Tuesday, July 29, 2008

John Edwards at Work Against Poverty

John Edwards, from the Edwards Campaign 2008


I had a chance to watch John Edwards interviewed by David Brancaccio on PBS's NOW a couple of nights ago, and was once again reminded why he was my first choice for Democratic Presidential candidate, with his acknowledgment of the "two Americas" and the class divide that almost no one addresses directly. This is illustrated in one exchange early in the interview:

BRANCACCIO: Although focusing on the plight of struggling Americans and the outright poor did not win him a single primary this election season, Edwards remains convinced that he can help light a fire under Congress and whoever wins the white house to get on this issue pronto.

EDWARDS: Listen to political leaders in America today. They don't even like to use the word. They are afraid to use the word poverty. You have no idea how many times I've heard, me, from political consultants, you have to talk about the middle class. You can say inequality, you can't use the word poverty. Well the hell I can't. Yeah, I can. If in fact we have people living in poverty in America, yes I can say it. It's the truth.

Americans are burdened by a number of class delusions: We believe there is genuine class mobility based on work and merit; we believe our society is largely classless; and, perhaps the greatest delusion, currently 53% of American identify themselves as middle class. This includes 40% of those whose annual income is below $20,000 and a third of those who income is over $150,000. It has been estimated that approximately 80% of the working class believes they are middle class, which explains, in part, why politicians feel they must talk about "the middle class" instead of working people or those those living in poverty -- two groups which are not mutually exclusive.

(Our delusions are apparently operating in the United Kingdom as well, where a study by moneysupermarket.com, a financial website, revealed that around 15 million people -- a quarter of the British population -- are working class but believe they are middle class, according to the Telegraph.)

The NOW program pointed out that currently the U.S. government defines "poor" as a family of four living on less than $20,500 a year. According to this yardstick, there are over 36 million Americans living in poverty. However, this "calculation hasn't been changed in almost 40 years—and, among other things, doesn't account for sharp differences in housing or transportation costs depending on where a person lives in the country. One analysis calculates that the poverty line is actually twice the official level...that a family of four earning less than $41,000 a year should be considered poor. By this definition, over 90 million people, almost a third of all Americans are living in poverty."

If this is accurate, then every member of Congress is financially elite compared to at least a third of Americans.

Edwards followed this up by stating "The pendulum has swung heavily against the workers and people who are tryin' to earn a decent living, and in the direction of people who have capital, people who are highly educated, people who have wealth. That would include me—by the way." How refreshing, to hear a political leader admit his wealth and his elite status without shame. There is no shame in wealth, only in behavior associated with its acquisition or expenditure.

Two of the greatest U.S. Presidents who undertook serious reform to help working and poor people, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, came from backgrounds of extraordinary wealth and privilege. I think it's likely that today these men's motivation would be regarded with the same suspicion often leveled at John Edwards, best illustrated by the ridicule of his allegedly spending $400 on a haircut. The post-Reagan, Right-wing version of correct etiquette for those who are wealthy demands playing down-home to the lower classes while you legislate against them at every opportunity; never failing to "dance with them what brung ya", or "my base" as George W. Bush referred to the "elite" at the 2000 Al Smith Dinner; and using hypermasculinity to imply that men who care about the needs of those less powerful are faggy (even if you secretly suck cock in Minnesota airport bathrooms or have a gay porn star being admitted after hours to the White House).

Edwards is using his political capital to launch and further a project called Half in Ten, "from poverty to prosperity", which "plans to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent within 10 years". Edwards' leadership is joined by Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF), the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN), and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). The Half in Ten Project has come up with 12 key steps to cut poverty in half.

Reading the analysis and recommendations at Half in Ten is illuminating, as is the entirety of the transcript of Brancaccio's interview with Edwards. I'm going to skip ahead, however, to Edwards' remarks about the current Presidential campaign:

BRANCACCIO: Who's the constituency for this? I mean, what's in it for politicians who might wanna go along with this, put this into law?

EDWARDS: That's a more complicated question. I mean, what you hope is that politicians will do it because it's the right thing to do. If that doesn't work, then you—you put pressure on them to do it from the ground up.


BRANCACCIO: Have you had occasion to talk to the candidates left standing about your poverty proposals?

EDWARDS: Yes, yes I have. Well, before I got out of the race, I talked to Obama and Clinton at the time about some very specific things, which for now I'll keep private. But I got very specific commitments from them about making poverty central to their campaign, making it central to their presidency. And some very specific substantive ideas behind that. I've also spoken to McCain. It's a little harder with him.

BRANCACCIO: But you've talked to McCain about these poverty issues.

EDWARDS: I have I have. I know John McCain very well. Served with him. Traveled around the world with him. It's a little tough because I'm supporting his opponent in the presidential race and doing it vigorously. (some laughs) But having said that, while he doesn't agree with a lot of the policy issues that I'm behind, he's been receptive to the concept that this is something we have to do something about.


BRANCACCIO: Get through the presidential race and it will be 2009—what should we be looking for specifically that will give us some sense about whether this is going anywhere?

EDWARDS: There's a very clear early indicator—which is whether the President of United States has created at least a cabinet level position, responsible with dealing with poverty in America, and the connection between that and the issue of extreme poverty in the rest of the world. One person at the top responsible for that. If that's been done and it's married to appropriate authority, infrastructure and money, then that's serious. If on the other hand, they're just mouthing words, it's the same old stuff that we've heard for decades.

So there we have it, from a leader who remains committed to his issues:
(1) Clear identification of the problem.
(2) Clear sets of proposals about grassroots action we can take, and
(3) Clear criteria for assessing whether our new President and Congress are actually moving on the issue of poverty.