CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- "Sometimes," says John Edwards, "people need a breather." He is not talking about himself, although surely he needed one after his brief rocket ride through the upper atmosphere of national politics. That ride ended -- or perhaps paused -- when the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost. The people whom Edwards thinks really need a breather from presidential candidates are the voters.
But Edwards is roaming around, with 2008 in mind. His travels to more than 30 states have been organized around his interest in poverty. His Senate term ended nine weeks after the election and he went to earth here. While his wife, Elizabeth, continues to recover well from breast cancer, he is director of the new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina.
Most Americans seem to regard as the only searing economic injustice the violation of their constitutional right -- surely it is in the Bill of Rights somewhere -- to cheap gasoline. But Edwards believes attacking poverty can be a politically energizing issue if, by stressing "work, responsibility, family," the attack "is built around a value-system the nation embraces."
In a speech shortly after Katrina, he rightly stressed the correlation of family disintegration -- especially out-of-wedlock births -- with many social pathologies associated with poverty. He said, "It is wrong when all Americans see this happening and do nothing to stop it."
But no one knows how to stop it. Anyway, spending at least $6.6 trillion on poverty-related programs in the four decades since President Johnson declared the "war on poverty" is not "nothing." In fact, it has purchased a new paradigm of poverty.
Edwards has a 1930s paradigm of poverty: Poor people are like everyone else, they just lack certain goods and services (housing, transportation, training, etc.) that government knows how to deliver. Hence he calls for a higher minimum wage and job-creation programs. And because no Democrat with national ambitions will dare to offend the teachers unions, he rejects school choice vouchers and says this: "Give working parents who are poor housing vouchers so they have a chance to move into neighborhoods with better schools."
But the 1930s paradigm of poverty was alive in 1968 when the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, created in response to urban riots, thought this would be an imaginative cure: government creation of 2 million jobs. This, at a moment when the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent.
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