malice and greed versus tolerance and compassion, cannot even pose this question. Any reluctance to give to the poor, any attempt to distinguish between those who are ill-equipped to support their children and those who are temporarily down on their luck, must be suspect. But the dissonance between this old poverty moralism and a new poverty virtually defined by illegitimacy makes a puzzle of the advocates' compassion. First, they ignore the possibility that attitudes like Turner's can actually create child poverty. Then, while they lavish sentiment on children whose birth into poverty they've refused to discourage and may even have helped to promote, they deny it to those, including the near-poor, whom they insist must foot the voluminous bills that include—can it be a coincidence?—their own salaries.

Marion Edelman has always made a point of nourishing young leadership, something she gratefully remembers was done for her during her years in the South. Evidently Turner is one of the chosen. At the end of the panel, she was invited to read a rap poem she had written. Her utterly pedestrian composition, which included a fond allusion to murdered gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, earned her a standing ovation and a cry of "Fantastic!" from Peter Edelman. Someone watching that panel could be excused for wondering whether the child advocates of tomorrow will be sufficiently thoughtful, but he need not worry that they will be lacking in self-esteem.

Little in Marion Edelman's early personal history would have pointed toward the condescension, the melodramatic sentimentality, the denial of difficult realities, and the nostalgia so frequently on display during the conference. Although raised in the segregated South, this gifted, youngest daughter of a Baptist minister and his selfless wife had a childhood rich in religious faith, moral refinement, and dignity. "When I think of them," she writes of her parents in her affecting new memoir Lanterns, "I think of integrity, consistency, high expectations, family rituals and regularity, prayer, meals, chores, church activities, . . . of common sense and sound choices, of sacrifice and bedrock faith. . . . They never let us down." The views of marriage and child rearing she absorbed in her youth could scarcely be more traditional. "I learned from my parents," she continues, "that marriage is a struggle and a sacred partnership between two people and a covenant with God and with the children the union brings into the world." If her parents were homespun, they were also literate folks; their parlor mantel was adorned with a miniature set of Shakespeare's plays.

Like many girls who go on to become successful women, the young Marion especially adored her father, and from an early age, when she realized his disappointment at her elder sister's early marriage, she sought to satisfy his ambitions. After graduating from Spelman College, and despite her mother's ambivalence, she went on to Yale Law School. Her success reflected not just her father's influence but also the commitment to education held by many poor southern blacks who understood its potential to transform both individual lives and the racial status quo. By the time she became active in the civil rights movement, she was able to bring to it both the enthusiasm and passion for justice common to youth and also the intelligence, dignity, and self-sacrifice that she had learned from the adults around her.

In recent decades, however, though Edelman has been quick to use her strongly developed moral sense to challenge the rich and middle class, she has been content to let it atrophy when it came to the new realities of poverty. As Americans soured on AFDC when the underclass grew in the inner cities, she accused them of racism and greed; but when illegitimacy skyrocketed in the ghettos, she remained stuck in the old poverty thinking and said nothing—though she knew from experience the importance of fathers in children's lives. When the country debated welfare reform, she vigorously resisted work requirements—though she had seen with her own eyes that even the most destitute gain self-respect from hard work and orderly lives. Edelman was in high dudgeon when President Clinton, her former friend and ally, was on the verge of signing a welfare reform bill: she called it "national child abandonment" and "a defining moral litmus test for your presidency" in an open letter published in the Washington Post. She organized the "Stand for Children" march on Washington. And when the president signed the bill and her husband resigned from his post as assistant secretary of HHS, she called it a "moment of shame," comparable to the worst human evils: "Never let us confuse what is legal with what is right," she reproached. "Everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it was not right."

The problem facing CDF at the 2000 conference, then, was simple but profound: Edelman's old poverty assumptions were utterly—and one might add, especially given her odious analogy, shamefully—wrong. Welfare reform has not only not abandoned children, it may even be improving their lot. To CDF's credit, this truth made its way into at least one of the smaller sessions called "Welfare to What?" Speaker Jack Tweedie, director of the Children and Families Program of the National Conference of State Legislatures, announced that welfare reform has produced more change than any policy since the New Deal. He produced state-by-state surveys showing that most of those who have left welfare are working and are doing so at more than the minimum wage, that about half appear to be better off financially, and that median earnings for those who are working appear to rise over time. Tweedie was no Pollyanna. He cautioned that in several southern states, two-thirds of families who have left welfare are still not working, that in some states between 12 and 14 percent of ex-welfare families are experiencing increased financial hardship, and that we still do not know much about a large number of others.

Tweedie might have saved his breath. The child advocates in the audience seemed more interested in preserving their own assumptions than in hearing evidence about how to improve the lives of poor children. As he spoke, the room grew ominously quiet. When he said that one survey in Wisconsin did show that families were broken up because of welfare reform, but that the number was unexpectedly small, the audience groaned: "Come on! One family is too much!" A priest, angrily asserting that more people were coming to soup kitchens, shouted: "If legislators think this is progress, it's time to vote them out!" The audience applauded heartily. "Look, I work for the states," Tweedie finally blurted apologetically.

In other sessions, any evidence of welfare reform's success never even surfaced. Welfare reform was referred to as "so-called welfare reform" and remained the work of the damned. At one session, a panelist blasted workfare because, she argued bizarrely, it "enslaves people to the system." Others reverted to the tired, and demonstrably false, argument that work requirements deprive people of the opportunity for training that would lead to "meaningful jobs."

But Deborah Weinstein, the other speaker on the "Welfare to What?" panel and director of CDF's Family Income Division, made it clear that the

Children's Defense Fund's leadership is going to be more savvy than some of their speakers and their rank and file. After presenting her own version of the data—emphasizing the number of those leaving the rolls with severe barriers to employment, the decreasing number of children receiving food stamps, and the increase in the number of children in deep poverty—she brought out the lemonade: welfare reform has actually yielded more money for other sorts of poverty programs that CDF has always promoted.

She was correct. Congress stipulated in the welfare reform act, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), that each state would get a block grant based on its welfare enrollment in the early 1990s. Now, as caseloads have dropped by over 50 percent, many states are flush with federal welfare money. West Virginia, for instance, has a reserve of $150 million, although current caseloads require only $50 million a year for cash benefits. To its surprise, CDF has suddenly found itself with an unexpected windfall: the unscrupulous uncle they despised has left them a fortune, and they are not above claiming the filthy lucre. Weinstein flashed a banner in block letters on the screen up front, a new rallying cry for the troops: USE THE TANF FUNDS! States are now wrestling with how to spend the money, she reported. "Should it be spent on health benefits? Should it be spent on child care?" "Just spend it!" a woman sitting behind me muttered impatiently.

The pragmatic new approach of CDF's leadership toward welfare reform may be dishonest and grudgingly late in coming, but it is not wrong; many former recipients need a good deal of costly, temporary support in child care, transportation, and supervision as they enter the workforce. The problem is captured by that "Just spend it!" In the past, CDF has not only promoted programs of dubious value; it has done so with the self-righteousness of the elect. The organization, for instance, has long shilled for Head Start; in the early sixties in Mississippi, Edelman was heavily involved with one of the earliest Head Start programs, whose community-based approach, including parental training, medical care, and the like, seems to remain a model in her mind. Head Start is always high on the list of programs she insists are integral to the nation's social and moral health.

Just recently, CDF published a pamphlet entitled: "Head Start: Helping Families Move From Welfare to Work," an attempt to repackage Head Start as a work assistance program. CDF proposes to lavish TANF funds on the program, vastly expanding its hours to accommodate working mothers. But this marketing tactic can't change reality. It's been clear since the time that Edelman founded CDF that what the program was accomplishing, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, was that children were "getting their teeth fixed, but little else that can be quantified." Some $31 billion and nearly 30 years later, the Government Accounting Office concluded, in a 1997 summary of the research, that there is still little evidence of the program's long-term impact on poor children. And while there is no reason to believe that Head Start has done anyone any harm, its untouchable status as the premier compassionate social program, a status CDF has nurtured, may well have deprived more effective programs of money and attention. At least in this case, it is difficult not to conclude that for all her vaunted altruism, Edelman's affection for her civil rights era memories finally trumps her interest in what really fosters the well-being of children.

All of these flaws—the sentimental attachment to outmoded civil rights era programs and notions of poverty, the willful avoidance of relevant research, the belated and opportunistic attempt to latch on to popular public concerns, the holier-than-thou attitude—are also ingredients in CDF's new approach to education. Schooling was front and center at the conference's first plenary session, perhaps in a belated recognition by CDF that the organization may be out of step with its own constituents. Plainly, for a growing number of minority parents, education, not poverty and racism, is the most pressing civil rights issue. Of course, Edelman has long expressed an interest in education, and has frequently pointed to the link between poor educational achievement and poverty, low wages, and teen pregnancy. But in this area, too, she has remained intensely loyal to old poverty thinking. Instead of addressing the underclass lack of interest in education, she has stuck to the usual line espoused by other liberal groups and the teachers' unions, blaming the poor achievement of urban poor children on inadequate school funding. And instead of attacking the failed curricula and ineffective teaching in urban districts, she has simply pushed for more money for "quality" preschools, even though research has consistently shown that their modest benefits fade out once children enter the primary school classrooms that Edelman has never criticized.

At first, the opening-night plenary session on education seemed like it was going to be something different. Preacher Floyd Flake, a former New York congressman and now president of Edison Charter Schools, described the success of his Queens parochial school, which is giving minority children a solid education on $3,500 a year. But once CDF chairman David Hornbeck, then-superintendent of the Philadelphia school system, got hold of the microphone, we were back in the old poverty church. Applause greeted his pronouncement that "the white male power structure has not begun to assimilate" the fact that by the year 2030 there would be more "so-called minority children than majority." Racism is the cause of minority underachievement, he went on: we have "a system that doesn't believe in poor children." "Politics in this country is when . . . five white guys get in a room and cut up the pie," he thundered. "Rage is the right word. Until we boil over in controlled ways, this is not going to change." If audience members noticed that the race-righteous Hornbeck was sitting on a panel with two powerful, pie-cutting African-Americans—Rosa Smith, the superintendent of the Columbus, Ohio, schools, and ex-congressman Flake, frequently cited as a serious possible New York City mayoral candidate—they didn't let on. But then, skeptical irony is not a strong suit at the CDF.

CDF's recent foray into actual teaching offers the best summary of its stubborn attempt to graft old poverty approaches onto new realities. The CDF's Black Community Crusade for Children, aimed specifically at the problems of black poverty, has inaugurated a series of Freedom Schools—after-school and summer school programs taught by college kids. The schools are meant to recall the civil rights movement's Freedom Schools of the mid-1960s. But the name and age of the instructors are about the only thing that Martin Luther King, or, for that matter, the young Marion Wright Edelman, would recognize; everything else about the Freedom Schools is just the kind of edu-babble that has pushed desperate inner-city parents into the arms of voucher proponents.

True, recognizing that most parents today simply want their children to learn to read, the Freedom Schools offer an "Integrated Reading Curriculum." But it is neither integrated nor a reading curriculum. It explicitly avoids teaching the mechanics of reading and offers instead the ineffective if trendy "whole language" method of reading instruction, coupled with an Afrocentric curriculum heavily imbued with the hokey ethos of self-esteem. Each school day begins with a meeting called a hamarbee, which is Swahili for "unity." The Kansas City Star described the children at a Kansas City Freedom School singing a rap song, "Ain't no party like the Freedom School party, cause the Freedom School party don't stop. We got it goin on at the Freedom School!" In Lanterns, Edelman recounts how, as a college student, she read Ruskin and Tolstoy as well as Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington; she listened to Brahms as well as jazz. She does not say much about the early education that instilled the intellectual curiosity and cosmopolitan tastes that eventually led her to Yale Law School, but it's a safe bet that it did not include reciting a rap song at a hamarbee.

The truth is, with its thick overlay of sentimentality, the Children's Defense Fund obfuscates the answers to crucial questions about America's social future. It is reasonable to conclude that Edelman's legacy has been less to alleviate child poverty, which has not budged much since the time her organization was founded, than to impoverish the national conversation, whose every third word is a disingenuous "children." As London's Daily Telegraph observed when Hillary Clinton mused aloud about adopting a baby around the time of the 1996 convention: "Now when the going gets tough, the tough start baby-talk."  Events of the last four years suggest that real change comes when people start talking—and more to the point, thinking—like grownups.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next