Poverty Row

by Jeffrey M. Jones
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The biblical phrase “the poor you always have with you” seems to have particular resonance for presidential campaigns. Every four years poverty regains its prominence as voters ponder the candidates’ views on a spectrum of values-based issues. Where do this year’s would-be presidents stand on helping America’s poor and what would they do if elected? And does either of the two warring parties feature any standout candidates on the problem of poverty?

Thanks to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, voters can get a head start on probing the most pressing issues of campaign ’08, poverty included. The website, Religion and Politics ’08 offers profiles of the major candidates using a number of lenses: abortion, church and state, the death penalty, education, the environment, faith-based initiatives, gay marriage, health care, immigration, the Iraq war, poverty, and stem cell research.

By mid-spring, the Pew Forum had posted poverty profiles on eight candidates—Sam Brownback, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney on the Republican side; Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson among the Democrats.

One striking feature is the common ground among left and right. None of the major candidates views welfare reform as a failure. Indeed, the front-runners on each side—Clinton and Giuliani—have consistently advocated improving the lives of poor Americans through work. As the then mayor of New York, Giuliani famously implemented the reform efforts signed into law by Clinton’s husband. One would be hard-pressed today to find anyone in the mainstream arguing for “welfare rights” or a return to the entitlement mentality that was done away with in 1996 after more than 60 years of failing to end poverty.

Another area of agreement is support for increasing the minimum wage. Of the eight candidates profiled only one, Kansas senator Brownback, appears to oppose minimum-wage increases without reservation. The other Republicans (Giuliani, McCain, and Romney) have shown a willingness to raise it under certain conditions, a position generally opposed in conservative circles. This more moderate position has opened up the three to charges of flip-flopping for political ends. The four Democrats, however, risk nothing by fully backing minimum-wage increases during the primaries. The Left grows louder and bolder each and every year that the federal minimum wage remains at $5.15 an hour; regulating private wages, says the Left, is good for workers, good for employers, and good for the economy. Ronald Reagan (“Outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector”) might beg to differ.

Subtle differences appear in the tone and rhetoric used to describe the candidates’ views. Whether the Pew Forum is taking its cues from the speeches or employing selective quotations, the Democrats (Richardson excepted) sound as though they care for the poor, whereas the Republicans seem concerned only about policy. Whether it’s Clinton’s promise that the middle class “will no longer be ignored,” Obama’s call for a “stronger sense of empathy,” or Edwards’s declaration that poverty is “the great moral issue of our time,” the blue party is all heart. But it was Brownback who spent two nights in a prison reaching out to “the poor and dispossessed,” Giuliani who became a Republican only after realizing that compassion means sharing with the poor “the solutions that work for everybody,” and Romney who finally brought true welfare reform to Massachusetts, nine years after passage of the federal law, “to give welfare recipients the opportunity to achieve independent and fulfilling lives.”

None of the major candidates views welfare reform as a failure. Indeed, the front-runners have consistently advocated improving the lives of poor Americans through work.

Another facet of the candidates’ antipoverty stances appears in a Pew Forum profile on health care, where the partisan divide is much clearer. Although there is some agreement on the problem—too many low-income, uninsured families—health care otherwise offers a classic dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. Every Republican candidate supports reform efforts based on free-market principles; increased competition, targeted regulation, subsidies that help the poor buy private insurance, and greater freedom of choice are seen as the best ways to improve our health-care system without impairing the level of care. All the Democrats, by contrast, favor a different flavor of universal health care and are generally not content with mandating universal coverage on a private insurance system. Indeed, Obama, Edwards, and Clinton would probably pursue some form of government-run health insurance for all Americans.


Too many voters stop examining politicians and positions when they reach the end of their preferred voter guides. But digging into the details is the only way to gain an informed perspective on a candidate’s qualifications and his or her justifications for the policies proposed. Two candidates, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, most strongly articulate a passion for the poor.

Edwards, in a major policy address in June 2006, stated, “How we respond to the fact that millions among us live in poverty says everything about the character of America.” Brownback’s compassionate agenda is motivated by his concern for “the poor, the downtrodden, those without a voice, those in difficult circumstances,” according to an article in the Weekly Standard.

Although both were trailing the front-runners in their respective parties by double-digit margins in mid-spring, they are experienced political operatives who cannot be overlooked. Brownback won a second term in the Senate in 2004 by a landslide, not losing a single county in his state. That same year, the Kerry-Edwards ticket fell one state shy (approximately 60,000 votes) of securing the White House.

Two of the candidates, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina and current senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, most strongly articulate a passion for the poor.

In addition to political savvy, the two candidates have had similar experiences in coming to their views on the issue of poverty. Each credits a spiritual shake-up in the mid-1990s with refocusing him on a poverty agenda. Brownback, who was diagnosed with skin cancer in 1995, said his illness led to “a lot of internal examination.” He credits his love for God with animating his love for others and says that explains “my focus on Africa, the poor, on racial reconciliation.” Edwards, in similar fashion, saw his “faith come roaring back” in response to the tragic death of his 16-year-old son in 1996. The former senator’s revitalized faith “informs everything I think and do. It’s part of my value system,” he said in an interview. Those values include Edwards’s focus on poverty, health care, and humanitarian issues in Africa.

The common interest in international aid is significant; both candidates have traveled overseas to combat poverty in the earth’s most desperate regions. Brownback, in particular, is noted on both sides of the aisle for his co-sponsorship of the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act. In addition, the two senators share a fondness for the motif of “second chances.” Edwards has proposed funding “second-chance schools” that give dropouts the opportunity to earn a diploma and the potentially higher wages that go with it. Brownback has put forth a Second Chance Act aimed at reducing the recidivism of newly released prisoners through “housing, drug treatment, counseling, job training, and education.”


But a common passion for fighting poverty does not translate into a shared understanding of what constitutes effective change. There exists, in Thomas Sowell’s words, “a conflict of visions” between Brownback and Edwards.

Edwards’s solutions are articulated in several themes carried over from the previous presidential campaign, when he was John Kerry’s running mate: first, that there is merit in emphasizing the distinctions between the haves and the have-nots, or what he refers to as the “Two Americas,” and that pointing out the disparity will motivate change. Edwards is convinced that Hurricane Katrina was a stark demonstration of the Two Americas, with the private response showing that we “want to live in one America.” But Katrina was an equal-opportunity destroyer, and the overwhelming personal charity that continues to this day points to a nation already capable of uniting to help even its poorest people.

Edwards’s second theme is that government is uniquely suited to develop incentives to encourage the right kinds of behavior. To get the poor to work, Edwards proposes what he calls a “Working Society,” using government-sponsored health benefits, tax cuts, wage increases, tax credits, savings bonds, and housing vouchers to convince people that it pays to work, as though work itself could never be a reward. Edwards says, “In return for greater investments, we would expect everyone who can work to work, for the sake of their country, their families, and themselves.” And thanks to the federal government for making it happen.

Edwards’s final theme is cast as a bold vision—a national goal of eliminating poverty in the next 30 years. But it should truly be dubbed a multibillion-dollar pipe dream. His vision could cost $15 billion to $20 billion as it establishes a massive new federal effort to “create a million more housing vouchers . . . and one million ‘stepping-stone’ jobs over five years.” Edwards’s plan for ending poverty makes one wonder where the greatest poverty-fighting, wealth-producing mechanism in the history of world—the U.S. economy—fits into his agenda.

Brownback’s approach differs markedly, filtering poverty solutions through a series of tests to ensure that they will be in the United States’ best interests, free of the effects that produce dependency and favorable to the interests of the family. Fighting poverty overseas, especially in Africa, is about defending the dignity of people “no matter where they are, no matter what they look like, no matter what their status.” But it also serves the U.S. national interest in promoting democracy, fighting the spread of disease, checking China’s natural-resource grabs, and eliminating safe havens for terrorists.

In contrast to Edwards’s government-led approach, Brownback is wary of repeating mistakes, especially the kind that led to welfare dependency over many generations. Several of his legislative and policy positions seek to counter such dependency in its various forms. Thus he is a strong supporter of faith-based programs because they have “measurable results,” often exceeding those of similar government programs. His support for prisoner re-entry programs helps overcome a perverse cycle of dependency, “breaking the generational curse . . . so that it doesn’t go to your kids and grandkids.” Even the senator’s efforts to combat human trafficking can be seen as casting aside archaic and inhumane dependency relationships.

The final way in which Brownback hopes to fight poverty is his desire to “rebuild the culture and the family.” Government is often to blame when American culture fails to support the family; for example, welfare laws penalize the poor for getting married (one can lose up to 88 percent of his or her benefits), even though marriage is one of the most statistically significant factors for escaping poverty. Brownback has highlighted a two-year-old federal pilot program that features “marriage development accounts” that support low-income couples through educational, financial, and life-skills training. It also matches personal savings at a rate of $3 to $1. In Brownback’s estimation, as the family goes, so goes the culture. Thus, antipoverty efforts that affirm strong families are the key not just to each individual’s welfare but to the welfare of the nation.


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A spring 2007 Harris Poll listed programs for the poor as just inside the top 25 most important issues for government to address—well behind the war in Iraq, the economy, and education. But several other key issues, including health care, immigration, and jobs, directly bear on reducing poverty in America. The plight of the poor still troubles us as a nation, motivates us to action as individuals, and matters to us in the leaders we choose. Here’s hoping we choose wisely.