WASHINGTON—This presidential campaign may offer a test of whether poverty can make a comeback as a political issue.
For more than two years, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has persistently focused on the plight of the poor and working class, joining strikers on picket lines, campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage and, before he officially launched his presidential campaign, working part-time at a poverty center he founded.
As a candidate, Edwards unabashedly speaks of poverty as “the great moral issue of our time.” He has committed to a plan that he says will eliminate poverty in 30 years. The nation’s response to its 37 million poor, he decreed in a speech to the National Press Club last year, “says everything about the character of America.”
The top-tier Democratic presidential contenders will be asked to squarely address the issue of poverty on Monday evening. Edwards and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., will appear at a forum on moral values and poverty broadcast on CNN and sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a liberal religious group that concentrates on social justice issues.
The Republican presidential candidates have their own plans for energizing the economy. But Republicans and conservatives often argue that far-reaching welfare programs breed dependency, hurting the poor in the long run, and that the best way to lift people out of poverty is to create a robust economy that provides jobs and opportunities for those who need them.
Poverty once held an important place in Democratic presidential politics. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal lifted up the poor and realigned the nation’s politics. Lyndon Johnson proposed the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union Address as he was gearing up for his re-election campaign. And Robert F. Kennedy’s passionate commitment to alleviating poverty was a core theme of his 1968 presidential campaign.
But since the 1960s, leading presidential candidates generally have not focused on the plight of the poor as a central issue, though Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988 were an exception. Given popular resentment of welfare dependency, and conservative criticism that personal behavior had contributed to the persistence of an underclass, most candidates found it more fruitful to concentrate on the struggles of the middle class.
“Sen. Edwards was very gutsy to do what he’s done. Certainly, he’s done it against the conventional wisdom of nearly all Democratic strategists,” said Robert Borosage, who was issues director for both Jackson campaigns and is currently co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “Political consultants will tell you that poor people don’t vote and middle class people, when they’re feeling squeezed, aren’t generous.”
In the wake of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster—when the public recoiled at televised images of poor, mostly black residents of New Orleans’ neighborhoods left to fend for themselves as floodwaters covered the city—the predicament of the poor suddenly, if perhaps temporarily, moved to the center of the national consciousness.
New Orleans and its troubled reconstruction effort have become a touchstone of the Democratic campaign. Edwards traveled there to officially kick off his presidential bid and Democratic candidates routinely use the city as a symbol of GOP indifference to the hardships of low-income Americans.
Still, in its early months, the campaign has concentrated on other issues, as the war in Iraq, immigration and health care have dominated political discussion.
Edwards may be an imperfect messenger for a campaign themed on poverty. Though he was raised in modest circumstances as the son of a millworker, he accumulated a multimillion-dollar fortune as a trial lawyer that has left him open to charges of hypocrisy. He has been criticized for charging $400 haircuts to his campaign, living in a 28,000-square-foot mansion and working as a part-time consultant for a hedge fund involved in sub-prime lending that he has condemned as exploitative.
Yet Edwards’ campaign has resonated with the party activists who dominate the Iowa caucuses, and polls show him leading the field in the important first presidential nominating contest. In addition to his focus on poverty, Edwards also adopted other liberal populist causes, backing universal health insurance and meting out some of the harshest criticism of the Iraq war. He apologized for his Senate vote in 2002 to authorize the use of force there.
So far, the other two frontrunners have not concentrated on poverty in their campaign speeches. Clinton delivered a speech last month on rising income inequality but she focused on the threat she said it posed to middle-class families.
Obama’s past work as a community organizer in economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side suggests he may feel a special connection to the poor. But in the first few months of his campaign he has stressed issues with broader appeal, such as opposition to the Iraq war and his plan to expand access to health insurance.
Mark Alexander, Obama’s policy director, said the senator cares deeply about the poor. “When I talk to Sen. Obama and see what drives him, this is absolutely one of those things that motivates him, because he sees the inequalities in our country and recognizes he has the ability to bring about change,” Alexander said.
He added that in the coming months Obama would talk about a “broader-picture poverty agenda.”
In the Senate, Obama proposed a package of work-oriented anti-poverty programs as part of a “Fatherhood Initiative” that also included provisions to strengthen collection of child support. The legislation suggests a possible framework he may use as a presidential candidate to promote assistance for the poor that is coupled with demands for socially responsible behavior.
Republican candidates, who advocate pulling the poor up from poverty by improving the economy, will be invited to discuss the issue at a “Faith, Values and Poverty” forum in September, Sojourners said.
Peter Edelman, a former aide to Robert Kennedy who quit the Clinton administration in protest over welfare reform, sees evidence of poverty re-emerging as a national concern.
“I think it’s coming back. It’s unformed, as yet,” Edelman said. “There’s a rising concern in the country about inequality. There’s concern about giveaways to the really wealthy, and there’s concern about economic insecurity. The poverty issue is embedded in that.”
Edelman added that other candidates may shy away from confronting poverty as directly as Edwards, who has proposed creating 1 million new jobs for unemployed people, eliminating public housing in favor of 1 million rental vouchers to disperse poor people into better neighborhoods and establishing a “work bond” program that would match low-income workers’ wages with tax credits that would be used to build savings accounts.
Instead, Edelman said, those candidates may focus on broader proposals that address the insecurities of the middle class but have a significant anti-poverty component.
The expanded access to health insurance that all the leading Democrats support would help lift people out of poverty, Edelman said. Universal pre-kindergarten education, which Clinton backs, also would have the biggest benefit for low-income and lower-middle class families that cannot afford paid pre-school, he said.
Religious leaders urging a focus on poverty “speak for a real constituency in America today,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “But I don’t think it would extend to the great bulk of Christians, many of whom would certainly be sympathetic to the poor but wouldn’t have it as one of their great concerns.”
Opinion polls do not show poverty as a major concern.
In a recent Gallup Poll, only 6 percent of respondents mentioned poverty, homelessness or hunger when asked the most important issue facing the country. That ranked behind Iraq, immigration, health care, terrorism, gas prices and general dissatisfaction with government.
That is well below the 16 percent of Americans who mentioned poverty or homelessness in November 1991, a year before Bill Clinton won the presidency on a centrist campaign that emphasized the economic insecurities of the middle class
“Right now, if anything, it’s a latent issue,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.