Magazine article The American Prospect

The Poverty of Political Talk: It's Still Hard for Politicians to Speak Clearly about the Poorest Americans

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Poverty of Political Talk: It's Still Hard for Politicians to Speak Clearly about the Poorest Americans

Article excerpt

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. …

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