End of an era: Champion of programs for the poor retiring

At the start of his administration, Bill Clinton was strategizing with top economic advisers Bob Rubin and Gene Sperling. Rubin, who had been co-chair of Goldman Sachs, was no stranger to Washington but wondered: Who was this Bob Greenstein they kept citing?

On programs affecting poor people, Greenstein is the gold standard, they explained. “He really is,” recalls Rubin, who has turned to Greenstein repeatedly over the ensuing quarter century.

In a town that thrives on self-promotion, Bob Greenstein is an outlier. Over the past four decades he has been the most influential advocate — even more than those overpaid K Street influence peddlers. The Washington Post’s Steve Pearlstein called him a “powerhouse for the poor.”

Next week he’s stepping down as the head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which he started in 1981. It is the end of an era.

Greenstein was an official at the Department of Agriculture in the late 1970s when he once defeated Sen. Jesse Helms on a food assistance controversy; later, while eating lunch at the Capitol, he was surprised when the North Carolina conservative walked up and said, “You beat me fair and square.”

In 1981 Greenstein started the CBPP with four employees. Today there are more than 150, and it is a major player in any debate about poverty-related issues.

He has passionately advocated — with much success — liberal causes such as: expanding food stamps, particularly fending off efforts to turn the program into block grants which would have meant cutbacks; expanding the earned income tax credit for the working poor; providing more Medicaid benefits, and pushing for refundability of tax credits, so the less well-off also benefit.

“Bob transformed the Center into one of the most influential policy shapers in this country,” says Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a leading progressive Democrat. “His work has expanded opportunities for the lowest income children and families and ensured the country’s prosperity is shared by the workers who created it, not just the wealthiest CEOs.”

Greenstein works closely with lawmakers like Brown and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and in the House with leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Greenstein says his original mentor was another Speaker, the late Tom Foley. He forged working relationships with top economic officials in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Greenstein often has fought with Republicans, especially the Reagan administration in the 1980s and Trump for the past four years, as they sought to slash benefits. Before, he worked with Republicans like Sen. Bob Dole — together at the Kansas Republican’s behest they fashioned a food stamp compromise — and former Senators such as Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

The impeccable integrity of the CBPP commands respect across the political divide. Greenstein’s notion of a cardinal sin is a flawed analysis or using erroneous data.

The longtime head of CBPP is “a towering figure in the Washington policy community,” said Michael Strain, the prominent conservative economist at the American Enterprise Institute. “I often disagree with Bob’s policy recommendations but rely heavily on his reports and analysis. It is the model of intellectual integrity, and I am a major consumer of his work.”

On occasion, Greenstein even takes issue with allies. He initially supported the “Cadillac tax” on expensive health care plans. A number of union contracts would be affected, and Labor pressured Greenstein to back down. He didn’t.

He often incurs the wrath of the left. He favors a significant expansion of Obamacare rather than a single-payer health care plan and has little sympathy for a universal basic income or free college tuition and student debt relief for all. With finite resources, it doesn’t make sense to subsidize wealthier Americans.

Instead, Greenstein generally prefers to target efforts that give more to those who need it the most.

“I’ve spent most of my life on programs that are targeted, but not limited, to the poorest of the poor, including the working poor, the lower middle class and sometimes the middle class,” he says. “but not the upper income.”

For all his passion, he practices a liberal variation of the late William F. Buckley, who declared he backed the most conservative candidate who was viable. Greenstein usually supports the most progressive measures to help those in need that are achievable.

At the CBPP he has been a demanding, exacting leader, insisting on excellence. Yet, Ellen Nissenbaum, the Center’s senior vice president for government affairs, who has been with him for 36 years says: “When it matters, he’s always there for you.”

At 74, a quarter century after he was given one of the MacArthur Foundation’s genius awards, it’s not clear what’s next — though there will be no shortage of opportunities.

The holiday season is particularly cruel for poorer Americans — almost 8 million have been dropped into poverty during the Pandemic — struggling to meet nutritional, health care, housing and income necessities.

If not for the labors of Bob Greenstein, however, it would be far worse for millions.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Bill Clinton center on budget and policy priorities Chris Van Hollen Cultural economics Food Stamps Government Nancy Pelosi poor Americans programs for the poor Robert Greenstein Sherrod Brown Steny Hoyer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Working poor

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