US Politics

Does John Edwards “Get” Poverty?

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It would appear that the writers at the American Prospect don't
believe that John Edwards can really do much to alleviate poverty,
or that he really believes what he is talking about. There's a
fascinating couple of pieces out in the past couple of days,
discussing whether or not John Edwards really 'gets' poverty,
just as he has embarked on this "Road to One America" tour to
discuss and focus attention on the issue of poverty in the United
States.

Garrance Franke-Ruta writes

Edwards' problem is that poverty in today's America,
as in New Orleans, has not merely been the result of too low a
minimum wage or other defects of bureaucratic liberalism. It is
also a consequence of a lack of social and political power among
certain groups of people, and the distortion effects that this
historic lack of social capital or hope has on whole communities.
Government programs can help reduce the negative consequences of
the lack of power, and have a tremendous positive impact on how
poor people are able to live.

 

But offered a choice between the promise
of new programs and political candidates who might enhance their
social standing and political power, many poor people are choosing
the promise of social change. They understand intuitively that
social equality and increased political power for the
disenfranchised leads inexorably to greater economic equality and
opportunities for all.

I'm not convinced by this critique.


The idea that solving American poverty is a matter of "the promise
of social change" might sound fine to a graduate of Harvard who is
a journalist, but it doesn't bring us closer to meaningful
government policy to help the poor. While it sounds appealing, what
does "social change" mean in practical terms for the poor? Edwards
understands that policy decisions do have a profound impact on the
poor. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, may not have been
a powerful statement of social change, but it undoubtedly helped
poor workers in this country. The poor don't need catchphrases
about political empowerment; they need programs that provide
adequate access to health care, job training, and schools that give
every American child the chance to succeed.

Mark Schmitt writes

More important, though, is a point that Garance
doesn't state as bluntly as I'm about to, but which I take to be
the main point of her article: Edwards talks about poverty with
race (and gender) left out of it. Poverty is not just an economic
problem of lack of income, to be solved by getting people some
income; it's integrally related to imbalances of power that have
their roots in race.

And I just don't see any indication that
Edwards understands or appreciates those inequities, or if he does,
he doesn't have the nerve to talk about them.

Schmitt's argument is a more compelling one. Edwards does have a
detailed program
listed as part of his agenda to eliminate
poverty by 2036, but much of it does read like a program for white,
middle class American families. To address poverty in America does
require examining the nexus of race and poverty and the
feminization of poverty, and I would like to see Edwards tackle
those topics more directly. Poverty does affect Americans of all
racial backgrounds, but certainly, race matters and magnifies its
impact.

I don't understand the overall hostility of the posts about
Edwards at the American Prospect. Perhaps his proposals on poverty
are not perfect, but they are a step in the right
direction–American political leaders should be asking why the
richest society in the world contains pockets of economic
hopelessness, hunger, and deprivation. Solving this issue will
require more than the promise of social change; it will require
policy implementation, and I'd like to see that committment from
the other Democratic candidates before being too hard on John
Edwards.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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