The Poverty Candidate

Don’t believe Edwards’s hype: it ain’t him.  And as most Dems seem to already know, we can’t go wrong with Clinton or Obama. 

Closely reading the candidates’ platforms on poverty and inequality might have been more interesting several months ago for all you handicappers, wonks and voters, but the recent summaries of the anti-poverty platforms of Edwards, Clinton and Obama in the new academic journal Pathways only arrived in my inbox this week.  Check out Latoya Peterson’s excellent summary of the candidates’ positions over at Racialicious.  I highly recommend looking at it, because with the exception of my critique of Edwards’s plan, as I won’t be delving too deeply into the details here.  After the jump, what follows is my analysis of their overall priorities and approaches to fighting poverty.

I’ll begin with the good stuff: Clinton’s and Obama’s platforms.  The candidates’ policies and styles are vigorously displayed in their short essays.  Clinton’s data-heavy and detailed information about her plans for pre- and post-natal care for low-income women, childhood interventions from pre-K through middle school, affordable college education, intensive job training and placement, closing the racial wealth gaps, affordable housing and fair housing practices, and increasing the minimum wage are peppered throughout with the pronoun “I,” anecdotes of her past experience and a confident language about how she’ll push through a quintessential Democratic agenda of major investments in education, healthcare and employment “when” she’s president.  She acknowledges almost immediately not only that poverty is a result of “structural economic forces, politics and community change,” but also the racial disparities in poverty and inequality that particularly undermine “communities of color.”  Repeatedly throughout her outline of good, well-financed ideas such as affordable housing trust funds and tackling predatory lending, she talks about particularly vulnerable groups in our country, especially kids (who are twice as likely to live in poverty as adults in the U.S.) and African-Americans (who on average hold less than $.10 for every $1 in wealth held by white families).  Clinton implicitly raises the issue of equity in tackling poverty, for example by tying Congressional salary increases to minimum wage increases, and talking about “shared economic growth” via a mix of social and economic program investments, social services, workforce development, good governance, and tax credits for low- and moderate-income households.  If you are seduced by numbers and detail, this is the plan for you.  Furthermore, her emphasis on children, inequality and cradle-to-grave initiatives are all sound and appealing.

Obama is the candidate for the urban policy and planning afficionados among us (and I know a few).  Where Clinton is heavy on the detail, Obama wows us with his killer rhetoric, which packages up terrific ideas on fighting poverty comprehensively at the “neighborhood” and “community” level.   He invokes strong images of RFK’s famous visit to the MS Delta and innovative (and relatively rare) community-based anti-poverty models such as Harlem Children’s Zone to illustrate his plans for Promise Neighborhoods that would provide many of the same programs that Clinton offers in her more individualistic and group-based language: namely, early childhood interventions and programs for families that stress education and job training and placement.  Where he goes further than Clinton but stops short of the full-blown moralizing of Edwards (more on that in a minute) is in his plans to address absentee fathers and domestic violence that disproportionately plague low-income urban communities.  While Obama has some numbers and data that show the results of past programs and speaks to his experience as a community organizer, he relies more on speaking generally about his anti-poverty plans.  But believe me, he nails all the progressive solutions, including equitable “urban planning initiatives and transportation, “public-private” partnerships, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, affordable, fair housing and healthcare, a “living wage,” and closing the “digital divide.”  He also outlines a plan for increasing minority entrepreneurship that in my experience is of limited value, but I know is a highly appealing proposal. 

As voters we’re faced with the already highlighted stylistic differences of Clinton and Obama: are you comforted by her de facto budgeted domestic agenda that builds out what works for children and families or do you buy his progressive rhetoric of bringing to scale comprehensive community and human development that until now has only worked on at the local level?  If you care about cities and neighborhoods as much as households and families, Obama’s initiatives aim to protect and empower both categories, such that one is not sacrified for the other – an all too common problem now in our efforts to build “mixed-income neighborhoods” at the expense of the poor, or require that low-income women and children relocate in order to benefit from better schools and opportunities.  But there’s little to fault about Clinton’s more explicit emphasis on children and race, and her anti-poverty policies are better thought-out and she, like Edwards in one of his only redeeming moments, addresses explicitly the downward mobility and economic stagnation that threatens the majority of residents of the U.S.   Personally, I also find Clinton to be the least moralistic of the three, though I think most voters seek some sort of guiding moralism from their leaders.  Either way, Clinton or Obama have a strong anti-poverty agenda that we should support.  Kudos to both of them, and good for us.

As for Edwards…after his commitment to making poverty eradication a “national goal” and acknowledging the limited mobility that is entrapping more and more households in the U.S., he loses and angers me with the remainder of his anti-poverty plan.  First, he either fails to acknowledge the racial, gender or generational disparities in poverty and inequality, or he mischaracterizes them entirely.  He leaves out racism in his list of valid concerns such as physical and mental disabilities that lead to discrimination and limited economic opportunity for individuals.  He talks about how in “some communities” half the eligible male workforce is blocked from the labor market.  Gee, I think he might African-American communities in which the combination of poverty and incarceration has created a new dominant institutional milieu for young black men. He’s also plain wrong in spirit about the decline of racial residential segregation in the U.S., and the proportional decline of the last forty years is nothing to champion either. 

Furthermore, Edwards criticizes the outdated debate we’re having in this country regarding poverty (without necessarily specificizing what exactly is so old about it; in contrast, see Clinton chide this ideological, polarized and failed debate), but then offers ideological approaches that work in principle but not in practice.  For example, he wants to expand the use of housing vouchers, Individual Development Accounts, and metropolitan solutions to affordable and fair housing problems.  But vouchers only work if there are available landlords and adequate housing stock – both in short supply nationwide.  His annual IDA match of $500 comes out to less than $50 per month; IDAs as they’re offered now serve far too few households, and their matches of around $2k or so are still insufficient for most low-income families to realize the goals of buying a home, purchasing a car, or advancing their education.  Legislation already exists to expand the IDA program, but Edwards and his ambitious Congressional counterparts would both need to significantly raise the match and expand the uses of these funds if they want them to work. 

Furthermore, Edwards is the most moralistic of the three candidates about the value – and implied absence – of “work” and “personal responsibility” in the lives of the poor, the classic right-wing tropes in poverty debates.  He writes of “an America where if you work hard, take personal responsibility, and do the right thing, you won’t live in poverty, you won’t just get by, you’ll get ahead.”  Who knew it was that simple!  (Reagan, Charles Murray and the 1996 Bill Clinton-Gingrich Administration, apparently).  Edwards incorrectly suggests that the decline in the welfare roles of the last decade equals “success” at tackling poverty, rather than the reality that the majority of these very-low-income women and children are either in the same or worse place than they were when receiving public assistance.  Edwards also proposes to tie public housing residency to work, a program already in place, and one that fails to acknowledge that over 50% of the three million or so public housing residents already work, and that public housing shelters a disproportionate number of children, elderly and disabled.  He also wants to reduce the role of HUD in communities – a valid point worthy of debate given how far the current HUD operates from its original mission, but his counterproposal of putting more authority in local municipalities to solve their affordable housing problems is exactly what we’ve done for the last three decades, and is part of the reason we have a shortage of affordable housing across the country.  Most municipalities already don’t use federal housing funds to serve the very-low-income among us, rely on NIMBY arguments to block the development of affordable housing in their neighborhoods, turn to the private sector to develop housing that they cannot afford to build, and engage in competition with one another to attract the vaunted “middle-class” at the expense of the central city low-income, minority communities that have neither the political nor financial power to fight for equitable development across metropolitan areas. 

For a variety of reasons, Edwards has been a non-starter this campaign season.  Sooner or later, he and his supporters will realize it’s time to pack it in.  Good riddance, I say.  We don’t need any more of this populist and anti-poverty rhetoric and photo ops in the Lower 9th when his actual policy plans only reinforce the right-winged anti-poverty proposals of the last three decades (See my earlier claims that Katrina is a soundbyte versus a reflection of any actual commitment to the Gulf Coast by any of the candidates.).  I just wish I wasn’t so ideologically stuck on Clinton, because I’ve seen in Obama’s work the call for a national urban policy position, and don’t think I haven’t been polishing my CV!  As my donations show, I’m not unhappy if either of them take office in January 2009. 

Clintobama in ’08!!



3 Responses to “The Poverty Candidate”

  1. January 27, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Wow… Just, wow. I’ve needed this for six months. Thank you for doing the work of looking into this. 🙂

  2. January 27, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Glad it’s useful to someone! Wish I had done it that long ago!!

  3. January 27, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks for putting this so concisely. This is great!

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