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Robert Greenstein Gives Low-Income Americans Voice in Government


This is American Profiles, VOA's weekly spotlight on notable Americans who are having a positive impact on the world. Today's profile focuses on a man who has worked for 30 years to ease the burden on America's low-income working families and given the nation's poor a voice in the corridors of power. VOA's Faiza Elmasry introduces us to Robert Greenstein.

As administrator of the Agriculture Department's Nutrition Service, Robert Greenstein oversaw reforms that improved the lives of millions of the nation's poorest families. When he left the government in 1981, Greenstein founded the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to focus on making poverty reduction a higher priority at all levels of government.

"The center was designed to really promote more thoughtful debate and hopefully get improved policy outcomes on the intersection between budget policy, the choosing of priorities - which you have to do in setting any government's budget - and the desire to reduce poverty in the United States," he says. "So the center really focused on budget, tax policy and on poverty programs, any poverty policies. And then the relationship between the two and how this relates to setting budget priorities for the U.S government as a whole."

Greenstein has always stood by the side of the poor, and his advocacy for them has been recognized with many honors and grants. He received this year's Heinz Award for Public Policy in recognition of his work to improve the economic outlook of many of America's poorer citizens.

Politically minded family members inspire interest in public affairs

Greenstein says his interest in public affairs and sense of obligation to help the needy is rooted in his childhood.

"Both my father and the individual who was very large in our extended family, my great aunt - my father's aunt - I think played a large role in influencing me," he says. "My great aunt had a strong sense of social responsibility and social justice.

"My father was always deeply interested in public affairs. When we had dinner each night, he often would put a radio on the table. We would listen back-to-back to 15-minute news broadcasts on the news events of the day, one from a liberal commentator, followed by a conservative commentator who was presenting the news. And we would end up talking a lot about them and remark sometimes on how differently they described the same events!

"So, from a very early age, I was kind of deeply interest in public policies and sort of interested in how they affected people who were less fortunate."

Center builds consensus for legislation benefiting low-, middle-income families

The staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities share Greenstein's willingness to listen to both sides. As a result, they have a good working relationship with both political parties and have used that to build consensus for legislation benefiting low- and middle-income Americans.

Over more than two decades, the center has built a reputation as one of Washington's most effective lobbyists on social issues. Greenstein points with pride to one of its signature accomplishments.

"We've worked with policy-makers of both parties over the years to improve and strengthen the earned tax credit, which was designed both to reduce taxes and through the tax system actually supplement the wages of very low-income working families with children," he says. "And the tax credit, once a tiny obscure piece of government policy, is now the single policy or program that reduces the number of children living below the poverty line more than anything else."

Initiative promotes budget transparency globally

In 1997, Robert Greenstein looked beyond American shores and established the center's International Budget Partnership. Through this program, the center works with nongovernmental organizations in 80 countries to promote budget transparency and encourage public debate over how public money should be raised and allocated.

"In many of these nations, the content of budget has, historically, been the prerogative of the executive branch," he says. "Often, even the legislature has not been given that much information, and the media has not been given enough information of what's even in the budget.

"When budgets are not transparent, the potential for corruption, for money not to end up where it's supposed to go and for low-income communities in those countries to get left behind, is greater."

Center searches for solutions during economic crisis

Greenstein is concerned that the current economic crisis in the United States is leaving the poorest Americans further behind than ever. Stimulating spending among low-income families, he suggests, is one of the most effective solutions to the crisis.

"If you provide a tax cut or subsidy to people with a lot of money, they are likely to save some substantial amount of it," he says. "If you provide whatever it is, a tax cut or food stamp benefits or something of that sort to the people at the bottom, who are either unemployed or living on paycheck to paycheck, that additional money is almost entirely spent immediately."

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is looking ahead to other solutions.

"Part of what we're going to be doing in the months ahead is working with policy-makers in both parties, economists, analysts to try to figure out the best way to construct policies that hopefully can be put in effect no later than January or February that would simultaneously boost the economy, ease the degree and the depth of the recession, and fight poverty and hardship at the same time," he says.

Believing that overcoming current economic and political problems in the United States and around the world requires the involvement of younger generations, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities sponsors an active internship program. Greenstein says if young people help set budget priorities, they can make the world they will inherit a much better place.

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