John Edwards and the issue of poverty

Published 3:03 am Monday, June 11, 2007

By By Tray Smith
Of all of the individuals seeking to become America's next President, Democratic candidate John Edwards is running the most issues-oriented campaign. But his staked positions on those issues, and the ideas that he has inexorably tied his Presidential hopes to, are more controversial.
Edwards' incessant ravings about the "moral shame" of poverty place him in serious danger of boring an electorate more worried about their own lives and the future of the country than the "working poor," which the Democratic Party has been lecturing about for 70 years and counting. But even more threatening to Edwards is his decision to build his campaign around economic beliefs that are fundamentally flawed and public policy proposals that are destined to be ineffective.
The Wikipedia Internet community defines poverty as being "a condition in which a person or community is deprived of, and or lacks the essentials for a minimum standard of well-being and life." Because the ever developing world of technology is always creating a higher standard of living, the "minimum standard of well-being and life" is also always rising. Thus, in any capitalist society, there will always be those who, when compared to everyone else, appear to be extremely poor. On the same note, there will always be societies that, when compared to other societies, appear to be "impoverished." But, outside of the public welfare bureaucracy, adjectives such as "poverty," "poor" and "rich" do not describe a set of defined economic conditions, they simply compare economic conditions between different units of society. In other words, if all of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic latter move up, they will simply be replaced by new people at the bottom of the socioeconomic latter. As long as there is a latter, there will be a bottom step. And when adjectives describing wealth are viewed as comparisons as to which economic step individuals are on, it is impossible to define a significant percentage of a certain population as living in poverty.
According to a study by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, 43 percent of all poor households actually own their own homes, which average three bedrooms with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio. Eighty-two percent of poor households also have air conditioning. Almost 75 percent of government defined poor households own a car and nearly all of them have at least one color TV. Those statistics mean that poor people today enjoy a standard of living unimaginable for most individuals 50 years ago, and out of the question for even the wealthiest people 100 years ago. If 50 years from now, the average poor household has a laptop computer, a DSL connection, a four bedroom house and two cars in addition to the amenities they currently have access to, politicians like John Edwards will be speaking out for them, although that standard of living is typical of higher middle class families today. A standard of living, I might add, that today's middle class families do not frequently complain about.
The only societies that have ever existed without a lower class are those with socialistic economic systems, which, as examples such as the communist Soviet Union have proven, create a populace that, when compared to one like our own, are more equal in poverty than in wealth. Therefore, if we intend to preserve our market-based economic system, and thus our prosperity, our goal must not be the eradication of poverty. It must instead be to help those caught in the poverty cycle escape over a period of time, expand the size of the middle class and make the economic conditions for those in poverty better.
With those new goals in hand, government statistics about the number of people and the percentage of the population living in poverty each year are meaningless. Because, based on the standard of living experienced by the modern poor, they are still better off than the overwhelming majority of our human ancestors were. If we want to measure our success in fighting poverty, we should analyze increases in the median income among those in the bottom fifth of income earners from year to year instead of relying on defined economic conditions determined by government bureaucrats.
And as we work to achieve those new goals, we should focus on the actions that cause people to get so far behind everyone else in the first place: out-of-wedlock pregnancies before students graduate from high school and/or the failure to receive a high school diploma. That requires us to stop pretending the poverty problem can be solved by a web of new public services, as John Edwards advocates. Because whether or not the populist want to admit it, poverty is a behavioral problem.
That is the bottom line.
Tray Smith is a sophomore at ECHS and former intern in the Riley administration. He can be reached for comment at

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