The Common Good
September/October 2005

Time to End Poverty

by John Edwards | September/October 2005

You can tell a lot about people by how they treat their neighbors in need.

Poverty is one of the great moral issues of our time.

Poverty is one of the great moral issues of our time. It cuts to the heart of America’s great promise: that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules will have the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their family. And I believe that the American people are ready to do something about it if our leaders are willing to ask them.

You can tell a lot about people by how they treat their neighbors in need. And I believe that you can tell a lot about a country’s character by how they treat millions of people who live at the margins and below: Do we send them to the shadowy corners or do we bring them to the center of our lives? We know in our hearts that in a country of our wealth and our prosperity to have so many Americans live lives of endless struggle is wrong.

America is a place that believes in ascension, that one person can rise from very little to transform this world. It comes from that eternal belief that we all have the same worth. But the best evidence of America not living up to its ideals is the more than 36 million Americans who live in poverty every day. There are children who have no real hope simply because of where they’re growing up. There are people who are working two jobs and they still can’t make rent. And too many families are spending the night in shelters across this country.

OUR LEADERS today want us to believe that each of us is out there on our own. If you make it, that’s your success. If you don’t, that’s your failure.

But we know that’s not true. The truth is nobody succeeds in America alone. They succeed because America protects private property. They succeed because America has public schools and universities that give everyone the tools to get ahead. And, of course, they succeed because of three very important virtues: hard work, self-discipline, and responsibility. But nobody goes it alone, and everybody has a responsibility to help everyone else get ahead.

The American people believe in the dignity that comes from hard work. And they understand that some people do everything right and the decks are still stacked against them.

It is time for us to go out and encourage more Americans to be a part of a cause that’s bigger than themselves. It is time to end poverty in America. It may seem like an impossible goal, but that’s what the skeptics said about all of our other great challenges. If we can put a person on the moon, conquer polio, and put libraries of information on a chip, then we can end poverty for those who want to work for a better life.

We know that the Bible tells us the poor will always be with us. Some people hear that as an excuse for inaction. I believe it is a call for us to act and a call for us to serve. My family and my faith didn’t teach me to turn my back on a friend or neighbor in need. They taught me to open the door, let them in, and help them get back on their feet. And millions are calling for help right now. They don’t want a free ride. They just want a chance: a chance to work, buy a home, take care of their family, and live the American dream.

Senator John Edwards was director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, when this article appeared. He was presented with Call to Renewal’s 2005 Joseph Award, which honors individuals who faithfully use their position of influence to benefit those in poverty.

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