Fill void of moral leadership

John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate, has been traveling around the country to support anti-poverty efforts such as raising the minimum wage.

Edwards, considered a prospective candidate for president in 2008, recently spoke with Q editor Jane Ruffin. Excerpts:

Q: You’ve been talking to Democrats all around the country lately. Why are Democrats seeming unable to adopt a single overarching political message to appeal to voters?

A: I believe we are. I think what the Democratic Party is focused on is filling the void of moral leadership that is missing in America. That includes issues like what I believe is the greatest moral issue in America today: 37 million people who live in poverty. Expanded beyond that, it means 46 million Americans who have no health care coverage, and beyond our borders, it means America providing moral leadership in the world. I think there is a void in America’s moral leadership in the world. And so there are lots of substantive components to what the leadership of the country needs from us and the world needs from us, but I think it’s all framed by doing what’s right and moral.

Q: You put that in terms of doing what’s right and moral, and yet it seems like Democrats have trouble talking about religion? What’s your take on that?

A: First of all, I think that the way I talk about it is there are a lot of faiths in America. America embraces all those faiths, and it’s one of the great things about our country. So the reason I use language like what is right and just and moral when I’m talking about, for example, the issue of poverty and doing something about the issue of poverty, it goes across all the faith traditions in the United States. And my own belief is that we, the Democratic Party, have to provide moral leadership on issues like poverty because no one’s doing it. It is desperately needed.

I have spent the last year, hour after hour after hour, meeting with families all over the country who live in poverty, and these folks deserve a chance, and they deserve somebody to speak up for them. It’s not just people who live in poverty. Middle-class families are having a terrible time getting by every day.

We, I’m talking about my party, the Democratic Party, we need to be their voice, we need to be their champion — not just speaking up for them but with real specific, concrete ideas about how to make their lives better, and that’s some of what I’ve been working on on the issue of poverty.

Q: On the subject of poverty, the columnist George Will suggested that you really haven’t taken the time to study, reflect and really master this subject. What do you say to that?

A: That he’s think he’s dead wrong. I don’t think that is what he suggested. But I’ve actually spent a huge amount of time on the issue of poverty, not just since the election was over. It’s something I was interested in before that. Can I just talk about what I think needs to be done?

Q: Sure.A: There’s a whole range of things that we need to do about poverty in America. What George Will was talking about and what others have talked about is they believe that the war on poverty, which was initiated in the 1960s, was fatally flawed. I think an honest assessment of the war on poverty is it did a lot of good, but there were problems.

And by the way, the war on poverty grew out of Michael Harrington writing in the early ’60s about “the other America,” which got the attention of President Kennedy and then President Johnson, who led the war on poverty. What happened with the war on poverty was in some cases money ended up in bureaucracy and never got to the people who needed help. In some cases, we created a cycle of dependency, which was a very unhealthy thing. But there were some good things that came out of the war on poverty.Because of the war on poverty, we actually cut the poverty rate in this country in half in about a decade, and because of the war on poverty we have Medicaid today, we have Medicare, we have Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. These are laws that benefited generations of Americans. So we did some things right. We also made some mistakes. America makes mistakes when it’s engaged with big issues.

Here’s what I believe we are dealing with today. There’s both a financial component and a societal/cultural component. On the financial side, we have to figure out ways to make work pay better. Most of these families that I’ve been meeting with work. In fact many of them work two or three jobs, but they’re working for minimum wage or something close to it. They don’t have any benefits.

Things we can do to bridge that income gap: Raise the minimum wage, which needs to be done. I’m helping lead minimum wage ballot initiatives in a whole group of states — Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Montana, Arkansas, Nevada. Second thing we can do is expand the earned income tax credit. Bill Clinton did it in the 1990s. It had a positive effect. We can make it available to single workers. Get rid of the marriage penalty.

A big issue in poor families — they don’t have any assets. They have absolutely nothing to fall back on, as we saw in very real terms in New Orleans. So because of that, we need to find ways for people to build assets. There are some interesting things going on around the world. When I was in Britain, I talked with Tony Blair about their baby bonds, which is a new concept there. They set up accounts for kids when they are born. I have a different idea. I think we ought to have what I call work bonds where low-income families — set up a savings account for them. To the extent they’re able to save, we match what they’re able to save so there will be incentives to save, plus they will be able to build up assets so they will be less vulnerable to predatory and pay-day lenders.

The economic and racial segregation that we’ve seen on our television screens in New Orleans, which exists all across America, is unhealthy for our country. We need to find ways to break down those lines. I would use Section 8 housing vouchers, not just to provide basic housing but to try to move families into better neighborhoods. Good for them, good for the neighborhoods they’re moving into.

Access to college. In this world of globalization, it’s critical that kids be educated, and the kids of many of these families I’ve been meeting with don’t go to college because their parents didn’t go to college, they don’t know how to apply for financial aid; it’s just too complicated. And so they just go to work, the path of least resistance. So what we’ve done is we started a model program in Greene County, a poor county in Eastern North Carolina, called College for Everyone, where we make college available to every young person in the county who meets the requirements: graduate from high school, qualify to go to college — have to go to a state university or community college — and they commit that they are going to work the first year they’re in college for at least 10 hours a week. So the idea is get them in college, get them engaged in helping support their own education by working.

And then finally, the nonfinancial piece of this. It’s just startling when you sit around and talk with families who live in poverty, that the mothers who have several children that they’re supporting by themselves — these women are heroic by the way — they have children who are having children. I mean their 14-, 15-year-old kids are having children. And it just feeds the cycle of poverty.

By the way, this is not necessarily a government thing. This is something that charitable groups, faith-based groups — I met with folks in Connecticut who are doing amazing work on this front to help prevent teenage pregnancy — can try to create some hope for young African-American men who live in the inner-city who expect they’re either going to die or go to prison, and as a result they don’t do anything to get educated, they don’t do anything to support the families they’re creating. We have to change that dynamic.

So some of it is financial; some of it’s about personal responsibility. I think the American people have a right to expect that if we’re going to help people help themselves, they have to take a big part of the responsibility.

Q: Do you think the poor then are responsible to some degree for their own plight?

A: I think the vast majority of them are in this place because of conditions outside their control. I think they don’t want to be dependent. They want to be independent. I can tell you personally — this is not something I read in a book. I’ve been in 25 states or so now meeting with families who live in poverty when nobody else was there. It was just me and them. What happens, you go to these community centers and poverty centers and almost all you see are women. And they are women who are trying to figure out a way to make ends meet and support their kids.

And as I said earlier, they are heroic. It’s amazing to listen to their stories. They can’t make enough no matter how hard they work. They can’t accumulate anything because they are up against such extraordinary obstacles. So what I’m talking about is trying to give them a chance to get out of the hole, you know? Not for us to take care of them but for us to give them chance to take care of themselves.

Q: Back to George Will. He suggested that you did not recognize the name James Q. Wilson. Do you know who James Q. Wilson is?

A: Yes, he’s a conservative thinker, a smart guy. I don’t claim to have studied everything James Q. Wilson has done, but I do recognize the name.

Q: Did he ask you if you recognized the name?

A: I don’t remember.

Q: There’s been a lot of buzz about former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner about being the Southern moderate of choice. If he should decide to get into the race [for president], do see him as a threat?

A: I think Governor Warner did a terrific job as governor of Virginia. He did some very positive things. Tim Kaine, the lieutenant governor who succeeded him, I think will continue the work that Governor Warner started. And if Mark decides to run for president, I think he’ll be a serious candidate.

Q: Would you consider running for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket again?

A: I haven’t made any decision about what I’m going to do politically on any front. My life is now composed of trying to do something about the issue of poverty, which I care deeply about. Somewhere down the road I’ll decide what I’ll do politically.

Q: Do you mind saying how Elizabeth Edwards is doing?A: She’s doing well. She finished her treatment last summer for breast cancer and had a series of tests done before Christmas — late November — which were all very positive. So thank you for asking. She’s doing great. And by the way, the community in North Carolina has been amazing in their support of Elizabeth and my family. There is no way I can thank them enough.