Can We Talk About Poverty?
Last Wednesday, I saw John Edwards speak at the Yorkville Common Pantry, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Harlem. After walking into the building, I found myself in the back of a small press conference, just a few feet from Edwards. The beginning of the press conference started out as expected -- he talked about Half in Ten, his anti-poverty campaign to reduce poverty in America by half within the next ten years, and praised the food pantry for their work in New York City. But after his five minute speech, when it was time for questions from the press, the subject quickly turned away from poverty.
Although Edwards tried his best to talk about poverty, the press just didn't seem to care. Instead, their questions focused almost exclusively on the presidential campaign. If Obama offers you a position as attorney general, will you take it? Is it mere coincidence that you're in New York City within 48 hours of Obama and Clinton's joint appearance here? Do you think that Obama is moving towards the center, and do you support that?
In other words, the press was there to see John Edwards. Poverty? You wouldn't have even guessed that's what the event was about.
But despite the mainstream media's indifference, poverty matters. According to the Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, one in eight Americans currently lives in poverty. That's using the federal definition of the poverty line -- less than $19,971 per year for a family of four. About 31% of Americans live below 200% of the poverty line. Inequality is at record levels, and the U.S. has higher poverty levels than other developed countries.
CAP's report, "From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half," offers a variety of suggestions to decrease poverty. The suggestions run from increasing the minimum wage to passing the Employee Free Choice Act. They suggest increasing federal support for childcare assistance, increasing Pell Grants, and promoting equitable development of cities. The cost of the plan -- they estimate $90 billion -- would be paid for by rolling back Bush's tax cuts on people who make over $200,000 a year.
If the reporters at the Yorkville Common Pantry event had been listening, they might have heard Edwards say that when people are lifted out of poverty and into the middle class America becomes stronger. They might have heard him talk about plans for making food stamp information available over the Internet, making work and education an important part of getting rid of poverty, and importance of integrating affordable housing into the infrastructure of cities and urban areas.
But they weren't really listening.
Biking home from the event, I got stuck at a long traffic light. I glanced at the enormous Hybird Chevy Tahoe just a foot to the right of my bike and peered through the dark tinted windows. Edwards sat inside, looking thoughtful and ponderous. I almost felt bad for the guy. Can you really effect change if you can't get the mainstream media to care? Edwards had called poverty "the cause of my life," but can he really start that conversation if nobody's listening?