John Edwards is a Man of the Poor. That is what announcing his presidential candidacy in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans was meant to say. Edwards has spent the years since his 2004 presidential run marinating in the issue of poverty -- a worthy pursuit, but one that hasn't moved him beyond traditional liberal bromides.
Edwards is the overlooked candidate in the Democratic field, eclipsed by front-runner Hillary Clinton and by flavor-of-the-year Barack Obama. But he has a base in Iowa and among the labor unions, and the seasoning of having run a national campaign before. He could be well-positioned to make a strong run to Clinton's left in the primaries, making it all the more disappointing that he is so unimaginative on his signature issue.
Edwards' anti-poverty proposals aren't compelling because they fail to acknowledge a basic truth: It is impossible "to grow the middle class," as he puts it, without spreading middle-class values. Edwards famously talks of "two Americas." In one America, by and large, women find a suitable mate, marry him and then have a baby. In the other America, by and large, women have the baby first, creating nearly insurmountable difficulties for themselves on the path to the middle class.
Edward tiptoes up to this point. In a major speech on poverty last year, he referred to the social ills besetting young mothers who "aren't married." But his prescription for this problem is to excoriate teen parenthood and say that people should be expected "to hold off having kids until they're ready." He refuses to offer as the obvious solution the M-word that rhymes with carriage.
This is because the word "marriage" is something of a taboo in the Democratic Party unless it is prefaced by "gay." But marriage is the crux of the matter, not age or being "ready." The recent surge of out-of-wedlock births is not taking place among teens, but young adults. Only roughly 14 percent of out-of-wedlock births are to women in high school.
The left wants to address out-of-wedlock births through distributing condoms in high school and collecting more child-support payments from absent fathers. But most of these births are deliberate, so birth control is irrelevant, and child support is no substitute for a father in the home.
Once Edwards punts on marriage, he can't get at the root cause of American poverty, no matter how much money he wants to spend -- which is a lot. According to poverty expert Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, the federal government and states already spend roughly $585 billion a year on means-tested poverty programs -- a record level. If we could buy people into the middle class, we'd have done it by now.
Edwards wants to increase the minimum wage. But very few parents who support families make the minimum wage. He wants the first year of tuition at public universities or community colleges to be free, but community colleges already are extremely cheap, and college is already massively subsidized. He wants to "get more poor men into the work force by connecting them with more jobs." But this would likely amount to another job-training program. We've already spent $200 billion on job-training programs, with minimal results at best.
His idea of creating "work bonds" that would give poor families $500 a year to be deposited into a savings account is more promising, since it would give the poor a small stake in investor capitalism. But more important is changing the perverse incentives of the welfare system. Edwards pays lip service to the need to "finish the job of welfare reform," but that's meaningless unless the work requirements that have eroded since the welfare reform of 1996 are reinvigorated and extended to other means-tested programs like food stamps and housing.
Edwards is right to focus attention on the devastation that is the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. If only he had bolder, more courageous ideas to address it.