War Against Poverty II

The NYT magazine has a great profile of John Edwards, titled ‘The Poverty Platform’. A few snippets:

About a month after the 2004 election, Edwards met with his most loyal advisers at his cluttered home on P Street in Georgetown. It was assumed he might run again, and the question facing Edwards was how best to spend his time, intellectually and politically. There was talk of a foreign-policy study group, or maybe something to do with education, another huge issue for Democrats. It was Elizabeth, hearing Edwards expound yet again on poverty, who finally pushed these other suggestions aside. What Edwards clearly cared about most, she said, was poverty. She knew her husband better than anyone, and she knew that poverty was the issue that really lighted him up during the campaign, the one he had brought home with him and railed about in the privacy of their kitchen. Maybe it wasn’t the most exploitable issue in Democratic politics, but if that’s what animated Edwards, why shouldn’t he just go out and do something about it? …

Since Ronald Reagan, Democrats have largely avoided talking too much about social programs for the poor, fearing that middle-class voters would recoil at the thought of more of their hard-earned money going to welfare moms. Some progressives have tried recently to get around this problem by arguing that there really isn’t much of a distinction anymore between the poor and the middle class — that, as inequality worsens, the once-solid middle class, as the Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren has written, is “vanishing.” By this theory, average voters should now support antipoverty programs because those same programs will benefit the middle class. This is a tricky formulation, since it seems to rely on a narrow and convenient definition of “middle class” — namely, struggling households headed by two working parents with no education beyond high school. In fact, as the Washington policy group Third Way documented in a recent report, middle-class college graduates have performed remarkably well in the new economy, and while their debts have risen, their wealth and assets have accumulated even faster. It turns out that the middle class, in the sense that most Americans think of it, isn’t vanishing at all.

Edwards seems conflicted about which argument to make. He is most compelling about poverty when he’s talking about it as a national obligation — what he calls “the moral issue of our time.” But he also recognizes the need to persuasively connect it to the self-interest of middle-class voters. “For the majority of Americans, you have to convince them that it’s good for America and good for them,” he told me. “Which means it’s important to strengthening and growing the middle class. It’s important to the inequality issue. It’s important to America, and as a result important to them personally.” Edwards summarized his message to voters this way: “We’re all in this together. Do you love your country? We want everyone to have a chance.”

I saw Edwards speak in a Kennedy School debate in 2004, and was pretty underwhelmed at his lack of policy detail (a common critique at the time). So it’s impressive to now see him positioning himself as the #1 policy wonk of the Democratic field.

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One Response to War Against Poverty II

  1. Tim Worstall says:

    “Edwards’s campaign feels oddly inverted. There’s no doubt he wants very badly to win, and yet there are times when the entire campaign seems little more than an excuse for him to talk about the issue with which he is now most closely identified: the case for the 37 million Americans living in poverty.”

    The most useful thing Edwards could do is learn the actual facts about poverty. That 37 million number is not those “living in poverty”. It is those under the federal poverty line. Which does not include most of the help that those working poor receive. It does not include the major anti-poverty program, the EITC, nor MedicAid, not housing vouchers, nor….in fact it does not include any non-cash transfers nor any influence of the tax system.

    So actually it’s the number of poor before we try to help them.

    The truly crazed thing is that, his proposed policies (more housing vouchers, higher EITC) will be very good in reducing poverty amongst the working poor. But by the measure of poverty that he himself uses, they won’t change a thing. There will still be exactly 37 million people below the federal poverty line.

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