The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bob Greenstein’s life proves the Washington cynics wrong

Robert Greenstein, center, the executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testifies at a 2009 congressional hearing with Jonathan Gruber, left, an economics professor at MIT, and Leonard Burman of the Urban Institute. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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.

You could say that Greenstein was fighting fake news before it became a thing.

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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.

He’s not leaving until next December, thank God, and will stay engaged in the center’s work. In his methodical way, he’s giving his organization time for a successful transition to new leadership.

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.

An Agriculture Department veteran, Greenstein, who is 73, is also concerned that young people are turning away from government service. “One way to make government less effective and competent over the long run,” he told me, “is to create an atmosphere in which talented young people don’t want to be career officials.”

But Greenstein has worked through cycles of reform and reaction, so he’s fundamentally hopeful, as only a longtime Red Sox fan can be. His approach, he says, is to move two or three steps forward, and in tough times to limit any retreat to “a quarter or a half step.”

This 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.

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