Former V.P. Candidate Edwards: Class and Katrina

Former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards talks about America's class crossroads and what can be learned from Hurricane Katrina. A deep racial divide was exposed when media covered thousands of poor, black New Orleans residents all but abandoned after flooding swept the city in the storm's wake.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Former US Senator John Edwards kicked off a program yesterday to help low-income North Carolina high schoolers pay for college. Edwards has made it his mission to talk about poverty. It was a cornerstone during his run for the presidency in 2004. He recently opened a Poverty Research Center at the University of North Carolina. And now that America is finally talking about the depth of class crisis, Edwards believes we must act soon to make real change.

Former Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina): From my perspective, what's actually happened as a result of this terrible tragedy in the Gulf is there's a window of opportunity available to us. The nation's paying attention to the fact that 37 million people live in poverty. They've seen their faces on television and the real question is are we going to be able to keep the nation's attention focused on doing something over the long term about poverty. And I think in order to accomplish that, we need people like you and me to continue to not only talk about it but propose some ideas about how to eliminate poverty in this country.

GORDON: Senator, I'm curious why you believe we did not and have not dealt with poverty in a way and in a place where we sit as the richest country in the history of the world and have not been able to eradicate it?

Mr. EDWARDS: I think addressing poverty, particularly in a country like ours, is a matter of conscience. It's a matter of doing the right thing and I think it requires leaders to demand and ask the country to do what's right. Because I happen to believe the country will respond. You look at what happened in the aftermath of Katrina. It's a perfect example. Even though there was a lot of bungling on the part of government, the American people responded extraordinarily. They'd do exactly the same thing if their leaders asked them to do it on the issue of poverty all across America. So I think the bottom line is, I think it's in the heart and soul of the American people to do what's right. They want their money spent wisely. They want people who are getting help to act responsibly.

But they do want people to have a real chance and they don't want people to live the kind of lives that so many Americans who were in the city of New Orleans who had to evacuate, so many Americans do, are part of that 37 million, live every day.

GORDON: We've seen this, through this catastrophe, and I'm curious, as you look back on your days in the Senate and your years in Washington, how much does government bureaucracy cause an inability to really deal with such a pervasive problem?

Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, the bureaucracy's a huge problem. I mean, what happens is you end up having a lot of government bureaucrats who are more interested in--unfortunately, in themselves sometimes than the people they're trying to help and perpetuating their job, etc. But there are lots of things we can do to help eliminate poverty in this country. Now first, and sort of laying the foundation for that discussion, you know, we had over a million people added to the poverty rolls just in the past year, according to the Census Bureau. And it's deceptive when you have Washington politicians talking about how great the economy's doing, that there's a recovery. The reality is, there is a recovery for people with capital, people who are already well-off. For the vast majority of Americans, including the poor and the working poor, their real income has been going down over the last several years.

So the situation has gotten worse. Luckily for us, the country's attention is focused on it now. Now we get to the question of: What can we do about it? And I have some ideas about what I think we can do about it.

GORDON: Yeah. I want to talk about that in a moment and also talk about how important you see the link between education and the rise out of poverty. But I'm curious, so much has been talked about in terms of the connection of race and poverty in this country. How much do you believe race plays a great role in being in poverty in this country?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, poverty has a face, and that face is the face of color. Anybody who had their television on after Katrina, it was absolutely obvious. The average net worth of African-American families today is about $6,000. And for a Latino family, it's about $8,000. And for white families, it's $80,000; 10 to 12 times that amount. You know, they don't--the very reason those people didn't leave New Orleans who had to be evacuated later, because they didn't have a bank account, they didn't have a credit card, they didn't have a vehicle. And the result is, when something happens to them, they have nothing to fall back on, absolutely nothing. They go right in the ditch.

Everyone has things go wrong in their lives. You know, somebody in their family gets badly sick, you have a financial problem you didn't expect to have. The difference, though, is people like me--I get through that fine. People like those folks who were in New Orleans, they don't, 'cause they don't have anything to fall back on. It doesn't by the way require something as serious as a hurricane. I mean, something much less serious will put them in exactly the same place.

GORDON: How much do you believe in benign neglect or benign racism, if you will, in the sense that if that disparity figure were reversed, do you believe that America would put up with that kind of inequity for whites?

Mr. EDWARDS: I guess I'm ultimately optimistic about this, I--and about the country. I think the country would do the right thing if its leaders asked them to do it, whether the face of poverty were black or white. But the reality is, however optimistic you are, that the face of poverty in America is the face of color. We have to recognize that. We have to be honest about it. Just by way of example, when you clump poor people together and when you clump poor, black people together, like we saw in New Orleans in the Ninth Ward, it's much harder for those families to lift themselves out of poverty. It's much harder to have the kind of schools that you want to have. It's much harder to have the kind of job opportunities that you want to have. I mean, for a whole variety of reasons, New Orleans needs to be rebuilt in a culturally and racially integrated way, not in the kind of segregated way that we saw before Katrina hit. And there are lots of ways that we, as a nation, can help accomplish that.

GORDON: I want to talk to you about some of the issues that you put forth in terms of trying to meet the goal of eradicating poverty. Some of the things that you've been stressing is to finish welfare reform. You've just kicked off a college tuition program that will assist the low-income high schoolers in your state of North Carolina to pay for college. Tell me some of the things that you'd like to see done.

Mr. EDWARDS: First of all, we want to make work pay for people. I mean, for folks who are out there working, trying to support their families, and I can't tell you how many I've met over the last six or eight months, in 25 or 30 different states, working two or three jobs, but they can't earn a decent income. You know, at a minimum we ought to raise the minimum wage in this country to at least $7.50 an hour. And for those who are listening who probably already know this, it's $5.15 an hour right now. We ought to pay--create a more level playing field for workers who are trying to organize so that they can have decent benefits and decent pay.

One of the things that I'd like to see us do is have what I call work bond. So that we actually give an extra tax credit, up to $500 a year, for low-income workers. So in other words, if you're working, you're out there trying, we're going to provide you with a little help to help lift you out of poverty, you and your family.

We all know that the poorest among us are the most susceptible to predatory lending. So one of the things that I'm suggesting is that we have a crackdown on predatory lending and a new deal for poor families who are entering the workplace where we say, you know, for the first five years you work, we're going to set up up to a thousand dollars a year aside for future home payments. You know, some people are for school vouchers. I'm not. But I am for housing vouchers. So that we give poor families, working families, an opportunity to move into neighborhoods, to provide some cultural and racial integration in those neighborhoods, to maybe get them access to better schools. I mean, there are a whole variety of things that can be accomplished by that.

GORDON: Do you believe we'll see that, sir, in the sense of once we see some distance between the emotional impact of Katrina and those who make these decisions, do you think that they'll hold on to the feeling of wanting to move this country to a better place?

Mr. EDWARDS: I think it depends entirely on, number one, whether there are leaders, who the country recognizes, who are willing to make this a long-term issue. Now in fairness, this is--you know, doing something about poverty in America, and you remember me talking about the two Americas in my own presidential campaign. This is something that's very near and dear to me, and I'm personally passionate about. But we need others who are willing to do the same thing, so that we--this voice gets heard loudly and strongly over a long period of that time. Not ...(unintelligible).

GORDON: Do you find it ironic, though, that so many people, including many in the media, suggested when you were talking about the two Americas that there was some disconnect on your point--on your part...

Mr. EDWARDS: Yes.

GORDON: ...that you didn't know what the heartland was talking about and that you were still living in this kind of '60s `let's hold hands' period?

Mr. EDWARDS: First of all, I felt then and, of course, I think now that that was just utter nonsense. What I was trying to do, and I hope I'm still trying to do, is to talk about the truth, the reality of the America we live in today, where we have a few people--and I might add, including myself--who are doing very, very well, and then most of the country who's struggling every single day. It's not right. If we believe in real equality in this country, then we have enormous work to do to help lower those inequities that exist. And the way we should do it--and this is part of what's wrong with what they're accusing me of by looking backwards to the '60s--is we ought to do it in a 21st century way that allow families to have independence, to be responsible, to have dignity and self-respect. I mean, this is not about just giving them something. It's about giving them a hand up to do for themselves. And I might add, I think it's a huge thing, and I think there is a hunger in America today, for us to have a sense of national community, to be involved in something that all of us can be proud of.

And this is a perfect example of something that we can do and so that people don't feel like anymore they're out there by themselves. The American people don't want to be out there by themselves. They want to feel a sense of community, that we're going to be there for people to give them a chance when they're struggling.

GORDON: We certainly hope you're right there. Wanted to get your thoughts on what has just occurred and that is the Texas grand jury has charged Representative Tom DeLay and two associates with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme. We've been hearing that for a long time. What do you think this does to an already suspect electorate that looks to Washington ofttimes with a jaundice eye and wonders whether or not things are going right there?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, I have to tell you, I--I'm now not in Washington anymore, and looking at it from the outside, and I'm now running a poverty center in North Carolina, at the University of North Carolina, so it's easy to see why people feel the way they do about Washington sometimes. You've got a lot of politicians, some of whom are mostly looking out, either for themselves or for each other, and there doesn't seem to be a deep understanding of the problems that people face out here in the real world every day, which I think is part of why the American people weren't as conscious of the existence of poverty before Katrina as they are today. But we have a great opportunity in front of us. The question is: Are we going to seize that opportunity?

GORDON: All right. Well, Senator John Edwards, good to talk to you. And we thank you so much for your time and keep us informed in terms of what you're doing.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thanks for having me.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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