John Edwards' New Job: Fighting Poverty

Former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards has a new job as the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina. He's touring the country in an effort to drum up support for the plight of the nation's poor.

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In his stump speech on the 2004 campaign trail, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards spoke of two Americas, a privileged America with no shortage of political and financial capital, and a less visible America that continues to struggle with poverty. After the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost to President Bush, Edwards was in need of a job. He'd already decided against another run for the United States Senate in North Carolina. Since then, he's maintained a relatively low profile but when he does pop up in the national news, it's usually to talk about one thing, poverty.

Edwards' new job is director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In that position, he's been touring the country in an effort to drum up support for the plight of the nation's poor. If you have questions for John Edwards about the persistence of poverty in the United States, or maybe about his future in politics, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK, and that new email address again, talk@npr.org.

Joining us now is former senator John Edwards. He's with us from the studios of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And Senator Edwards, nice to have you on the program.

Former Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina; former vice presidential candidate, 2004): I'm happy to be with you.

CONAN: Poverty looks awfully different in this country than it does in the developing world, and I know you're familiar with both places. In America, you can be poor and have a TV. The poor struggles with obesity here, rather than with starvation. Do those, do issues like that make this issue somehow less troubling, less pressing?

Sen. EDWARDS: No, I think not. I think they are both enormously important. I see both poverty here in America, plus global poverty, and by the way, I was in India just before Christmas and went into the slums outside of Delhi, and the level of poverty there is just, it absolutely is heartbreaking, the conditions in which children and families are living. But I think we, the United States, have a moral responsibility to do something about the 37 million people who live here in poverty. You know, we're the most prosperous nation on the face of the planet. We have to do something about that. We can't turn our backs on them. And then secondly, we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to lead in dealing with the huge moral issues that the world faces and that certainly includes the issue of, you know, almost 3 billion people who live on $2 or less a day.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, well, let's stay in this country for the moment. What do you think... well, if you knew what the answer was, you might have been elected...

Sen. EDWARDS:...We wouldn't have a poverty center.

CONAN: There you go.

Sen. EDWARDS: (laughing)

CONAN: But what do you think some of the answers might be? What are you working for?

Sen. EDWARDS: Well, I have ideas. We're still working on what the ultimate solutions are. I think the starting place is very simple. We have to raise and maintain public awareness and support for doing something. You know, the, what happened with Katrina and the aftermath of Katrina is a lot of the country saw, many of them for the first time unfortunately, the face of poverty in this country, and of course, Katrina, I mean New Orleans, is just a microcosm for the kind of poverty that exists all across America. And so the starting place is, to keep that window of opportunity that was created by this terrible tragedy, open. And that will not happen, by the way, without national leadership because it's the nature of the American people to move onto other things. They've got other things to worry about in their own lives.

But in terms of the substantive ideas about what we'd do about it, we have a huge income gap, asset gap, education gap. Some of the ideas about how to deal with that is on the income gap, we should end the embarrassment of our national minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, raise the minimum wage. Since Washington doesn't appear willing to do that, we're actually running grassroots campaigns in Iowa, Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, to try to get the minimum wage raised at the state level. Expansion is a little wonky, but bear with me, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, make refundable tax credits available to more low income working families.

Addressing the asset gap, you know, a lot of those folks in New Orleans that didn't leave town couldn't leave because they didn't have either a bank account or a credit card or a vehicle that would have allowed them to leave.

You know, there are a lot of ideas about how to deal with this. In fact, Great Britain's got some very novel approaches to this with their Baby Bonds, among other things. But I would use things like work bonds, creating accounts so that we can actually match the assets of the money the families are able to save -- trying to move families into slightly better neighborhoods, creating some mobility, to help break down, and I would use housing vouchers to do that, to break down some of the economic and racial segregation that's so prevalent in many places around America. The education gap, we're doing a model program in a very poor eastern North Carolina county, Green County, where we're making college available to any young person who graduates from high school qualified to go to college and willing to work at least ten hours a week. We pay for their tuition and their books, their first year of college. So the idea is knock down some of these barriers and try to create real opportunity for these families.

CONAN: One, I did not hear anything there about welfare. As you know that there is, there was a huge human cry in the Clinton administration when Clinton signed legislation to end welfare as we used to know it. To put a time limit on the amount of time any one person can collect welfare. Do you now, would you accept that that program, as it was constituted then, was a failure?

Sen. EDWARDS: No. No, I would not. And I, sometimes I get asked myself when I'm traveling around the country, by trying to raise awareness and get people to focus and engage in this issue, I get asked didn't we fight a war on poverty, and didn't we lose?

Well, that's not the truth, you know? There were some mistakes made, all of us would recognize that. But putting this in a historical context, you know, Michael Harrington wrote in the early '60s about the other America; Lyndon B. Johnson helped lead the war on poverty, Bobbie Kennedy traveled through Appalachia and showed us the other America, which I remember vividly as I was a teenager when it happened. But as a result of that effort, we cut the poverty right in America almost in half in a decade, from 23 to 12 percent. We created laws that have benefited generations of Americans -- things like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicaid, Medicare, and when Bill Clinton, not only helped improve the economy, but expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, helped raise the minimum wage, it lifted millions of families out of poverty in the 1990s. So no, I think we actually did some good things.

Some of the mistakes were that sometimes the money didn't get to the people that needed the help. In some cases, there was a cycle of dependency created. We want to create independence, not dependency. But I think, I think, when we talk about educating people it's so important, I've now in probably 30, between 30 and 35 states, just spent time, quietly, with families who live in poverty. No press, no media, just me and them. They violate every stereotype known to man, I mean, I, these people, you know, I know a lot of folks think that people who live in poverty are lazy, and no account, and irresponsible. It's just a lie, it's not true. I mean, a lot of these people I meet are working two or three jobs, they're working for minimum wage. They can't get out of a hole because they face such extraordinary obstacles every single day. And they, in many ways, at least in my judgment, they represent what America is supposed to be about.

CONAN: Let's get listeners involved in the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, and former Senator John Edwards, the number is 800-989-8255, and we'll begin with Leon. Leon, calling us from the road in Athens, Ohio.

LEON (Caller): Hello Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LEON: Senator, it's great to be able to talk with you. I am a local Pastor. I live in Appalachia and I'm African American. And, one of the problems that I see, and I'd like you to speak to, and you did in your comments just earlier, was about the working poor, the person that works every day, the person that perhaps doesn't have health care, and health care is a real problem within the working poor. A lot of people have been downsized, lost their jobs, or can't afford the health care that's out there now. Do you have anything in your coffer of ideas that might be able to aid in that area? Because that would take a burden off of a lot of people. I'll be quiet so you can answer.

CONAN: Leon, thank you.

Sen. EDWARDS: Thank you Leon, very much. Actually, and you obviously see it, see it firsthand, in order to address poverty in America, it requires a national comprehensive approach. Piecemeal things in communities, piecemeal things even at the national level, will not do it. I mean, for example, you just mentioned, and I've not talked at length about, today, the whole issue of health care. Which obviously, the people that I'm meeting with who live in poverty, all across this country, the vast majority of them do not have health care or certainly depend on the government for whatever health care coverage they do have.

Now, the truth is, we have to put together a group of ideas built around a moral concept which is no one, you're talking about the working poor, no one should work full-time and live in poverty in this country. It is morally wrong. And the way we address this is we deal with the income gap, some of the ways that I've mentioned earlier. We deal with the asset gap, so that families actually have something to fall back on when something goes wrong. And that's hugely important, because it also makes them much less vulnerable to pay-day lenders, to predatory lenders, to those who prey on the poorest and most vulnerable in our country.

Health care coverage. When are we finally going to make the commitment as a nation that everyone in America deserves health care coverage? And by the way, if the politicians don't do this, the one thing I'm sure of having now spent a lot of time traveling across the country, is the American people are going to stand up and demand it, because our healthcare system is in total chaos and crisis. So, all these things play an important role, educational opportunity, all these things, you can't fix this problem unless you address it across the board.

CONAN: Leon, again, thanks for the call. And drive safely please. Now, here's an email question from Joshua, in Boston.

How do you feel, Senator, about the idea of a living wage? It has received much attention as of late. How does one square the establishment of a minimum wage that is a living wage with the interests of small business?

Sen. EDWARDS: Well, I, first of all, what it, what I have said is, that we, in the places where I'm promoting raising the minimum wage, I'd like to see the minimum wage, it's now $5.15 an hour nationally. No one can live on $5.15 an hour. I think it ought to, at an absolute minimum, be raised to $7.50 an hour, and I can make a great argument for raising it significantly above that, because $7.50 an hour is not a living wage.

Here's what I say about those who are worried about small business: the truth is that small businesses are also hit by incredibly, extraordinarily high healthcare costs. And this is not, by the way, for small business men and woman, not just a problem for their employees, it's a problem for themselves. You know, many times they only have two or three employees. Their employees don't have healthcare coverage, they don't have healthcare coverage, and if they've got it, the cost is going through the roof. They're all terrified about losing it.

So the way we do this is, when we're raising the minimum wage, which is the right and moral thing to do, that at the same time we provide health to these small businesses to make sure that their healthcare costs are being covered.

And I might add, just as an aside, you know, the play, in the, in some of the studies that have been done of states and communities that have actually raised the minimum wage, instead of having a negative impact on small business and the economy, it has actually had a positive impact for, in the places where it's been looked at. And the reason is, of course, you put more money in the pockets of the working poor, which means they're less dependent on taxpayer-funded services, and on top of that, they're going to pay more in the way of taxes, so they're feeding money back into the system and back into the community. I mean, it makes all the sense in the world.

CONAN: That's interesting. Walmart executives have argued that they would like to raise the minimum wage, not that it affects their workers who already make over the minimum wage, but because they think it'll help their customers.

Anyway. We're talking with former Senator and former Vice Presidential Candidate John Edwards. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Mike, Mike calling from Cottonwood, in Arizona.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. It's an honor to be on this show. I listen all the time, it's a great honor. And, um, I just wanted to ask if, is it possible for us to seriously address poverty in our country and throughout the world without addressing the economic system that we've bought into with our last couple presidents, Bush and Clinton included, with NAFTA and CAFTA, and all these free-trade agreements which allow us to outsource labor, and that really, kind of, makes poverty more difficult to live with.

Sen. EDWARDS: Well, it's, I think the, I think the, ought, we need to start by telling the truth about globalization and the issue of trade, which is, I mean, we live in a global economy, that's not going away, it's not going to change. That does not mean, however, that we shouldn't have a trade policy that works for not only America and American workers, but for the world. And, my own view about this is, that it's important for America to trade, it's important for us to trade in a way that's beneficial to American consumers and to the rest of the world.

But we should do it in a way that's moral and right, and I think that addresses the issue that you're raising. And that means some very basic things. It means that there should be international labor standards, enforceable, and a serious enforcement mechanism in our trade agreements. There need to be at least minimum in the international environmental standards in these trade agreements. This, if we do it the right way, would not shut down trade, which none of us believe makes sense. And at the same time, it would help in some countries around the world to lift up the standard of living.

So I think the truth is, we want to try to do both. We want to try to do the right and moral thing, and at the same time try to allow American workers to be able to compete, but to also to lift up the standards in other parts of the world.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Senator Edwards, your job now as the Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina. Any thoughts about any future employment, including any jobs that you may have to get voted in?

Sen. EDWARDS: (laughs) Well, I'm, right now, I'm spending my time traveling the country working on, this is the passion of my life, and, you know I always tell people that, you know, we all have trouble sleeping sometimes at night, and when I wake up in the night and can't go back to sleep, what I see are the faces of all these people that desperately need somebody to fight for them. They desperately need a champion. That, plus making sure that, a lot of listeners will know that my wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after the election. She's finished all her treatment, she's cancer-free, she's doing great, but I've got to make sure, for our family's sake, that she's completely well. And, you know, I don't know where all that's going to lead me at the end of the day.

CONAN: Senator Edwards, first of all, thank you very much. And, uh, would you also please pass along our best wishes, on behalf of everybody listening, to your wife.

Sen. EDWARDS: I will Neal. Thank you. And let me say, on her behalf and my family's behalf, people have been absolutely extraordinary, men and women across the country. And their prayers, and cards, and notes, and emails have absolutely meant the world to all of us.

CONAN: Senator John Edwards. Thanks very much.

Sen. EDWARD: A pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: John Edwards, Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He joined us from the studios of member station WUNC, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News

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