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On Poverty, Edwards Faces Old Hurdles

Former senator John Edwards helps build a new home last week in New Orleans's poor Lower Ninth Ward. He has called poverty a
Former senator John Edwards helps build a new home last week in New Orleans's poor Lower Ninth Ward. He has called poverty a "national shame." (By Sean Gardner -- Getty Images)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

ALLENDALE, S.C. -- His rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination were busy April 26 preparing for their first televised debate, but John Edwards was 45 miles south, strolling along a dirt road in this struggling town in South Carolina's Low Country to chat with what few people he could find among the many abandoned houses.

"We've got 37 million people who wake up every day in poverty," he declared moments later to residents gathered outside a local church, under the shade of a giant live oak. "This is not okay, not in the richest country on the planet."

As he makes his second bid for the White House, the former senator from North Carolina is sounding a clarion call of a sort not heard on the presidential campaign trail since Robert F. Kennedy's run in 1968. A millworker's son who became a multimillionaire trial lawyer, Edwards brings to the subject a hard-edged rhetoric and a host of proposals culled from the University of North Carolina's poverty center, which he started and ran after his losing campaign for vice president in 2004.

Advocates and researchers praise Edwards for focusing on an issue they say too many have shied from over the years. "It's so refreshing," said Peter Edelman, a former aide to Kennedy who quit the Clinton administration in protest over its welfare overhaul and now teaches at Georgetown Law School. "It's a wake-up call for a lot of people in this country."

But Edwards's plan to "end poverty in 30 years" also underscores the challenges of tackling poverty in the political arena, of the intractability of the problem and of the seeming timelessness of the debates over solving it.

Edwards dedicated himself to the subject for two years, effectively making it his part-time job and part of the record on which voters will judge him, and yet he said in an interview that his time at the UNC center did not reshape his thinking on poverty. The platform he has produced, while lengthier than his rivals', consists primarily of ideas that have been percolating in the academy for years and are shared by some other candidates, such as creating publicly subsidized temporary jobs, expanding the earned-income tax credit and easing college affordability.

If there is a personal imprint on Edwards's plan, it is his argument for reducing racial and economic segregation -- that, as he put it in one speech, "if we truly believe that we are all equal, then we should live together, too." To achieve this, Edwards proposes doing away with public housing projects and replacing them with 1 million rental vouchers, to disperse the poor into better neighborhoods and suburbs, closer to good schools and jobs.

The idea sounds bold, but it faces a deflating reality: A major federal experiment conducted for more than a decade has found that dispersing poor families with vouchers does not improve earnings or school performance, leaving some economists puzzled that Edwards would make such dispersal a centerpiece of his anti-poverty program. Edwards said he was unaware of the experiment.

"The Edwards proposal is a good idea, but I don't think it's likely to accomplish the primary aim he intends," said Jeffrey Kling, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied the experiment.

Missing from Edwards's approach, some thinkers on the subject say, is the same crucial component lacking in past proposals: a way of framing the problem that can inspire political will to help a segment of society that tends not to vote.

Margy Waller, a policy adviser in the Clinton administration, said that because so many Americans believe poverty results from bad personal decisions, it is better to address it in broader terms of improving social cohesion, reducing inequality and strengthening the economy, instead of focusing on "poverty."

That is how Prime Minister Tony Blair has sold his anti-poverty plan in Britain, she said, and she is surprised that Edwards has not framed his proposals that way, since there is so much research showing that the public's views are a hurdle. She worries that it will be hard for Edwards to get elected, much less implement his plans, with his current rhetoric.


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