Poverty Focus May Not Pay Off Politically
Nearly two years ago, as a shocked nation watched impoverished residents of New Orleans beg for help in Hurricane Katrina's wake, there were stirrings about the need for a new war on poverty.
Some harked back to President Lyndon Johnson's efforts, which began in 1964 (when poverty rates hovered around 20 percent) and led to the creation of programs that included Head Start and Job Corps. The most recent statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau show a steady creep in the nation's poverty ratefrom 11.3 percent in 2000 to 12.6 percent in 2005. In 2000, 31.1 million Americans were living in poverty, according to the census. By 2005, that number had increased to 37 million. During that period, poor people living in suburbs began to outnumber those in urban areas, and poverty rates in metro areas in the Midwest and South climbed significantly, a recent Brookings Institution analysis showed.
But as the debacle of the Iraq war has dragged on, interest in a renewed war on poverty has flagged. And with recent polls showing that prospective voters rank the Iraq situation, terrorism, education, and healthcare as their top four issues in the coming presidential election, there aren't many political gurus telling candidates to make poverty a campaign centerpiece, as Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards has done.
The Iraq war is the Democrats' issue this election, says one top strategist, and while it's important to the liberal base that presidential candidates address the needs of the poor, it is not an issue that will resonate this time with much-needed middle-class voters, many of whom may equate a poverty war with welfare.
Both sides of that political coin have been on display in the presidential race this week. Sen. Barack Obama delivered his first major speech on poverty, touting to the party baseincluding the black communityhis bona fides as a former community organizer in inner-city Chicago. In doing so, he stole some thunder from Edwards, who was wrapping up a three-day swing through poor areas and whose support has been flagging in Democratic presidential preference polls. In New Hampshire, Edwards fell from thirdbehind Sens. Hillary Clinton and Obamato fourth, now also trailing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
But Edwards's strategists say that he will continue his poverty focus.
"John's going to keep talking about it through this campaign," said Deputy Campaign Manager Jonathan Prince. The campaign characterized the new poll as not reflective of where New Hampshire voters will be when the primary rolls around in January.
Alan Berube, who coauthored the Brookings analysis, said that to resonate with voters, candidates like Edwards and Obama need to widen the poverty discussion so that it reflects "anxieties facing a broader swath of the American workforce." The research he conducted with Elizabeth Kneebone showed that families in areas where there hasn't been chronic poverty are slipping into poverty because of lost jobs. Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, and Columbus were among 10 cities with the largest increases in poverty rates.
"The challenge for candidates like Edwards and Obama," he said, "is to show how their policy ideas to help the poor are important for any family dealing with the vagaries of layoffs, declining pension coverage, and mounting health and education costs."
And while candidates grapple with how to frame domestic poverty issues, a well-financed organization calling itself ONE Vote '08 has launched a $30 million campaign to bring attention to global poverty. That group, which has received about $22 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and support from U2's Bono, has targeted four early-primary states and is promoting the message that helping people in the poorest and most desperate places on Earth will ultimately enhance national security.
ONE Vote, which plans a $6 million targeted advertising campaign as part of its effort, will be asking candidates to sign a pledge endorsing the mission of promoting global health and reducing poverty. It's hard to imagine anyone opposing a reduction in poverty. But it's also hard to imagine politicians or voters turning their attention away from the carnage in Iraq.