I have always attempted to keep this blog above politics and about others, not me; but I may be getting close to the edge on this one because it has to do with a small role I played in creating the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in the early eighties and what the Center has accomplished over the past four decades.
Some of you know that I was a Director of the Public Welfare Foundation for forty years (and Chair for ten). From its very beginning, PWF was unlike most other foundations in that it allowed its Directors (volunteer board members, not staff) to be actively involved in grant making and to bring new ideas to the attention of their fellow board members.
So in 1981, when my friend and mentor, Richard Boone, Executive Director of the Field Foundation in New York, told me of the efforts of a 33 -year- old advocate by the name of Robert Greenstein to create an organization to protect low income Americans, I was intrigued. I presented Bob’s project to the board and, after several months of debate as to whether or not it was too “political,” managed to get it approved. Several years later Bob credited our foundation with helping “to transfer the Center from a mere idea to a thriving stable institution.”
As to any fears that Bob is one sided politically, please note that “Republican help… was essential to past success “; that Bob had an excellent working relationship with Senator Robert Dole and has worked closely with the Business Roundtable.
Bob Greenstein plans to retire at the end of this year. At the end of 2019, E.J. Dionne took stock of what he and the Center had accomplished. Excerpts from the article, published in The Washington Post on December 30, are below:
Our nation’s capital has battalions of lobbyists who sneak innocent-looking provisions into bills that save corporations billions in taxes. And if you want to find statistics to prove whatever point you’re making, many experts will tell you exactly what you want to hear.
Then there’s Bob Greenstein, the antithesis of Washington cynicism.
Greenstein is the founder of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), established in 1981 with the goal of representing the interests of lower-income Americans across every arena in Washington.
This has meant working with Capitol Hill, the White House and federal agencies, of course. But its work also involved providing the city’s most reliable data. In policy skirmishes, numbers matter, and ersatz statistics can skew outcomes and cloud understanding. The CBPP’s facts are bulletproof. It never hides ideologically inconvenient findings.
But the day came this month that everyone who has been in the trenches for expanding health coverage, nutrition assistance, and help for children and pregnant women has been dreading: Greenstein announced that he was stepping down as president of the CBPP, the organization he built into one of the most powerful friends poor people have. It started with only four employees and now has 150, plus offshoots in 42 states.
Although it is impossible to calculate, it’s fair to say that, over its lifetime, the center has pushed policy changes that shifted hundreds of billions of dollars, through benefits or lower taxes, to the country’s least advantaged people.
Sometimes, it did this simply by exposing the regressive effects of budget cuts. Greenstein got an early start on such work. In early 1981, when he was running a small policy start-up called the Project on Food Assistance and Poverty, he conducted a careful analysis that put the lie to the Reagan administration’s claims that it was protecting the “truly needy” in its budget cuts.
The study prompted a front-page New York Times article, an early signal of the power of good data. That success encouraged a group of foundations to put up money for creating the CBPP.
But Greenstein and his policy warriors often work behind the scenes, seeking not credit but better results. President Barack Obama’s team turned to the CBPP before he took office for advice on its massive emergency stimulus package. Greenstein estimates that about one-third of the package grew out of the CBPP’s proposals.
In the battle for the Affordable Care Act, Greenstein sought a change in its employer mandate so it wouldn’t inadvertently hurt low-income women with children. When told by the Obama administration it could not sign off on the change if the Business Roundtable opposed it, Greenstein’s team negotiated successfully with the Roundtable.
And he worked with the Clinton administration for a large increase of the earned income tax credit, but also brought pressure on the Clinton team to expand it further, an effort helped along when he ran into then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) in an elevator.
Greenstein has worries about the future. They include “extreme and increasing polarization” stopping Republicans from joining with Democrats to support initiatives for the needy. Republican help — Greenstein particularly admires former senator Bob Dole — was essential to past successes.
[The CBPP] has produced real advances. A CBPP study last month showed that poverty had dropped from 26 percent in 1967 to 14.4 percent in 2017, thanks in large part to government action. “In 1967,” the study found, “economic security programs lifted above the poverty line just 4% of those who would otherwise be poor. By 2017, that figure had jumped to 43%.”
Politics often rewards those who preach the futility of public action. Greenstein has spent a lifetime proving them wrong.