The Common Good

War on poverty slips from U.S. election agenda

Source: Reuters
Date: October 24, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Oct 25 (Reuters) - On a boat stranded in a street in New Orleans, two words words are scrawled: "No politicians."

It's not clear if the boat is a remnant of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated this city more than a year ago, but the message of the graffiti is unmistakable: politicians failed to deliver for those who lost their homes in the hurricane.

"They sent boys over there (to Iraq) to fight in a war that never ends. Why didn't they keep the money over here when Americans are suffering," said Gwen Brown, 51, whose home in New Orleans was flooded by Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina exposed an underclass of poor Americans to the rest of the world, but poverty has slipped off the agenda in the runup to midterm congressional elections next month.

"After the hurricane it was easier for a time (to interest people in poverty) but it is ... very hard to maintain national attention unless there is national leadership," former Democratic senator John Edwards said in an interview.

Edwards ran for president in 2004 arguing there were two Americas, one for the well-off and another for those who struggle. When that effort failed, he ran for vice president on John Kerry's ticket. He said he has not decided whether to run again in 2008.

Poverty has been a Democratic issue since President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in 1964, but Edwards said Democrats see risks in promoting the issue, fearing they would be painted as big-government spenders.

An illustration of that is Harold Ford, running for the U.S. Senate for Tennessee, who campaigns on reforming health care but also advocates issues attractive to conservative voters such as opposition to gay marriage and cutting taxes.

U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson warned there were dangers for Democrats who abandoned social justice issues to win elections.

"There is a need to have politicians whose positions represent change for the better and not an accommodation with the worst of our status quo," he told Reuters.


The U.S. Census Bureau said in August one in eight Americans and one in four black people lived in poverty last year.

In all, some 37 million Americans lived below the poverty line, defined as having an annual income around $10,000 for a single person or $20,000 for a family of four, it said.

Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank argued there is little actual poverty in the United States and most poor people had a house, car, television, air conditioning, food and medical care.

Democrats only employed the word to stir emotions and "low income status" would be a better description in most cases, Rector said in an interview.

That case gains traction in the United States, a society with a fiercely competitive ethic and a belief that hard work and self-reliance are a sure route to success, making it risky to promote a national goal of helping the poor.

What makes it still harder is that the religious right has hijacked the agenda for Christian voters promoting opposition to abortion and gay marriage but pushing poverty off the agenda, said Jim Wallis, leader of Sojourners, a Christian ministry that promotes spiritual renewal and social justice.

Wallis cited recent research by the Center for American Values in Public Life which indicated that 85 percent of Americans say poverty and affordable health care are more important issues than abortion and same sex marriage.

"The conventional wisdom is that poverty isn't sexy and that nobody wants to talk about poverty ... You need political leaders with the courage to test the proposition," he said

For many voters in New Orleans, talk of political courage may come too late to dent their cynicism.

Near the stranded boat, the owner of a newly-rebuilt house near the stranded boat has created a mock Hurricane Katrina cemetery, with colorful headstones bearing epitaphs for local politicians and U.S. President George W. Bush. One reads: "Bush rebuilt the city -- Baghdad."