The Poverty of Political Talk

In the spring of 2007, I traveled to Allendale, South Carolina, a struggling town near the Georgia line, to interview John Edwards about his ideas on fighting poverty. I watched as, photographers in tow, he strolled the back alleys and shook hands across broken fences with some of the 40 percent of Allendale residents who live below the poverty line.

"We've got 37 million people who wake up every day in poverty," he declared to a group of local Democrats gathered under a giant live oak. "This is not OK, not in the richest country on the planet."

Two years later, Edwards has left the scene, in one of the more sudden vanishing acts by a national political figure. But what about the issue he addressed more explicitly than any other major candidate since Bobby Kennedy? I managed to get Edwards on the phone recently for his first extensive interview since admitting his extramarital affair, and he told me he was worried that poverty as an issue has fallen off the radar again. "There's reason to be concerned," he said. "The poor and the issue of poverty [have] been relatively quiet over the last few months, in part because of the economic crisis."

Regardless of what one thinks of Edwards, it is hard to dispute him on this point: We aren't talking very much about poverty. Edwards' two campaigns were an aberration in a two-decade-long shift in which the Democratic Party tried to frame its concern for the neediest Americans as part of a broader economic agenda directed, above all, at the middle class. The process began with Bill Clinton, who crafted this reframing with political goals in mind. It is now being carried on by Barack Obama, who is taking a similar approach -- not only because he shares some of Clinton's political instincts but also, his advisers insist, because his whole economic mind-set is truly systemic in nature. The fact that we are in the midst of a historic recession makes it even easier for a politician to submerge the poverty issue and argue that we are all in the same boat.

The debate over whether this reframing is a good thing invariably begins with welfare reform. To many of its Democratic supporters, the mid-1990s overhaul not only succeeded in shifting several million families from long-term dependency to employment, it also detoxified the issue of poverty and buttressed the social safety net against political attacks by reasserting the value of work. "In the Reagan years, Republicans pitted the poor against the middle class to great effect," said Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed, who as Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser helped write the law. "In the Clinton years, we worked hard to show that it was possible and necessary to help the poor and the middle class get ahead at the same time." As Reed sees it, Obama is simply carrying on in the same vein as Clinton, with the unbidden help of George W. Bush: "In the wake of the Bush years, the interests of the poor and middle class have been brought yet closer together, because we're all losing ground."

Others say the political ramifications have been more complicated. Margy Waller, who went to work as Clinton's senior adviser for welfare and working families shortly after the reform was signed, hoped at the time that greater public confidence in the welfare program would make it possible to improve on the reforms in the future. But she was dismayed that when it came time for the reform's reauthorization early in the Bush administration, Democrats were still on the defensive. As she saw it, Clinton's efforts had the inadvertent effect of reinforcing some of the old biases. If welfare now came with strict time limits, didn't that mean that those who were still left on the rolls were the ones who had "made poor choices"? Indeed, polling in the first half of this decade showed that public attitudes have gotten more negative toward the poor since the early 1990s. Welfare reform, Waller says, "created a distinction between people who work hard and play by the rules and everyone else."

Waller decided the issue needed a new framing and settled on a theme that became the name of her advocacy group: the Mobility Agenda. Her model was Britain, where Tony Blair was tackling poverty in terms of "social inclusion." Fighting poverty, Waller argued, was a smart thing to do because fewer low-wage jobs and uninsured workers mean a stronger economy overall. Waller had plenty of company -- any number of "mobility" initiatives are now underway, spurred by data showing growth in income inequality, calcification of class lines, and the first recorded rise in poverty during an economic expansion -- not to mention polling that suggests Americans are more upset about unequal opportunity than unequal results.

And then the Democrats nominated a presidential candidate who has long thought about poverty in these more inclusive and politically palatable terms. Barack Obama worked amid Chicago's poor and, as a state legislator, fought on their behalf by trying to add more carrot than stick to Illinois' welfare laws. But his campaign rhetoric from 2004 and 2008 made clear that he sees the plight of the poor as but one symptom of an economy that has gotten off kilter and that helping the poor is best done by restoring balance across the board. His advisers insist that this is different from Clinton's defensive gambit against Republican attacks -- that Obama's framing indicates a self-confident willingness to rethink the fundamentals of economic security and opportunity.

"From the minute I met him, I saw that this was someone who believes that jobs were the best antidote to poverty and that we really needed to rethink the social compact," says Karen Kornbluh, Obama's Senate policy director. "That getting education right was important for everyone in the country, that getting health care right was unbelievably important for poverty amelioration -- that if you were willing to tackle the big things, it would have an impact on poverty, and that the rest of the country was ready for that."

The debate over how to talk about poverty now hangs on what Obama is able to accomplish. To an extent that went little noted, the stimulus package was riddled with targeted assistance for those most in need -- including expanded unemployment insurance, funding for food stamps, an extension of the child tax credit to more of the working poor, a new "homelessness prevention" initiative, and an increase in Pell grants. "There wasn't a whole lot of framing around poverty, yet that legislation did more for low- and moderate-income families than any legislation in many years," says Robert Greenstein, director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "They just didn't talk about it in that way, in the way that it got talked about in the '60s -- and frankly, I don't think they thought about it that way, either."

Post-stimulus, administration officials say, the anti-poverty agenda is embedded in the big priorities of health care and education reform and in the rest of Obama's proposed budget. The administration is committed to funding only what has been shown to work -- for one thing, officials want better research on job-retraining programs. Even with the housing- and stock-market crashes, the White House remains interested in finding ways to promote wealth and asset accumulation. With welfare reform up for reauthorization next year, advisers are monitoring how the safety net, which is built around work requirements, holds up as jobs disappear. Above all, the focus is on the next generation -- home visits for new mothers, early childhood education, "promise neighborhoods" modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone. There is also more talk now about how to get absent fathers back in children's lives. "There's a little bit of writing-off the adults, as we've learned that it's very hard to change their life course. There are some supports there, but [the administration] is really focused on the youngest generation." says Lynn Karoly, a RAND Corporation researcher.

It remains to be seen whether the administration will be able to find the money and public support for this agenda. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution argues that the only way the administration can pay for key initiatives in early childhood development and worker training is by making unpopular decisions in other areas, such as reducing Medicare and Social Security for wealthy retirees. It will be a difficult sale, she says.

Administration officials concede it has been easier to expand the safety net at a time when the fear of poverty is more present for Americans -- recent polls have shown a clear uptick in support for the poor. But the officials are more optimistic than Sawhill about their agenda's post-recession prospects. In fact, they say, real progress on poverty will not happen until the economy is in a stronger position, providing jobs for low-income workers and tax revenues for social uplift. "The most important thing I can do is lift the economy overall," Obama said in response to a question about urban joblessness at his June 23 press conference. "That's what my strategy is focused on."

There is precedent for that view. As William Julius Wilson often reminds us, the employment boom of the late 1990s was as effective a poverty-reduction policy as the country had seen in years. But already there are those who see in this broader framing yet another subtle shirking off of the poor. Donald Norris, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, political scientist and editor of a 1995 book on welfare reform, sees it as a bad omen that Obama has so far been unable to push some of his progressive tax reforms through Congress. Poverty is "not an issue that America cares about at this moment. If you can't get traction on that with Democrats, there's little hope that you can get traction with it in other parts of the country," Norris says. "Obama hasn't touched it, and he's politically smart not to touch it."

Watching from afar in his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, mansion, Edwards basically agrees. He says his explicit framing of poverty was never intended as a winning campaign tactic. People in poverty "are not the slightest bit interested in political strategy -- they want to know, will they have a chance, will someone stand up for them," he says. "I believe someone needs to stand up for them and live with the consequences. If that means it's not couched in the right political language or not comfortable enough, well, these people don't live in any comfort; they live in fear. For the world to respond, we have to feel it in our gut. It can't be politically comfortable, it can't just be on the editorial page of The New York Times; it has to be in our lives, inside of us." He says he believes it is inside of Obama.