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A realistic portrait illustration shows Robert Greenstein, an older white man with short gray hair and mustache, taking off a pair of black-framed glasses to look at the viewer. Behind him is a stylized depiction of clouds and wind in orange and white. The suit he wears is made up of many hands reaching upward, in shades of blue. Violeta Encarnacion for Vox

How one man quietly stitched the American safety net over four decades

Robert Greenstein isn’t a household name. But his career lobbying for the poor has changed the lives of millions of Americans.

When it comes to poverty in America, we have to hold two contradictory thoughts in our heads at the same time.

On the one hand, this is a country that leaves behind too many people. Our child poverty rate is high compared to our peer countries. Many Americans still don’t have enough to eat, a bed to sleep in, or health care for themselves or their families.

On the other hand, an accretion of government programs, built up over the last five decades, has created a semblance of a safety net where once there was none. Programs like the earned income tax credit, expanded greatly in the 1990s, put much-needed money in working poor people’s pockets every year. Food stamps, established in the 1960s but made more generous in later decades, have put food on the table for many families. The Affordable Care Act, though still patchy, has nonetheless provided health care for the previously uninsured.

This patchwork net isn’t perfect, but it has inarguably made a difference in the lives of millions of low-income people over the decades. And while many hands contributed to that net’s creation, one man is as responsible as anyone for pushing our sclerotic, fractious government in a more humane direction.

Robert Greenstein is not a household name. But for 40 years, he was one of the most powerful people in Washington, DC, with one of the most surprising jobs. He was the capitol’s de facto lobbyist for the poor, and he won countless fights that cumulatively directed hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars to programs for low-income people. The odds are that you or someone you know got more services from the government — health insurance, more money, food assistance — because of his actions.

In 1981, Greenstein founded the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank to provide rapid-fire analysis of tax and spending proposals, with a focus on how they affected low-income people. Over four decades, he built the Center up into one of Washington’s most influential institutions, insinuating it into the heart of the $6 trillion-plus annual federal budget process. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), formerly the top Democrat on the House budget committee, told me that Greenstein and other Center staffers were in his office so much amid the 2011 budget fights it was like their “home away from home.”

It has played a major role in growing tax credits for low-income people, in expanding the SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition programs, and in passing and defending Obamacare. Perhaps even more important was what it helped prevent from happening: It played a pivotal part in blocking deficit hawks’ efforts to add a balanced budget requirement to the Constitution in the mid-1990s, and in killing George W. Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security in 2005.

If you don’t know Greenstein’s name, that’s not the case in Washington. He inspires intense admiration and personal loyalty from colleagues and policymakers that’s rare in the political world. At Greenstein’s retirement party in 2021, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared, “It is my privilege, on behalf of the millions of lives that we know you’ve saved, to say thank you, thank you for lifting people up, for giving them hope.”

Greenstein’s impact is obvious in the millions of poor Americans whose lives have been improved by his work.

Chart of average after-tax and transfer income for the poorest Americans grew from $19,700 in 1979 to $37,700 in 2018. Social programs did much more to raise incomes at the bottom in 2018 than they did in 1979. Data from Congressional Budget Office

For students of US politics, and anyone trying to achieve major change in the country, the success of Greenstein and the Center raises a big question: How was a relatively small think tank able to make such a big difference in the policy process?

Greenstein and the Center succeeded because they did three deeply difficult things very well. They built a reputation for producing rapid but reliable data and analysis, which even their detractors grudgingly respected. They developed one of the most plugged-in lobbying operations in DC by building a reputation for integrity and discretion. And they maintained an obsession with the long-term structure of government, caring more that they were setting up a durable structure for a program than that they got every last dollar they asked for.

Greenstein didn’t practice the politics of The West Wing or cable news. His career was light on grandiose speeches and culture war blow-ups. ”He has this strange ability to be passionate but mellow,” Christopher Edley, a friend from the Carter administration, observes. His politics was the politics that happens when few people outside DC are looking: in cramped Hill offices and late-night vote-a-rama sessions, with spreadsheets rather than bullhorns.

That style of politics is not particularly fashionable these days. Old establishment conservatives willing to cut a deal — people like Greenstein’s recently deceased frequent collaborators Sens. Bob Dole (R-KS) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) — have been replaced by preening insurgents. The left has gone from plying the art of the possible in the Reagan and Clinton years to maximalist demands like Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal.

Amid that evolution, Greenstein carved out, year after year, a space for the poor in US policymaking. For all the work the US still needs to do, the last five decades have in fact seen a massive rise in government’s anti-poverty role. He was succeeded as president of the Center at the end of 2020 by longtime Center analyst Sharon Parrott, and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution — as close to retired as he’ll likely ever get. His legacy is a career that shows advocates and policymakers how the inside game in DC gets played — and how it can be bent to work for the least advantaged Americans.

The path to power

Robert Greenstein does not seem like the kind of guy who could influence hundreds of billions, if not trillions, in government spending over the decades. He’s a quiet, unassuming man, with a soft voice and a neatly trimmed mustache. He likes seeing old French and Italian movies at local theaters (Bob le Flambeur is a favorite). In their spare time, he and his wife have adopted and cared for a number of feral cats from their neighborhood.

Early in life, Greenstein wanted to change the world the way many young idealists, then and now, want to change it: through protest and organizing. He was born in 1946 in Philadelphia, to a family of “FDR/Adlai Stevenson Democrats,” and while he was involved in peace activism as a teen, he credits his political awakening to his experience in “Vietnam Summer,” a coordinated period of youth activism against the war, which took place after he graduated from Harvard in 1967. “I was working directly with people who had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement,” he recalls. “They were different from anybody I’d known.”

He spent the next year at the London School of Economics, but returned for antiwar work in 1968. He briefly moved to UC Berkeley for a PhD in American history but decided academia was not for him, and worked for a summer for one of Ralph Nader’s “Nader’s Raiders” activist groups.

In 1972, Greenstein landed a position at the Community Nutrition Institute, a small anti-hunger nonprofit. It was a pivotal experience, connecting him with a small community of DC hunger activists and, eventually, with a liberal Minnesota Congress member named Bob Bergland. When Bergland became secretary of agriculture under Jimmy Carter in 1977, Greenstein followed him into government, where he worked for a few years until Carter lost reelection in 1980.

In 1981 DC, there weren’t many organizations doing rapid-fire policy analysis. The Brookings Institution was fairly academic, publishing more books than short articles. The Urban Institute and Rand Corporation focused on consulting work for the federal government. None of them had lobbying operations, or even took institutional positions on issues.

As historian Suzanne Kahn recounts in her history of the Center, the key actor in the Center’s origin was the Field Foundation, a small, now-defunct funder then run by Dick Boone, who had been a leading figure in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Even before Greenstein left the administration, Field Board President John Kramer (an old mentor of Greenstein’s from the anti-hunger world) had reached out to ask if he would be interested if “the Field Foundation would be willing to give you a grant to start a new nonprofit to try to work to safeguard the anti-hunger programs when Reagan comes in.” Greenstein agreed.

He proceeded to set up the Project on Food Assistance and Poverty. “Remarkably quickly, the Project on Food Assistance and Poverty — which consisted of only Greenstein and two staff members — had a real impact on public policy,” Kahn writes.

As Greenstein told her, when Reagan’s first budget proposal (the so-called Black Book) came down, Greenstein immediately reached out to Bob Dole, who, despite being a conservative Republican, was a strong supporter of food stamps and had been a key force in expanding them under Carter.

“Dole asked me to give him, by the next day, one-two page analyses of what I thought were the most damaging cuts for poor people in the Black Book,” Greenstein told Kahn (he confirmed this story to me as well). “I did that and Dole read them, asked a few questions, went downtown, and the next day Dole called me and told me he had met with [Reagan budget chief David] Stockman and gotten half of the cuts to food stamps contained in the Black Book removed.”

Of Boone and his aide Rob Stein at the Field Foundation, Kahn writes, “Greenstein’s Project on Food Assistance and Poverty stood out as one of the few antipoverty organizations that was successfully pushing back against Reagan’s policies. Stein and Boone believed this was because of Greenstein’s grasp of the budget process.”

Later in 1981, the Project evolved into the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), launched with Field money and with Greenstein as director.

The little think tank that could

History isn’t a randomized control trial, so I do not know exactly what the world would’ve looked like if Bob Greenstein had never worked in politics. But the alphabet soup of programs he had a hand in — SNAP (food stamps), LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), the EITC (earned income tax credit), the CTC (child tax credit), the ACA (Affordable Care Act a.k.a. Obamacare), to name just a few — suggests an enduring impact.

Chart shows pre-pandemic enrollment in safety net programs in the US. The most-used program is Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with 73 million average monthly users. Head Start is at the bottom with 1 million users. Data from The Hamilton Project

That impact was the fruit of Greenstein’s and the CBPP’s hard-earned reputation for quickly delivering reliable data and analysis.

“We all were admirers of Bob Greenstein — the president, the first lady,” recalled Melanne Verveer, a top aide to first lady Hillary Clinton from 1993 to 2000 who worked with Greenstein at the Center’s inception. “He could take this formidable amount of data and boil it down in a way that created the most compelling fact sheets.”

That reputation proved pivotal in one of the most consequential policy fights of the 1990s. During his campaign, then-candidate Bill Clinton repeated a pledge at his campaign stops: “No one with children who works full-time should live in poverty.” The tool to make that pledge reality was an increase in the EITC, a provision supplementing earnings for the working poor first introduced in 1975 and gradually expanded in 1986 and 1990.

Once Clinton took office, fights between Gene Sperling, an economic adviser pushing for a big EITC increase, and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a moderate former Texas senator advocating for less, flared up. Bentsen’s team came up with an expanded EITC proposal — but Sperling, armed with analysis from the CBPP, argued vociferously that their plan fell short of the campaign pledge.

“Bentsen says, ‘Says who?’” Sperling told me. “I said, ‘Well, says Bob Greenstein!’ And another person at the table says, ‘I wasn’t aware Senator Greenstein had a vote on the Finance Committee.’”

“Well, maybe,” Sperling responded. “But he is the person everybody is going to go to to determine whether we met [the promise].”

Crucially, President Clinton agreed with Sperling. “The president kind of gets serious and he says, ‘Well, he’s right. Bob Greenstein is the single most respected person on this. He will be considered the referee on whether we’ve met the goal or not.’”

The process led to several more weeks of arguments and analyses (many by longtime Center analyst Isaac Shapiro), culminating in a hard-hitting CBPP paper that prompted the White House to redesign its proposal. “I messengered [the paper] to Melanne Verveer, who I’d known for years,” Greenstein told me. “And I put a note on it, in which I said, ‘I will be releasing this later this week to the press. My preference would be for you to withdraw your proposal and redo it.’”

The White House withdrew the proposal; Greenstein and team were at the White House the next day to help design a new one.

Their plan was enacted. By 1996, when their expanded EITC was fully phased in, the maximum tax benefit for families with two or more kids had more than doubled. Subsequent research found the change reduced the poverty rate among less-educated single mothers by 7 percentage points, a significant fall from the 30.8 percent poverty rate in that group in 1993, and substantially improved infant health in poor families.

A decade later, another Democratic White House leaned heavily on Greenstein and his team.

In 2008, Jason Furman (himself a former CBPP staffer) was Barack Obama’s top campaign adviser on economic issues. The campaign began preparing a stimulus package to deal with the economic collapse, which threatened to send poverty soaring as unemployment neared double-digits and millions faced foreclosure or eviction.

From the beginning, Greenstein and the Center were a major part of that process. playing a key role in designing the antipoverty provisions of the 2009 stimulus, Furman told me. The stimulus included expanded support for Medicaid, additional unemployment and SNAP benefits, and expansions to the earned income and child tax credits.

Jack Lew, who was also working on the transition and would later become Treasury Secretary under Obama, told me that the team internalized Greenstein’s lesson to treat programs like SNAP as stimulus. “If you could increase the amount of money on a SNAP card, you knew that money was going to get into the economy,” he recalled.

“In November or December, I called Bob Greenstein and said, what should we put in it for low-income [people]?” Furman recalled. “He’s like, ‘Let me get back to you in a day or two.’ He and the key people inside CBPP came out with a recommendation for us. I told him, ‘We’re actually thinking of a much larger package. You need to come back to me with something bigger.’ And he then came back and doubled or tripled the size. And that is almost exactly what we did” in the ultimate bill.

One theme kept coming up in my conversations with policymakers about Greenstein. It wasn’t always mentioned explicitly, but it was apparent that Greenstein and his team weren’t mere number crunchers; they also possessed an uncanny knack for knowing who the different players are, who might support what, who might yield to persuasion.

In other words, they were some of DC’s best lobbyists.

“When I was in the White House, I would get called by Ellen [Nissenbaum, CBPP’s chief lobbyist, who’d say], ‘This senator is going to do this on the EITC or that on SNAP,’” Furman told me. “And then I checked with our leg[islative] affairs team and they’d be like, ‘I didn’t know that.’ And then a few hours later I hear from my leg affairs team, ‘Oh yeah, it’s true.’”

That kind of extreme situational awareness enabled the Center to modulate how hard to push, and for what.

Greenstein recalls a disagreement in 2001 between him and other antipoverty advocates about the first Bush tax cuts bill. At the time, the child tax credit was largely what’s called nonrefundable: You could claim it if you owed income tax, but not if you earned too little money to owe income taxes. Given that in 2000 some 28 percent of households didn’t owe income tax (per economist David Splinter’s data), that was a severe limitation.

Maximalist advocates in 2001 thought that they could push the Bush tax cut bill to make the credit fully refundable: Every child would get the $1,000 credit, even if their family was too poor to owe income taxes.

Officials at the Center thought this was overly optimistic because Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. “If I remember right, it wasn’t even under discussion among key policymakers,” Nissenbaum told me.

But moderate Republican senators like Jim Jeffords and Olympia Snowe were telling the Center that they thought they could achieve partial refundability. Sure enough, that’s what the 2001 bill ultimately included: The credit became partially refundable, with a complex phase-in starting for families earning at least $10,000 in income. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what Nissenbaum’s intelligence was telling the Center was possible.

That kind of incrementalism has frustrated critics of CBPP from the left, who see it as a myopic approach to policymaking. But Greenstein and team do have the long view in mind; it just manifests in a different approach to policymaking.

Greenstein spent much of his time at the Center fighting over numbers: how many billions will go to food stamps, housing aid, or tax credit expansions. But he views his work trying to alter the structure of government spending as even more important.

Take the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985. That bill, swiftly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and largely forgotten now, sought to guarantee balanced budgets by threatening automatic across-the-board budget cuts if Congress did not restrain spending and/or raise taxes.

But the Act included extensive carve-outs exempting most programs for low-income people from the sequestration. Lew, then working for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and Wendell Primus, then working on the House Ways and Means Committee, both credit Greenstein and the Center for formulating those exceptions, protecting the poor from the budget ax.

The legacy of that work became apparent later on. In 2011, the Congress again adopted a plan for automatic sequestration cuts, which took effect in 2013. But because of the precedent set in 1985, the spending cuts again left low-income programs untouched — a reminder that structures tend to endure even as spending levels change.

The limits and promise of the inside game

If you ever need a pick-me-up, I highly recommend calling up people in DC and asking them about Bob Greenstein. Just about everyone he’s worked with, on either side of the aisle, responds with enthusiastic acclaim and respect, and stories of times when his work made a difference.

Former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) told me that Bob and the Center’s arguments were pivotal in persuading him to vote against the Balanced Budget Amendment in the 1990s — which is notable given that the amendment failed to pass the Senate by a single vote.

Chuck Blahous, who was the George W. Bush administration’s top aide in its Social Security reform push in 2005, told me, “Seemingly every time we put something out, Bob, Jason [Furman], and the CBPP team were ready with rapidly composed and influential attacks.” He didn’t even seem mad about it, just spoke with resigned awe.

“I don’t think there was anybody who was as difficult to try to make an effective case against, or make an effective case to support some conservative issue to, as Bob,” Ron Haskins, who was a top staffer on welfare issues in the House from 1986 to 2000, told me.

Chris Edley, now an influential legal scholar and interim dean of UC Berkeley’s education school, worked with Greenstein to design the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in the Carter administration. He began our phone call by abruptly declaring, “Bob Greenstein is a great American!”

But you don’t swing billions in federal spending without earning at least a few critics.

Greenstein founded the Center at a pivotal moment in American political history. The “liberal consensus” that had defined national politics since FDR was coming apart at its seams. Where previous presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon had actually fought for more spending programs — as in the former’s massive Social Security expansion and the latter’s unsuccessful push for a guaranteed income — the Reagan administration was a different animal.

In his first year, Reagan signed into law a spending bill featuring a 22.2 percent overall cut in welfare program budgets. Where Nixon and Eisenhower were basically indifferent to tax cuts, Reagan slashed rates across the board, bringing the rate for top earners from 70 to 50 percent.

America had taken a hard rightward turn on economic issues, and most distressing of all to the left, the turn appeared to be broadly popular with voters. Reagan was reelected by a crushing 18-point margin. His vice president easily won the race to succeed him. Democrats only became a viable national party again after following public opinion rightward under Bill Clinton, who pledged on the campaign trail to “end welfare as we know it” and followed through in office. (Greenstein pushed for Clinton to veto; that battle he lost.)

Greenstein spent most of his career carving out incremental but significant wins for America’s poorest people in an extremely unfavorable environment. To his sympathizers, among whom I count myself, he made the best he could out of an incredibly difficult situation. Things could have been much worse without him.

Chart of child poverty, measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure, fell from 20.7 percent in 1967 to 12.8 percent in 2019. Government programs did much more to reduce the poverty rate in 2019 than 1967. Data from Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy

Just days before final congressional passage of the 1996 welfare bill, for instance, the bill was written such that it would not merely throw millions off cash welfare, but also take away many of those people’s Medicaid coverage at the same time. An intervention from the Center helped strip that provision, so most people losing welfare could at least retain their Medicaid coverage. Those wins matter.

To his critics on the left though, he symbolized a willingness to accommodate America’s rightward shift rather than attempt to undo it. He was an accommodator, they argue, not a warrior.

“Providing technical assistance so lawmakers can do what they are already wanting to do is fine of course,” Matt Bruenig, the founder of the People’s Policy Project and a prominent critic of Greenstein from the socialist left, told me. “But lots of people can do that. So the question is what independent effect did Bob have on the trajectory of the US welfare state? It seems like the answer is very little precisely because of the timidity of his approach.”

This claim strikes me as overly cynical. It’s not actually true that lots of people can provide rapid-fire technical assistance to lawmakers, and it certainly was not true in the era before government spending data was all available online. Policymakers have cited numerous instances to me when the intervention of Bob and the Center did have an independent effect and meaningfully changed the safety net. I’m inclined to believe them.

But it’s true that the US welfare state did not come to equal that of our European peers during Greenstein’s tenure. I have my doubts that any political strategy could have transformed America into Denmark over the last 40 years, but some critics argue the Center should have done more to try.

Shawn Fremstad, director of law and political economy and senior adviser at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a veteran staffer at CBPP in the 1990s and 2000s, has a lot of personal respect for Greenstein and the organization. But he argues that from a left perspective, the group’s tactical efforts needed to at the very least be supplemented by a more aggressive push for a broader, Scandinavian-style safety net.

“We needed more than really good number crunching and rapid response,” Fremstad told me. “We needed groups that were able to stand back and look at the big-picture narrative.”

It’s a debate about how change happens that’s as old as politics. Ron Pollack, founder of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and the health care group Families USA, has known Greenstein since the early 1970s. Pollack was once a lawyer for the National Welfare Rights Organization, a group trying to organize mostly low-income Black women to fight for more benefits. By the late 2000s, he was helping broker meetings between health advocates, the health insurance lobby, and the pharmaceutical lobby for what would eventually become the Affordable Care Act.

He views all these as part of the same fight to expand government aid to people in need, and in Greenstein sees someone who made a similar calculation (though Greenstein has largely eschewed working with corporate lobbies). “Bob and I countless times would talk about this and we would lament our good friends who wanted to go for the whole enchilada on different bills,” Pollack told me. “And it meant you’d not get the whole enchilada. You wouldn’t get a morsel.”

Greenstein is a pretty calm guy. The most passionate I’ve seen him get is in response to the critique that he hasn’t pushed enough.

“I have a strong moral view,” Greenstein told me, as though delivering a sermon. “Mine is, if you have the ability to win advances that make the lives of millions of poor people and poor children better, then it’s verboten to leave them on the table, unless leaving them on the table means that in not-too-long order you come back and get something bigger.“

This is, in many ways, the core of the Greenstein ethos. Notching incremental advances is not a moral failing, it’s what moral seriousness looks like. What’s morally unserious is demanding a full loaf, being offered half, and rejecting it in favor of nothing.

Of course that has to exist alongside a longer-term vision. You need both the activist and the accountant, both the person picketing and the person crunching numbers. But without the latter, you miss out on really important gains and open yourself up to potentially devastating losses.

In 2019, when those on the Democratic Party’s left were letting themselves get carried away with the idea of passing Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, it was easy to see figures like Greenstein as the enemy, as cautious foes of transformative change. After the last two years, however, that pre-pandemic moment of wide-eyed optimism on the left seems more like a fever dream.

Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema set the limits on what Democrats could do in power, and soon the average member of Congress will be more conservative than either of them. Forget Medicare-for-all; progressives will be lucky if Medicare as it exists avoids cuts next year.

Ours is a future where transformative change may not be in the offing. The uncompromising idealist will be spoiling for the fight. But the incrementalist may be who we need to eke out some wins for the vulnerable.

Correction, November 16, 10:20 am: A previous version misstated the role of Isaac Shapiro in CBPP work. Much of the analysis in the Center’s EITC proposal was done by him.

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