#146 Summer 2006

The Politics of Poverty

Can John Edwards make fighting poverty a winning platform?

At a March conference sponsored by the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, John Edwards sat at a small round table for two days taking copious notes, as panels of policy wonks expounded on new approaches to fight poverty. Edwards founded the center last year after his defeat as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in November 2004.

In the age of George W., Wal-Mart and free market ideology, few public officials or candidates for office have much to say about the persistence of poverty in the world’s wealthiest nation. Yet here was Edwards, calculating whether and how to run for president, at a two-day seminar on poverty that, while attracting 200 people, really had only one student.

Edwards told the conferees: “When I spoke on the campaign trail about the two Americas, people called it a downer.” The former North Carolina senator had anchored his 2004 presidential campaign with the “two Americas” theme focusing on the nation’s widening economic divide.

Now Edwards has pinned his hopes for the White House on a strategy of connecting to the nation’s grassroots activists. Since January 2005, he has visited 34 states and three foreign countries talking about the “two Americas.” In key swing states like Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, Michigan and Nevada – where an increase in voter turnout among working-class voters could make a big difference in the outcome of some political races – Edwards has joined Maude Hurd, president of ACORN, to promote grassroots campaigns to raise the minimum wage. At each stop Edwards says that he is “strongly committed to moving people out of poverty and into the middle class,” and that “one of the most important things we can do is help families earn more money at work.”

He has also joined a campaign by Unite Here, the union of hotel, restaurant and apparel workers, to pressure hotels around the nation to improve wages for not just 90,000 unionized hotel workers, but also for more than a million nonunion hotel workers. As Edwards hones his stump speech, a main theme has become, “We must keep America’s promise of opportunity for all. We must build a working society – an America where everyone who works hard finally has the rewards to show for it.”

Edwards’ riff echoes Bill Clinton’s campaign theme that “any American willing to work hard and play by the rules should have a chance to get ahead.” But Edwards’ willingness – even eagerness – to work alongside unions and groups like ACORN puts him closer to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, or perhaps closer to the kind of politics that Bobby Kennedy embraced when he built a campaign coalition that included civil rights groups, labor unions and the poor, and would have catapulted him to the White House had he not been killed in 1968.

Work is at the core of Edwards’ vision. Work should lead to personal and tangible assets including homeownership, savings for retirement and a college education for one’s children. Work must pay fairly. And it should strengthen families, a proposition that Edwards hopes will make it harder to label him a knee-jerk liberal.

“[T]here are simple things we can do to strengthen families. Welfare reform helped millions of poor mothers get jobs, but too many young men were left behind. So we should make sure that young fathers get the same deal as young mothers. You have to work and take responsibility for your children. In return, we’ll help you find a job.”

Edwards is still figuring out how to frame his poverty message. On the one hand, he wants to make poverty a moral issue and appeal to the conscience of middle-class America. On the other hand, he recognizes that a growing number of middle-class Americans face economic insecurity and are worried about their jobs, their pension and their health insurance. He understands that any road to the White House must address those concerns and fears.

Panelists observed that 45 percent of American workers now earn $1325 an hour or less. The fastest growing jobs include janitor, hospital orderly and cashier. A growing number of private employers are dropping health insurance from employee benefit plans or requiring employees to pay premiums they can’t afford. The number of Americans in debt is escalating. More than half of all homebuyers last year had adjustable rate mortgages that put them at serious risk of losing their homes if their incomes decline.

Presentations by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker and Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren documented the increasing economic hardships facing middle-class families and criticized the conservatives’ efforts to dismantle social insurance programs, what they called the “privatization of risk.” Hacker, coauthor of The Great Risk Shift, showed that the same economic trends that hurt the poor are also creating “a harsh new world of economic insecurity for middle-class families.” He described the shredding of such safety nets, like health insurance, that leave more families confronting high medical bills or job losses without unemployment compensation.

Warren, a specialist in bankruptcy law and coauthor of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, pointed out that middle-class families now spend almost twice as much on housing, child care and health care as they did a generation ago. “It used to be that if you worked hard you’d be in the middle class and have a secure retirement,” she said, “but the rules have changed.” She urged the adoption of universal programs that would improve the security of the middle class and help the poor as well.

Edwards peppered the scholars and practitioners with questions that revealed that he was already familiar with most of their statistics and policy suggestions. He was looking for ways of communicating those ideas to a broad public and opinion leaders who might be skeptical of his populist platform. At the end of a panel on the privatization of household-level financial risk, for example, Edwards asked, “When you propose broad-based social policy programs, critics say all you’re doing is putting a burden on the American economy and making it like Europe’s welfare state that is presently having great difficulty. How would you respond to that? On the issue of the privatization of risk, could you comment specifically on the privatization of social security and health savings accounts?”

Edwards and the speakers explored policy ideas to make work pay; promote child care, job creation, job training, affordable health care and decent housing; and repair social insurance that protect people through retirement and sickness. They discussed the impact of increasing the minimum wage and strengthening union organizing rights. They examined specific policies that would not only increase poor families’ incomes, but also their assets and future prospects. They suggested ideas to help low-income people buy homes and use tax credits to encourage savings accounts.

Edwards heard a number of policy experts note that the U.S. poverty definition (currently about $20,000 for a family of four) does not take into account widely different costs of living in different parts of the United States, primarily due to variations in housing costs. A family of four living on that income in Boston is much worse off than a family with the same income living in Boise. One suggestion for addressing these geographic disparities was to add a housing component to the popular Earned Income Tax Credit – which provides an income supplement for working poor families – that would vary based on local housing costs.

Several scholars bolstered Edwards’ themes by pointing to racial and class disparities in family assets, including home equity and other savings, a topic that receives less attention than those disparities in income. Several speakers used the phase, “Income is used to get by, but assets provide the means to climb ahead.”

Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University, and Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist, noted that full employment at good wages is necessary, but not sufficient, to lift large numbers of people out of poverty. They argued that forces can be addressed systemically through both public policy and bottom-up organizing, by giving people hope and providing them with opportunities to learn life skills, like parenting, conflict resolution and character building.

It has always been safe for politicians to care about the poor in America so long as they confine it to the noblesse oblige of the George Bushes and the rich who support volunteers at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Now here comes Edwards, searching to define the next New Deal in an era of globalization. He supports an increase in the national minimum wage, local living wage laws that impose even higher wages on companies that receive government subsidies, strong labor laws that level the playing field between business and unions and protections for middle-class families from the insecurities of corporate downsizing and outsourcing. In his stump speech, Edwards lashes out against the greed of big tobacco, big pharmaceutical companies, big insurance companies, big broadcasters and big oil companies.

Edwards clearly believes that America is ready to elect a president who inspires idealism rather than triangulates with caution. He differs from the centrist wing of the Democratic Party in his strong support for unions and the importance of reforming labor laws to strengthen the right to organize. Whether or not Edwards wins his party’s nomination, his presence in the campaign will help shift the debate to a stronger focus on social injustice. With a fire in his belly, Edwards is hoping to prove that promoting an agenda of prosperity, opportunity and fairness can win the hearts and minds of America’s affluent, its beleaguered middle class and the working poor. If he’s correct, the son of a mill worker might become the next president of the United States.


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