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.
"We don't need new policy. We have plenty of policy," said Waller, now part of a Washington think tank called Inclusion. "It's just that no one's helping us move it."Old Debates Are New Again
For years, the national poverty debate has run on a seemingly endless loop. Liberals have argued that the poor suffer from structural disadvantages -- underfunded schools, disappearing jobs, inadequate child care -- that could be addressed by public investment. Conservatives have argued the problem is cultural -- absent fathers, teenage mothers, high school dropouts.
What action that has been taken has swung from one pole to the other -- in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed an expansion of the earned-income tax credit; three years later, he signed a welfare reform law with new work requirements.
Standing apart from the back-and-forth has been an unavoidable fact: No program has helped lift up the poor in recent years as much as a strong economy. In the prosperous 1990s, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods fell by 24 percent, or 2.5 million people. Since then, the poverty rate has increased, to higher than it was 30 years ago.
"The ultimate goal is to create tight labor markets that create opportunities for poor people," said Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson.
Meanwhile, a separate debate has been underway within the Democratic Party, over how aggressively to fight for the poor. After pushing through the major anti-poverty programs of the past century -- the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s -- the party has had to defend some of the programs against charges that they are wasteful and promote dependency. Democratic candidates have urged help for the disadvantaged, but more often have couched economic issues in terms of helping the middle class.
Edwards's main rivals for the nomination have mostly adopted this measured approach. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has upset some poverty advocates by supporting tougher welfare work rules, talks about helping the poor by raising the minimum wage, reforming immigration and promoting savings. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) proposes expanding the earned-income tax credit and subsidizing temporary jobs but leavens this with calls for more personal responsibility, particularly among African Americans.
Edwards, on the other hand, calls poverty "morally wrong" and a "national shame," and he proposes paying for his plans by immediately repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. His admirers say his emphasis on poverty is proof of political courage. But it also fits with his strategy to carve out a niche as a populist truth-teller to the left of Clinton and Obama, a shift from his 2004 campaign tone, which he now says was too cautious.
Edwards disavows any calculation in talking about poverty. "Is this a powerful political issue? Maybe not. I don't know whether it is or not," he told the National Jewish Democratic Council last month. As he describes it, his decision to make poverty his focus of the past several years -- and, by extension, of his 2008 campaign -- was relatively spontaneous. In his 2004 campaign, he talked about poverty, but mostly within his broader theme of "the two Americas." That December, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, met with friends and advisers to discuss how he could spend his time before his next campaign.
"We talked about a whole range of possibilities . . . for an hour, hour and a half, and Elizabeth said, 'Can I just say, I've been sitting listening to you talk about these various things and, John, the place that you light up and show greatest passion is this issue of poverty,' " he said. "That's when I decided I wanted to devote significant time to it."
Edwards launched the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity in September 2005, with Hurricane Katrina and the scenes of deprivation it laid bare days earlier giving the venture an unexpected timeliness. The center had a small staff, paid for mostly by several million dollars from Edwards's campaign supporters. It organized a dozen conferences and panel discussions over Edwards's two-plus years there, sponsored a book published last week and explored rebuilding strategies for New Orleans.
Edwards received a salary of $40,000 for work that had him on campus a day or two a week. He spent the rest of his time traveling the country and working as a paid adviser to a hedge fund.
By the time Edwards left the center in December to launch his campaign, he and his 2008 policy director, former Senate aide James Kvaal, had assembled his platform, with informal advice from his 2004 policy director, Robert Gordon, now an adviser to the New York City schools, and several experts, including Bruce Katz, director of metropolitan policy at Brookings.
The advisers say the platform accepts the premise of welfare reform but goes beyond it to argue that society owes a decent existence to those who do work. "Welfare reform was about telling everyone they need to work," Katz said. "What it didn't do is provide everyone with the means to succeed."
Besides expanding the earned-income tax credit, Edwards would strengthen labor laws and create 1 million publicly subsidized "steppingstone jobs" that would fill "community needs," pay the minimum wage and last up to 12 months. To help the poor build assets, he would create "work bonds," a tax credit that would match wages to $500 per year and be deposited into a savings account. His universal health-care plan would help poor people not covered by Medicaid.
Poverty experts say the proposals are vulnerable to some of the same criticisms leveled against past Democratic programs. They are expensive, with Edwards's health-care plan alone estimated to cost up to $120 billion a year. They do not challenge liberal orthodoxies by, for instance, exploring private-school vouchers, even though supporters of that idea say it is justified by the same logic as Edwards's housing voucher plan: giving poor families a choice.
The platform is also short of proposals that directly address the social problems, such as broken families, invoked by conservatives. Edwards mentions these problems on the trail but said he is not offering policy prescriptions because he thinks there is little Washington can do in this regard. At a symposium he hosted in November 2005, Edwards acknowledged some discomfort in broaching such issues: "In poor inner-city areas . . . the last thing they want to hear is an affluent white politician telling them what they are supposed to do."Dispersing Poverty
Edwards is more willing to enter sensitive ground with his plan to break up concentrations of the poor, an idea with a long history in some schools of anti-poverty thought. "America has turned a blind eye to the extraordinary economic and racial segregation that still exists in this country, particularly in cities," he said. "We have to confront the issue head on."
Housing experts say there is a good case to be made for expanding vouchers, which give people more choice in where to live and are by some calculations less costly than public housing. There are now 2.1 million housing vouchers and 1.3 million public housing units. Three of four families eligible for housing assistance receive none.
But there is extensive evidence that it is going too far to expect that replacing public housing projects with a million new vouchers will alleviate poverty. In 1994, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a program called Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing, under which 1,820 families living in public housing in five cities were given housing vouchers that they were required to use in low-poverty neighborhoods.
The results startled researchers. The families who moved reported improved health, and girls in the families fared better overall. But to researchers' surprise, boys in the families fared worse than those who remained in public housing, getting into more trouble with the law and feeling out of place.
Most notably, the families did not fare better economically, nor did their children's school performance improve. Among other reasons, many families did not move very far from their old homes, partly because of a shortage of affordable housing in better areas, while others reported missing the contacts they had used in their old neighborhoods to find jobs.
"In terms of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, it's not a magic bullet," said Greg Duncan, a Northwestern University economist. Duncan brought up the findings at Edwards's November 2005 symposium; according to a transcript, no one responded.
Edwards said that he did not recall any mention of the findings but that in any case, he still thinks dispersing poor families is a cure for poverty. "I do think over time it will have a salutary effect," he said.
For some who study poverty, the question is not so much what Edwards is proposing, but whether, for all his focus on the problem, he is the candidate best suited to effect change. Edwards has become late-night comedy fodder for his new 28,000-square-foot mansion and the $400 haircuts his campaign paid for.
Kathryn Edin, a Harvard sociologist, said that while she admires Edwards, she is supporting Obama because his stint as a community organizer two decades ago in Chicago indicated a "deep set of personal commitments" to the poor.
Edwards said it is fair to ask how his call for different classes to live together can be reconciled with his family's decision to build a house that sits on 102 acres and is invisible from the road. The answer, he said, is that the estate is surrounded by farmhouses and smaller homes. "The neighborhood is very diverse racially, very diverse economically," he said.
But the larger insinuation that he is not credible on the subject riles Edwards, who notes that many rich people throughout history have helped the poor. "If you go from nothing to being extraordinarily successful and you don't try to do things to help those who have been less successful than yourself," he said, "then all you do is care about is yourself."