What Edwards Doesn't Get About Poverty

Yesterday John Edwards launched his "Road to One America" tour to focus public attention on poverty, which, in an echo of John F. Kennedy's description of the struggle for civil rights, he calls "the great moral issue of our time." It's an admirable effort to call attention to the still-unsolved issue of poverty in the American South, particularly African-American poverty. In a further echo, Edwards will be partially retracing the steps of Dr. Martin Luther King' 1968 Poor People's March to Washington, DC (by visiting Marks, Mississippi), and Robert Kennedy's 1968 poverty tour, even ending where he did, in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.

But in his effort to renew the poverty agenda and become a political leader in the fight against it, Edwards has run up against a critical difference between Kennedy's era and our own: Kennedy's travels took place at a time of white male electoral exclusivity and came on the heels of more than a decade of agitation by a daring, outsider-driven civil rights movement.

Today, minorities and women have far greater access to electoral office and, while still underrepresented, one of each is running for president alongside Edwards. Meanwhile, the outsider civil rights movement has given way to a generation that looks to elected minority officials for leadership on questions of social justice and a less combustible form of identity-based representation. As the nobility and controversy of the civil rights era gave way to the controversy without nobility of the identity politics era, politicians learned to shy away from genuine challenges to the social order while simultaneously seeking to claim the moral mantle of historical daring. Today's goal, as Edwards' tour shows, is to be noble without being in the least controversial.

Such dynamics may help explain why actual low-income Democratic voters are least drawn to Edwards of all the top-tier candidates

When contrasted with the new hope of self-representation and genuine challenges to the existing order that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offer poorer Democratic voters, who tend to be disproportionately female, minority, urban, or young, the 1960s model of the white, male, liberal political leader -- clean-cut, well-to-do, and operating out of a generosity of spirit -- has been judged wanting. Indeed, most measures thus far show Edwards' candidacy has disproportionately attracted wealthy white men.

That's the case both for his supporters and his contributors. A June USA Today analysis of candidates' supporters across multiple polls found that "Edwards draws support from ... men, whites, moderates and the well-to-do. One-third of his supporters make more than $75,000 a year, the highest percentage of any Democrat. Despite efforts to cultivate labor-union members ... Edwards shows limited appeal to lower-income workers." A June AP-Ipsos Poll found Clinton with "a 4-to-1 edge" over Obama -- the comparison to Edwards was not reported, but is presumably even higher -- "among people earning less than $25,000 a year and a nearly 3-to-1 margin with people who have not attended college."

In May, The Washington Post investigated first-quarter donations and found Clinton and Obama to be drawing from a more diverse array of donors. "[C]ontributions from women made up 36 percent of Clinton's total, while women made up about 30 percent of Obama's donors," the Post reported. "All other candidates combined got 15 percent of their contributions from women."

Edwards' anti-poverty platform has so little resonance with minority women in particular that, according to a review of Zogby International polls from January, February, March and May for The Politico in June, Edwards drew support from just 4 percent of non-white Democratic women.

Some have sought to portray such disparities as a result of poor people's ignorance of the candidates and issues. "You can't put any stock in national polling of poor people. Poor people have got a lot of other things to worry about other than an election that's more than a year away," Al Cross, head of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, told The Politico more recently, in response to a Washington Post-ABC survey showing Clinton drawing 55 percent and Edwards just 10 percent support from Democrats and leaners with household incomes under $20,000.

But that's not a fully satisfactory answer. To be sure, the poor are less politically engaged. But Edwards was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, and has high levels of name recognition in key states; in Ohio, which he will visit later this week, he has 97 percent name recognition. Nor is it that the poor lack sophisticated judgment. Far from it: Low-income voters' deep cynicism about politicians and the ability of presidential promises to trickle down to them is a function of the keenness of their understanding, not their naiveté. Nor are African-American registered voters politically disengaged; in 2004, black registered voters had the highest turn-out of any demographic group. Already, Obama, who began the year with a significantly lower national profile than Edwards, has shot up in the polls in South Carolina (where Edwards was born and had hoped to maintain a home-state advantage), thanks to strong support from African-Americans, who made up 47 percent of the state's Democratic primary voters in 2004.

Edwards' problem is that poverty in today's America, as in New Orleans, has not merely been the result of too low a minimum wage or other defects of bureaucratic liberalism. It is also a consequence of a lack of social and political power among certain groups of people, and the distortion effects that this historic lack of social capital or hope has on whole communities. Government programs can help reduce the negative consequences of the lack of power, and have a tremendous positive impact on how poor people are able to live.

But offered a choice between the promise of new programs and political candidates who might enhance their social standing and political power, many poor people are choosing the promise of social change. They understand intuitively that social equality and increased political power for the disenfranchised leads inexorably to greater economic equality and opportunities for all. Edwards' promise of anti-poverty government action, in this calculus, holds less appeal than the transformative potential of electing the first African-American or first woman president in the nation's history.

Controversial African-American blogger Francis L. Holland made the case for this position on his blog in February:

Arguably the most enduring government-sponsored act of the 20th Century toward alleviating poverty was the guarantee to women and minorities of the right to vote and hold elective office -- a right that we had never had before the 20th Century. And, arguably, all of the enduring alleviation of poverty that has occurred has come directly from the right of women and minorities to hold office and thereby create and economy in which they, too, were likely to prosper.

Holland expanded on this point in another post, correctly predicting that Edwards' anti-poverty agenda would hold little appeal for the groups most prone to poverty so long as they were also offered the option of demographic change at the top of the ticket:

Electing Edwards to challenge the status quo is like supporting a queen to challenge the monarchy or integrating an all-white club by adding more all-white club members. It is possible that electing yet another white man to the Presidency will end the poverty of the historically disenfranchised, with John Edwards serving as a "pass through" for those who have historically been disincluded legally and by custom. But this is a very convoluted way of achieving what could be achieved much more directly by electing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. ...

Whites who insist on supporting John Edwards ought not imagine that Edwards' anti-poverty appeals will bring out the votes of Blacks, Latinos or disenfranchised women. We do not want or need John Edwards to act as a pass through for our participation in the democratic system. We want to participate directly, ourselves, for the first time in American history, on the Democratic ticket itself. And that is why the "two Americas" appeals falls flat when coming from wealthy white male John Edwards."

Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have all sought to cast themselves as the candidates of change. But the preferences of poorer voters make clear that Democrats are working with two change axes in this race -- a demographic one and a policy one. Edwards has been freer to propose more forthrightly liberal policies, such as his anti-poverty agenda, because he is the demographic status quo, while Clinton and Obama have taken a more cautious approach as candidates as a way of balancing the change they represent demographically.

Yet for either Obama or Clinton to win a general election, they would have to reorder who has political power in this country in a way that's much more significant that what any other Democrat will be required to do. The people who have flocked to them know this; it is both their challenge and their promise as candidates.

Without an active outsider civil rights movement in America to bolster him and rouse the nation, Edwards has been unable to gain traction with his poverty-fighting agenda. But the promise of change Obama and Clinton embody may yet give anti-poverty efforts new strength in the years ahead.