Sen. John Edwards came to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to suspend his campaign for the presidency in January, returning to the city where he launched his campaign a year earlier. On the way to the event, Sen. Edwards stopped to talk to a homeless person, who asked him to remember her and her situation. “I say to her and I say to all those who are struggling in this country, we will never forget you,” promises Edwards. “We will fight for you. We will stand up for you.” Ending poverty continues to be the central theme of Edwards’ work, as it was of his campaign. He is currently director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina and chair of the Half in Ten campaign, a movement to cut poverty in half in a decade. Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis and editor Jim Rice talked with Edwards this summer at his hotel in Washington, D.C.
Jim Wallis: You’ve said in the past that your life vocation is to work to overcome poverty. How would you describe, right now, your vocation and your strategy?
John Edwards: Doing something to end poverty is central to my life. If you look at all the pieces of what I’m working on, they all come back to that place. I’m chair of the new Half in Ten campaign, which aims to cut poverty in half in America in the next 10 years. I have—both on the campaign trail and otherwise—been promoting this issue in every way possible. I’ve been meeting with both thinkers and activists on this issue all over the country. We still have the poverty center at the University of North Carolina, which I’m very proud of.
I pressed both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama to make some very specific commitments about poverty, to make it central to their presidency if they won the presidency. The day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, April 4, Martin Luther King III asked me to speak to Sen. McCain about committing to a similar cause. I called Sen. McCain and talked to him about it, and he issued a very strong statement about it; more general, less specific, but a very strong statement about this issue. If there is a tool out there available then I want to take advantage of it.
Wallis: The word “vocation” for a lot of people has to do with a certain sense of “calling.” I know that for you and your wife, Elizabeth, this is tied into your faith. How has your faith molded or shaped that sense of calling?
Edwards: It’s the foundation of my belief that we have a responsibility to the least among us, and those who are struggling to get a chance. It’s not just a personal responsibility, but a collect responsibility that all of us have. It’s a huge motivation that if you look for references in the Bible for helping the poor and disenfranchised, and those who are struggling, then you have an awful lot of the Bible. It’s foundational for me.
Wallis: What will it take to put poverty on the agenda? Do you think it’s possible?
Edwards: I think it’s entirely possible. I think what’s missing is a sustained leadership on this issue. Because sustained leadership and the right kind of communication would help educate Americans about the extraordinary connections between middle class families and poor families. They move up and down together. When we’re helping lift people out of poverty, we are in fact growing and strengthening the middle class. “The rising tide lifts all boats” is certainly true in this case. But you can’t understate the importance of having a powerful leadership voice that is maintained, because this can’t be handled or dealt with in an effective way by small statements. It requires all of us convincing America this is the right thing to do.
I also think it’s important to move beyond guilt and talk about the greatness of America and what extraordinary things we can accomplish together. For America to be the kind of great country that we all believe in, this is something that we have to address. We have to tap into people’s aspirations as opposed to making them feel bad.
Wallis: Guilt sometimes gets you a standing ovation, but it doesn’t sustain a movement.
Edwards: That’s correct. I totally agree with that.
Wallis: You’ve said that we have not had a candidate since Bobby Kennedy that has made poverty such a big issue as you have. What response have you got on that?
Edwards: I thought the response was phenomenal. If you watch what happened in New Orleans, it’s a microcosm for what’s possible in America. The government response was a mess, but the American people were phenomenal in their volunteering, contributing, etc. I think what that means is there is a core goodness among most Americans that they want to do something about this. They saw the pictures, they didn’t like it, they thought that this whole thing about “we’re better than this. America can do great things, we’re better than this.” And they responded. The problem is was it cannot be sustained without strong sustained national leadership, and that’s why it’s waned since then, because there has not been that sustained national leadership.
I think that both what I saw on the campaign trail and what I have seen in places like New Orleans demonstrates to me that the American people will respond. And more important, will that stop us anyway? Are we going to make some political decision that because, somehow or other, this is a difficult trudge, we’re not going to do what we’re supposed to do? Not me! Not you! It’s a leadership responsibility not just to figure out what people want to do, but to take them to the right place.
Wallis: It’s been 40 years since the events of 1968. If Robert Kennedy had lived to be president of the United States, working on the inside, and if Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had lived to lead a movement pushing from the outside, we would have a very different country.
Edwards: No doubt about that.
Wallis: In some ways we’ve been in the wilderness since that time. Maybe after 40 years it’s time to come out of the wilderness.
Edwards: That void in the kind of sustained national leadership that we need is the reason that’s happened. It’s pretty simple. It’s not just the Republicans who haven’t talked about it. The Democrats haven’t led on this either.
To be fair, at the presidential level, in the Senate and the House, and at state and local levels, there have been some very good people who care very deeply about this and worked on it during that period of time, but it shows how without sustained presidential, national leadership, it’s extremely hard to do something serious.
Wallis: Why have you committed to the metric of cutting poverty in half in 10 years and the Half in Ten campaign?
Edwards: You have to set goals and create ideas that will get you toward that goal. It’s not just cutting poverty in half in 10 years, it’s ending poverty in a generation. The first step is half in 10. A couple of years ago I gave a speech here in Washington, the whole subject of which was poverty, and I said we should commit ourselves to end poverty in America in 30 years. I still believe that is achievable, but it requires us all to join together—from thinkers to leaders to activists to grassroots people. No one person can do this. It is true that the president of the United States or a presidential candidate can have the largest impact, but it cannot happen without everyone’s involvement and engagement in a movement. That’s what is going to be necessary.
Wallis: And you think Half in Ten is going to be a good first step?
Edwards: I think it’s a great first step, especially if we continue to bring in more leaders and more organizations. There are people, particularly faith-based groups, who have worked on this for a very long period of time. We need to build on their work and learn from what they’ve done and have them as a central part of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Wallis: How do we not just repeat old mistakes, just re-fund all the programs we tried before, when some of them worked very well and some of them didn’t? How do we make an alliance between practitioners and politicians, and even better yet, poor people themselves and political leaders?
Edwards: There has to be a dialogue and communication between all of those groups. They all have to be included and have to have buy-in to what we’re trying to accomplish. Second, I think there is widespread consensus around what has worked and what hasn’t worked. For example, some of the things that we did in the War on Poverty that fed the cycle of poverty and dependence are mistakes that we can’t repeat. But some very basic things such as adequate childcare, early childhood education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—there is a whole list of components of the War on Poverty that have been absolutely successful, so what you have to do are keep the parts that have worked, not repeat the mistakes of the past, and build with new ideas for things that will work for the 21st century.
Wallis: What is your list of mistakes not to repeat on the one hand, and your list of the things that could concretely make a difference and effectively cut poverty in half in 10 years?
Edwards: I’ll give you a couple of examples: I think our national housing policy has been a complete disaster. What we’ve done is concentrated poor people together, and it’s had a direct result, in my judgment, on feeding the cycle of poverty. That’s an example of something that can’t be repeated. Just giving people money and taking care of people alone is not enough, because it does not provide the incentives, the motivation, and it doesn’t treat people with the dignity of the work they’re entitled to.
On the flip side, rewarding work: No one working full-time in America should be allowed to live in poverty. I bet you the vast majority of Americans would agree to that. So we're talking about simple things such as prescriptions, raising the minimum wage, expansion of the earned income tax credit, strengthening the right of unions to organize—which would of course lift up wages and benefits for people who are working—adequate childcare, childcare credit, so that people can actually go to work, mothers particularly who are responsible for their kids. Those are all things that are built around the concept of people being able to be independent and support themselves.
Wallis: Mary Nelson of Bethel New Life in Chicago tells the story of how you went and sat with a group of women there who had escaped poverty, and you asked them to tell you their story. There was no press conference; you were just listening for the better part of a day. How has listening to poor people themselves, and not just reading white papers on poverty, shaped your direction?
Edwards: It’s been crucial. I’ve been to hundreds of places, all over the country, all for the purpose of hearing poor people talk about their struggles and how difficult it is. While the basic issue is straightforward, the solutions are complex. You understand that the more you listen, because the poor live in this world where it takes almost nothing to knock them down--whether it’s a predatory payday lender, not having any health care or any health insurance, or being in a situation where their mother gets sick so the mother can’t take care of the child, they can’t go to work, they lose their job.
When you sit and listen to story after story after story, there’s not a consistent pattern except for that when they work, they don’t make enough to support their family, and they live on a razor’s edge constantly because of that. That’s the reason there has to be a comprehensive response. You can’t do it over a short period of time. It has to be done in a way that will be sustained over a long period of time. And on a personal level, I still see their faces. I can recite story after story after story. There is nothing abstract about this for me.
Wallis: Some say that Katrina gave America a wake-up call. But I’ve been struck by how little progress we’ve made in New Orleans in the years since Katarina. And yet hundreds of thousands of faith-based folk, Christians, had come to the Gulf Coast to work and volunteer. Among the faith-based groups, there seems to be no Katrina fatigue. The numbers aren’t declining. They’re growing constantly. It strikes me that New Orleans and the Gulf coast is becoming kind of a converting field, if you will, almost sacred ground for Christians becoming Christians again. They go back and they say, “I want my small group to see what I saw.”
Edwards: I’ve been there many times. I took 700 or so college students in their spring break, in 2005 or 2006. We were working down there, and what struck me was that the government was nonexistent. At least I couldn’t see them doing anything. Everything that was being done was being done by the faith-based groups and some charitable groups; the faith-based community was absolutely central to the work that was being done. Without them, the people of New Orleans would have felt completely abandoned.
Wallis: Given that, what’s the role of faith-based groups in this campaign?
Edwards: Faith-based groups should be central to what we’re trying to do—for a whole variety of reasons, including that they can reach large segments of the American people, they can talk about our mission and why it’s so important, and why—at least in terms in the case of a Christian like myself—it is Christ-driven. Also, just on a practical level, in a lot of the places that I’ve been in the country, they deliver the services. There is no other place to get them. I think they are absolutely crucial.
Wallis: The faith community often serves as a kind of go-between. As you say we’re delivering the services, but at some point you can’t pick people up from the bottom of the mountain and not climb the hill and see what’s pushing them off the edge. So one role could be helping to connect policymakers to the real people on the ground.
Edwards: Absolutely, so it’s not just an abstract thing to them. I know sometimes people have trouble understanding that politicians can be humans, but they are human beings, and they are affected by personal interaction.
Jim Rice: You’ve been involved in this work for a long time. What sustains you personally? What enables you to wake up in the morning and keep doing this kind of work?
Edwards: My experience in spending time in poor communities, low-income communities, with people. I can remember their faces. I remember their stories. There is nothing abstract about it for me. I can feel it. They just want to have some self-dignity and some respect, and to feel good about themselves and their families, and they deserve that.
Rice: What we’re really talking about is a transformation of the country in how we look at things. What do you see as the biggest spiritual, psychological, or political obstacles to overcome to make this transformation happen?
Edwards: I think the biggest one is political. The perception exists among political leaders that this is a losing political issue, and they’re worried about going there. That includes Republicans and Democrats. Political leaders have to be convinced, at the same time that we’re educating the American people, that this is a great moral issue that we can do something about.
Rice: Are you hopeful?
Edwards: I’m very hopeful. I’m not just hopeful, I’m completely positive about this. I know that we can do it.
John Edwards, a Senator from North Carolina is leading the Half in Ten program, which plans to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent within 10 years through building awareness, demanding legislative action on poverty and advancing proposals that will deliver real benefits to struggling American families. To find out more about Half in Ten, click here.