The Poverty Candidates

John Edwards made poverty an issue in his 2004 campaign for the White House. This time around, he has company: Barack Obama is also working to put poverty back on the political agenda.

The Bible says, "Ye have the poor with you always." But the issue of poverty has been conspicuously absent from recent presidential campaigns. This year, it's back on the Democrats' agenda.

Poverty is not a new issue for John Edwards. He talked about "Two Americas" in his 2004 campaign for the White House. And this year? "We've still got two Americas in this country," Edwards recently told the NAACP.

The former senator from North Carolina calls fighting poverty "the cause of my life," and vows that it "will be as long as I am alive and breathing." Does he look like a hypocrite because he got a $400 haircut and built a 28,000-square-foot mansion? Not really, he says, because he was not born to wealth and privilege: "I come from a fairly modest beginning, but I've lived the American Dream."

This year, Edwards has competition for the role of poverty candidate. "Poverty is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in Washington last week. "It is the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago." As the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama could have had a top job in corporate America. Instead, he became a community organizer in Chicago.

Edwards has just finished an eight-state poverty trip, explicitly evoking Robert Kennedy's 1968 tour. "Poverty looks different now than it did when Bobby Kennedy went through Appalachia," Edwards said. Obama also evoked the memory of RFK, telling supporters in Washington, "When Kennedy turned to the reporters traveling with him, with tears in his eyes he asked a single question about poverty in America: 'How can a country like this allow it?' "

Why is poverty back on the political agenda? One reason is the nation's shock over the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Edwards said, "Some of the inspiration comes from what America saw happen in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, which I think for a period of time shined a very bright light on the conditions that exist in a lot of America."

It also has to do with economic insecurity in a globalized economy. Middle-class people feel that fear, and they understand that poor people share it. "Every American is vulnerable to the insecurities and anxieties of this new economy," Obama said. Edwards told voters in New Orleans, "The last thing we ought to be doing is giving jobs to big multinational corporations that do business all over the world. How about if we give those jobs to the people of New Orleans that want to work?"

In the 1960s, President Johnson's War on Poverty drove the middle class and the poor apart. Middle-class Americans felt that the "war" was being fought at their expense and that their money was going to the undeserving poor—"welfare queens" and urban rioters. Public cynicism was reflected in Ronald Reagan's famous quip, "We fought a War on Poverty, and poverty won."

Obama argues that many effective programs emerged from Johnson's War on Poverty but adds, "There were also some ineffective programs that were defended anyway." He criticizes "the inability of some on the left to acknowledge that the problems of absent fathers or persistent crime were indeed problems that needed to be addressed."

How are today's poor different from the poor of Robert Kennedy's time? "Today," Edwards said, "about twice as many people who are working full-time live in poverty." Obama declared, "What we can do is retire the phrase 'working poor' in our time." Both candidates contend that the middle class and the poor now share the same interests: Both groups are made up of working Americans trying to make ends meet in an uncertain and threatening world.

Edwards and Obama are not squabbling just with each other. They're trying to overtake the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. It was Bill Clinton who tried to reorient the Democratic Party toward the needs of the middle class. Apparently poor Americans do not think that their interests and those of the middle class are in conflict. In polls this year by Opinion Research for CNN, Hillary Clinton runs far ahead of her rivals among Democrats who make less than $15,000 a year.