David T. Ellwood on Robert Greenstein: “To a social or political scientist with a social conscience, he is a true American hero
“Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famously quoted as saying that, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. For most of his life, Bob Greenstein has been providing the facts. Those facts have changed many opinions, and reshaped the very fabric of government policies toward the poor. To a social or political scientist with a social conscience, he is a true American hero. For Bob does much more than get the facts right, he draws upon scholarship, systematic analysis, and remarkable political insight to stimulate the best possible policies at any given moment.
Bob’s career began long before he founded the remarkable Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He graduated from Harvard in 1967, and after working on, he was hired a decade later by the Department of Agriculture, where he was instrumental in the development of the Food Stamp Act of 1977. (How instrumental? On a segment of McNeil Lehrer, Lehrer inadvertently referred to the bill as the “Carter-Greenstein” bill.) As with all important and successful legislation, this recipe had many cooks, but it had all the classic Greenstein hallmarks, even then.
That law’s most prominent component was the elimination of the purchase requirement for food stamps. Prior to that time, everyone with the same family size got the same amount of food stamps, but they were charged different amounts to get them depending on their income. Low income families actually had to find cash to get their food stamps. The Food Stamp Act of 1977 did something seemingly simple: it said people should instead be given the difference between their assessed contribution and the total food allotment. So people would get different amounts of food stamps depending on their income and not have to pay to get them. Sounds pretty dry, but the change dramatically increased participation, reduced fraud, and simplified administration, and altered the politics of food support for the better. Indeed for many years it was a hallmark case we used at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Over the past three decades, on issue after issue, Bob and his team have found that same combination of facts, good policy, and effective politics that have made the lives of millions of families dramatically better. Greenstein founded the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 1981. Now, one does have to wonder how on earth Bob settled on such an exciting name. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities?—why it rolls off the tongue and grabs your very soul.
But the truth is that name conveyed very accurately what the center is all about. Going where almost no outsiders are willing to travel, into the weeds, the detail, and in reality, the most vital elements of the budget and social policies, seeking out “the poorer places where the ragged people’s” lives and futures are touched, and all too often damaged by legislation and regulation. The genius of CBPP’s work is that facts really are a powerful weapon.
So it is no accident that every year virtually every story written about the release of the Census’s new poverty numbers has a quote from Bob or someone else at the center, often in the lead. It is no surprise that reporters and staffers and members alike turn first to Bob and the center when a new piece of legislation is being considered. They are the one absolutely reliable source. They can tell you what the legislation will really do.
If you look at the major legislation that reshaped poverty policy, Greenstein and the superb people at the center are there just below the surface: the earned income tax credit has his fingerprints everywhere. From Medicaid to Housing, WIC to Child Tax Credits, CBPP and Bob Greenstein are there, proving that the facts really do matter. But make no mistake, Bob cares deeply about budget balance. He actually believes in the quaint notion that we should pay for government. On more than one occasion he has incurred the wrath of other advocates by not supporting a budget busting new program. Facts cut both ways. If you want to be credible you have to be straight. He has behaved the way we actually wish our government did: making choices and examining which are the most responsible directions. The Washington Post described him as a “pay-as-you-go man for all political seasons.”
But there are two other essential elements of his success. The first is an astonishing political ability that he often works hard to keep hidden. Bob and people from the center know everyone on the hill and in the administration. They work the halls, they meet with the members. They know all the tricks and they track the angles, they care about what members are thinking and where legislation seems to be heading. When Charlie Rangel declares, “They have given people a seat at the table” he doesn’t mean just that they bring the facts; but that they serve that information in a way that members care about, understand, and can use—an astonishing accomplishment: In the words of Ron Haskins, “They are simply the most effective lobbyists on social issues on Washington.” He can count votes with the best of them. He knows when to fight, and when to compromise. Above all he wants to make the legislation or the regulation better, not to simply make a grand political gesture.
The second element that some people miss is that Greenstein has built the center around the use of the best social science research. My own baptism into poverty politics was brought on by Bob. When Charles Murray wrote his book claiming that the reason poverty got worse is that we tried to fight it with anti-poverty programs, Bob sought out people like Mary Jo Bane and myself who had been laboring in blissful obscurity on the impact of AFDC on poverty dynamics and family structure and suddenly pushed us into the public debate. People at the CBPP follow the literature very carefully. When they find something that looks important—regardless of whether it supports or challenges their current thinking—they learn everything they can about it. They serve as that vital bridge helping scholars move from the world of ideas to the world or politics and policy.
Of course Bob, himself, is not known for his bubbly, optimistic inspirational speeches. I have had the pleasure of hearing Bob address groups countless times. He never talks about the glass being half full. Nor does he really say the glass is half empty. He is likely to say the glass is filled up exactly half way—but that it is cracked and leaking, and that any minute an anvil is going to be dropping out of the sky from a coming budgetary crisis. You don’t leave a Greenstein talk feeling good, but you do feel like it is absolutely critical that the nation take action immediately. And the anvils in the sky actually are highly predictable missiles that the Greenstein radar system can see coming miles away. And today, I think we all share Bob’s intense fears for our budgetary future.
Before closing I want to emphasize something that Bob Greenstein would be the first to point to. Bob set the tone and the broad mission of the center, but his real genius lies not only in his own work, but in the superlative people he has attracted and supported over the years. They make a difference by doing the right thing.
Indeed, Bob has asked the Academy to provide the award directly to the center, where it will be used to help launch the inaugural class of a new fellowship program designed to increase the diversity of young analysts working across the country on state fiscal policy issues, with a focus on how budget and tax decisions affect low- and moderate-income families and communities. Within a few days, the center will be announcing the first class of fellows, all graduates of master’s programs, who will start working in the field as policy analysts in August.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan proved that you could be a remarkable thinker and move political mountains. He used the facts to shape his own remarkable insights. Robert Greenstein has used the power of ideas and the facts to make this world a better place. In Bob we have someone who is perhaps the most influential outside voice on budget and policy for the poor while being seen as absolutely straight. He gets the details right and sees the big picture. He fights waste and fraud and even deficits, all in service to the poor. Why, it is enough to make you believe in American politics again!
For his significant contribution to the use of evidence in the policy process, particularly in service to the poor and powerless, it is my pleasure to present Robert Greenstein with the 2010 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.”
David T. Ellwood’s introduction of Robert Greenstein