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Week of 7.25.08

Transcript: John Edwards' War on Poverty

BRANCACCIO: I'm here in San Francisco to catch up with a former presidential candidate out campaigning on his favorite issue. Former Senator John Edwards began and ended his run for the white house talking about the "two Americas" and the need for a new war on poverty. The current economic crisis has made him even more convinced that quick action is needed, and he's now pressing the candidates to sign on to an ambitious agenda to cut poverty in America in half. Our producer is Karla Murthy.

The former North Carolina senator—and multi-millionaire lawyer—was in the west this week to run his anti-poverty crusade passed concerned citizens gathered for what's called the "Momentum Conference."

We were both invited to this northern California exchange of ideas where I would have two chances to question John Edwards, one-on-one, and in front of the conference. In both interactions, Edwards kept the focus on the challenges of poor people.

EDWARDS: What's happening in New Orleans is so symptomatic of problems that exist that we haven't been willing or able to face up to. Some of you will remember that I announced my presidential campaign in the ninth ward, and there was a certain symmetry to that. I wish that symmetry didn't exist but it did.

BRANCACCIO: Edwards worked to make it clear that the fight for what he calls "fairness" has to be joined by Americans across the political spectrum... not just the activists in this crowd.

EDWARDS: And anybody who's spent any time in New Orleans knows that very little has changed since the hurricane hit. And by the way, most of the work that's getting done there is being done by local groups, faith based groups, community groups, charitable groups. Where's the government? I mean really. I don't...

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.

BRANCACCIO: I sat down with him- to find out more about his solutions for combating poverty—and how he plans on getting attention in an election season already crowded with a steep pile of policy issues.

Many people think of poverty in America. And they might have a vision of depression-era photos from Walker Evans, people living in homes without roofs and no running water. What is the prevailing view of poverty in America now?

EDWARDS: Millions of people who live in poverty in this country, in fact, don't fit that description. There are millions of people who have a job—millions who work full time and still live in poverty. They just literally can't make ends meet. I mean, just a week or so ago in Newark, New Jersey, I met a woman who's goin' to college full time, who's—working two jobs, working more than 40 hours a week. She said to me, "I wait until I get the cutoff notice for my gas or electric bill before I pay it. Because it's the only way I can make ends meet."

BRANCACCIO: Somebody living right at the edge?

EDWARDS: They live on the edge all the time. And anything puts 'em into ditch. And if they get into ditch, it's incredibly hard to get out.

BRANCACCIO: How hard is it? In the course of our reporting on now, we profiled the lives of many families living on that edge. A few months ago, we visited Alabama—which has a tax system that falls hard on poor people, including charging sales tax on basic groceries.

HINOJOSA: So do they have good prices here?

When working mom Callie Greer goes to the supermarket, she has to make some tough choices.

So you always get the sale paper?

GREER: First thing.

HINOJOSA: While she and her husband both work, Callie struggles everyday to find a way to stretch her dollars far enough to feed a family of three...

GREER: For a whole week, week before last, we had no milk.

HINOJOSA: When Callie Greer goes to the register, she'll pay an extra ten per cent in state and local taxes. This tax may not faze well-to-do shoppers, but for Callie Greer, it all adds up.

GREER: You hear that on the news all the time. You know it's this—"America's in a recession. Wall Street—and all that stuff." And my community and my people, like, "Recession? Hey, we've been in a recession all our life."

EDWARDS: These people wanna be strong. They wanna be independent. They don't want somebody takin' care of 'em. They wanna take care of themselves. But they need a chance. And they're faced with these incredible obstacles every single day. Just gettin' up and gettin' through the day is an incredible ordeal for them.

BRANCACCIO: Now, how many people are poor in this country?

EDWARDS: Oh, there are a lot more people poor than meet the definition.

BRANCACCIO: According to the federal government's definition- there are over 36 million Americans living in poverty. That means, a family of four surviving on less than $20,500 a year.

But that 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-thousand dollars a year should be considered poor. By this definition—over 90 million people, almost a third of all Americans are living in poverty.

EDWARDS: 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. I mean, everything moves in that direction. In this global economy, wealth becomes efficient. It goes to the place that is most productive. But what's happening in America today is middle class workers, people who are like my parents and my family, the family that I grew up in, they are havin' a terrible time—

BRANCACCIO: So, even people who are comfortable in America can find themselves getting very close to—the people that would normally be considered poor.

EDWARDS: You know, if you are—a middle class family, you don't have health care coverage for whatever reason—you've lost it, you're between jobs, whatever, and your child gets catastrophically sick and you run up $50,000, $100,000 in medical expenses, you're—you're in bankruptcy. I mean, there's no way in the world to come outta that.

BRANCACCIO: So, you've dedicated yourself to givin' 'em a hand here somehow. What's the—what's the idea? What's the program?

EDWARDS: Well, I'm chairing a national campaign called Half in Ten. The idea is to cut poverty in half in America the next ten years with a bunch of proven methods that are work-centric.

BRANCACCIO: 4 months after ending his bid for the whitehouse, Edwards launched the Half in Ten campaign in Philadelphia. Edwards along with a coalition of non profits are shopping around a set of policies to fight poverty as loudly and as constantly as they can.

EDWARDS (AT HALF IN TEN CAMPAIGN LAUNCH): And that's what this campaign is about. It's about speaking out, speaking up, taking action, being heard, and when this work, and this action, and this march is over we will be able to say that in ten years we cut poverty in America in half, and I want to go even further and say in 30 years we've made sure that poverty doesn't exist in America.

BRANCACCIO: To reach this goal—which no one denies is ambitious—they've come up with 12 steps to cut poverty- from raising the minimum wage to promoting help with childcare. Just this week, the federal minimum wage went up to $6.55 an hour. But the half in ten campaign proposes that minimum go to $8.40 an hour—which they say would help nearly 15 million poor and low income workers.

The campaign also recommends expanding the earned income tax credit (which puts money into the pockets of people who work for low wages). It also wants to give more workers the opportunity to join labor unions.

But when you say unionization, there are gonna be people watching us now saying, "Yeah. But then the jobs are gonna go to overseas." When we talk about higher minimum wage, there are gonna be business owners right now watching us going, "Great. I'll just have to lay people off. I can't afford that."

EDWARDS: I know there's an instinctive, short-term reaction. "Well, wait a minute. If I have to pay these workers more, then I'm gonna have to lay people off." Well, here's what happens. If you raise the minimum wage and you do it in a—in a thoughtful way, they can support families, can support themselves. They put more money into the local economy. They have more disposable income. The result is the economy itself grows. The unions help build a great middle class in this country. And if you care about long-term economic growth in America, we have to widen the base. We have to widen the foundation, lifting people outta poverty and strengthening the middle class. Unionization plays an enormously important role in trying to accomplish that.

BRANCACCIO: You're also trying to get people —to encourage them to live in places where the jobs are.

EDWARDS: So, we wanna do two things, actually. We wanna help those areas by creating jobs in those areas. And at the same time, we wanna encourage people to go where they can earn a decent living.

BRANCACCIO: Nearly 8 million Americans live in neighborhoods where at least 40% of the residents are poor. The campaign recommends creating 2 million new housing vouchers to better offset the high cost of rent.

EDWARDS: Right now—mobility—exists largely for people with—with resources. You got money, you can move. If you don't, you can't. So, that means if you live in a neighborhood with high crime, poor schools, no jobs, you're stuck. And it just feeds the cycle of poverty. Basically we've concentrated poor people together. And we've largely segregated 'em. You know, let's keep 'em—let's keep them away from everybody else. It's a terrible idea. Because what we wanna do is, we wanna integrate all Americans so that we don't feel like there's—there's a them and an us—the we're separate somehow from one another, 'cause we're not. I mean, what we do together as a national community is enormously important.

BRANCACCIO: But getting these 12 polices off paper and into action is the bigger challenge.

I mean, you say, "We gotta do something about poverty." Or even on your ambitious time scale, 10 years, cut it in half, every single person watching this goes, "Yeah, I'm for that." It's just then the c—then the consensus starts to break down.

EDWARDS: That's absolutely right. I mean, the question is, how do you bring together the various political constituencies to weave a fabric that'll allow us to address poverty comprehensively? Because, here's the problem: if all you do is one piece, then they'll fall in a different hole.

BRANCACCIO: And it's been argued that there is a cost to doing nothing. Someone affixed the figure of $500 billion a year lost to the economy just because of the children growing up in poverty.

EDWARDS: Yeah. I've seen the same numbers. I think that one thing there's no doubt about is when children grow up in poverty, they're gonna have greater health care needs, less able to support themselves, less able to generate income, significant amounts of income. It hurts the tax base. It hurts the amount of money going into the economy. There's a direct impact on America of so many Americans living in poverty. This is not some abstract thing. This is something that directly affects every American.

BRANCACCIO: But it is fair to say this is a fairly checkered track record when it comes to government programs to alleviate poverty. I mean, we had—the anti-poverty programs in the '60s. And you look at a city like New York City where I commute into each day, and black male unemployment in 1965 was four percent. And then after all this welfare stuff, it was vastly higher going into the '70s.

EDWARDS: Yeah. Well, here's the truth. What happened in America as a result of the war on poverty which is what you're talking about—the poverty rate in America was cut almost in half. But we made some mistakes. I mean, in some cases, we created a cycle of dependence instead of independence. In some cases, we took care of people who wanted to take care of themselves. And—and we actually paid people for not working, basically. I mean, there are ways to do this. But we can't give up the things that work. You know, is—because of the war on poverty, we have Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start —a whole group of—element—elementary and secondary education act, a whole group of laws that have benefited many of us, including me, by the way. And so, those things we don't wanna throw out. We don't wanna throw out the baby with the bathwater.

BRANCACCIO: Let's look at the politics of this. The stark reality is that poor people in America, for whatever reason, don't vote as much as wealthier people.

EDWARDS: It's true.

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: To spark that support—John Edwards has been pounding the pavement—making stops around the country to promote the Half in Ten campaign. He's been talking with as many people as he can who are struggling—and trying to get their stories out into the media. We caught up with him in New York City at what's called the Yorkville Common Pantry.

EDWARDS (at Yorkville Common Pantry):

We just met here earlier today for about an hour—with a whole group of families—who told us their stories, and they're so similar to what I've heard all across America. I mean, a lot of these folks are working, they are doing everything they know how to do, and they just can't make ends meet. It is impossible. And that is not acceptable.

BRANCACCIO: The pantry gave out almost 2 million meals in the last 12 months. That's up 20 percent from the same period the year before. In fact—in the last 8 years, the number of people around the country living in poverty has grown by almost 5 million people. But during this especially bad stretch for the U.S. economy it's not just the poor who are suffering.

The question is, during a difficult economic time, and we're living through one now—

EDWARDS: Yeah, we certainly are.

BRANCACCIO: Is that job easier or tougher? I mean, it could be tougher because middle class people are facing real hardship themselves. And they may react by saying, "Look, I—I can't even pay for gas. What do you want—bothering me with poor people in Alabama?"

EDWARDS: Right. And it's a perfectly reasonable thing. You have—the—I think it is harder. I don't think it's easier. I think it's harder. But, I think what you do is you talk about, for example, you're paying $4 plus for a gallon o' gas—why? Why is that happening? Look at what's happening in America. Look at what's happening in the rest of the world. Now, I would say this is not just on the issue of domestic poverty, but also on the entire issue of what America faces with the rest of the world. My own view is if not the greatest, certainly one of the two or three greatest responsibilities of the next president is to convince Americans that we are completely linked to one another both as Americans, and we're completely linked to the people in the rest of the world. That our fate is not isolated. Our fate is dependent on what happens to that child being born in Sudan, what happens to those—those families living in the slums outside of Delhi, that in fact, we are all entirely connected.

BRANCACCIO: In other words, showing Americans that they're linked to a struggling farmer in Madagascar, or showing them that they're linked to a person who struggles here at home.

EDWARDS: Yes, they are in fact linked to both their fellow Americans and every other person on the planet. And cooperate effort is absolutely crucial to solving these problems. Because that's what creates the political will, to force the politicians to do what they oughta do. Now, you'll get some of 'em just because it's the right thing to do. But, when it becomes 70 percent approval for addressing these issues in an aggressive way, cooperatively, with the rest of the world, politicians will be there.

BRANCACCIO: In front of the conference, Edwards presents his case that this fight has to be taken to the wider public.

EDWARDS: The policy solutions are meaningless unless we create the political will to move them. We first have to create the grassroots political movement to get this done.

BRANCACCIO: To create that grassroots movement—Edwards tries to appeal to the crowd—not exactly as a politician, but as someone who can, essentially, channel the stories of people who are struggling.

EDWARDS: I spent all this time in politics running for president, vice president, etc. remarkably unsuccessfully, and I said I want you to think of me as your megaphone. Because that is what I am. You know, what I can do, is if you tell me your story, I can be your voice. I can go across this country. I can get on television. I can speak to millions of Americans and they will hear what your struggles are.

BRANCACCIO: Edwards argues that a new kind of politics is needed to confront poverty in America and abroad.

EDWARDS: When children are starving and aids is being spread rampantly through central Africa, that absolutely foments political disruption. You know, political instability. And the result is people live in environment where they're incredibly susceptible to being recruited to extremist causes. All these things are connected to one another. And that's why we so desperately need visionary national leadership in this country.

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: Regardless of who wins, I think I've already written the inaugural address- at least this is the fear of some people in this room, I would suppose—the inaugural address goes something like this: my fellow Americans, I made a lot of promises earnestly in my campaign—I really meant them —but in preparation for taking the oath of office, they've showed me the secret book —and, I didn't have any idea how bad the economy was—I didn't realize how truly bad the Middle East was; and the fact is we don't have money for anything and I'm really sorry about it. Thank you very much. You're proposing a major government program to attack a crucial issue at a time when we're in bad straits. That's going to hold you back isn't it?

EDWARDS: There's a difference between leaders and politicians. If what we do —if what we do is stay back, look at what the public opinion is—see what the public is saying at some moment in time, we ought to be doing, why do we even need a president of the United States? I mean, what we need is somebody who understand where America needs to go, and has the guts to take us there.

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.

BRANCACCIO: You're talking what might be termed the anti poverty tsar—or the fairness czar —you want that job?

EDWARDS: I'm not looking for a job.

BRANCACCIO: You don't need new income to make ends meet?

EDWARDS: What I want to do—I'm gonna ignore that. What I want to do is I want to give voice to people who need a voice in this country -that's what my life is about. If that's in government, that's great. If it's not in government, that's fine. Little things will not address the challenges this country's faced with. They will not. Little mini steps—and baby steps—being careful and cautious, will not do it. And we need bold, and strong powerful ideas that the president's willing to stand behind.

BRANCACCIO: Clearly a message that is not a tough sell in this particular crowd: many of the people here are already working for or in disadvantaged communities. But there's no denying that grand plans do have a habit of getting frustrated by grim realities such as the ones america and the world face right now.

So we have this grinding war goin' on, an economic meltdown in the housing and credit markets. We have the environment to worry about. What is it about now, middle of 2008 going into 2009 that gives you, John Edwards, any hope that America's on the verge of moving toward a more positive future?

EDWARDS: That we're faced with great challenges that can not be dealt with except together. It's real—it is a—you—all these things that—that you're describing—in issue baskets: the economy, energy, climate change, healthcare, the war—the—the reality is these are all great opportunities —opportunities for the President of the United States to bring the American people together in solving these great problems instead o' treating them as separate, isolated silos. That the—these are, in fact, extraordinary chances for America to recognize our potential and to lift ourselves up far beyond these—these challenges which are very serious. But, to do it in a way that actually brings America together instead of dividing us, which is what we've been faced with for so long.

BRANCACCIO: Well, John Edwards, thank you very much.

EDWARDS: Pleasure to be with you.

BRANCACCIO: Every election cycle we put our ear to the ground to find important stories not covered by the mainstream media. You can help us go behind the headlines by suggesting otherwise buried election ideas, issues, and angles that matter to you. Send them to our "Democracy Suggestion Box". It's on our website.

And that's it for NOW. From San Francisco, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.