Edwards Goes for Broke on Poverty

The candidate stressed the urgency of helping the poor in a speech in New York.
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John Edwards feels responsible to help others. Do you?

I listened to former Sen. John Edwards' speech in New York City Thursday night on how to solve poverty in America. It was part of the Cooper Union Dialogue Series, which is facilitated by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, where potential presidential candidates speak at length on important issues of the day. Newt Gingrich presented the first talk last month.

For those of you not from New York, Cooper Union was founded by the industrialist Peter Cooper, a man who helped to create the legend of the American Dream, a man who had a strong sense of giving back to his community, a man who founded a tuition-free college to offer a path to that dream.

The college has had many special moments in history. Perhaps the most important remains the


given by Abraham Lincoln that propelled him to the presidency in 1860. That speech is the model for this series. Lincoln didn't give another speech for many months after that -- unheard of in modern American politics. Instead, his speech was reprinted and spread across the nation.

The goal of the Cooper series is to ensure that politics does not become a 30-second sound bite but rather a serious discourse to inspire people everywhere.

For all of John Fout's coverage of the 2008 campaign, visit TheStreet.com Politics Blog.

I endorse the challenge. Every serious candidate should embrace the mission to explain what they stand for and why they run for office. Call Cooper Union to reserve your spot now.

Edwards accepted it because he strongly believes in his mission to alleviate poverty in our nation. Every American can help make it happen, he says. To that end, he introduced

four major policy initiatives

to not only address the root of poverty but also to provide a cure.

First, consumers have to be protected from abuses. Edwards would create a Consumer Credit Commission as soon as he takes office to educate and protect consumers. Many families live day to day, and an estimated 37 million people live in poverty in America. He says he understands how vulnerable those people are.

Second, he supports a federal predatory lending law. Many people experiencing poverty encounter abusive practices for short-term loans with interest rates as high as 400%. Why would poor people pay someone that rate? Edwards says it's a lack of financial understanding and extreme need. If you have to feed your children and need a loan against your paycheck, what length will you go to?

Third, Edwards says, we must learn to save. Because of the lack of savings, many find themselves in dire straits. If an incentive were developed -- such as matching savings dollar for dollar -- then people would have the foundation to leave poverty. More importantly, they would possess the ability to stay out of poverty.

Fourth, the former senator wants to fund -- through the use of tax credits -- not-for-profit lenders who would lend to poor families. One such not-for-profit is

Self Help

in his home state of North Carolina. Why not-for-profit lenders? He strongly supports the idea that these types of lenders foster indigenous growth. They set examples. If you see your neighbor open a successful business and hire in the community, you're more likely to learn and copy this example.

After the speech, Mr. Edwards answered questions from Brian Lehrer, a well-known talk-show host in New York City. Some of his questions were based upon the recent

cover story

(subscription required) of Matt Bai published in the

New York Times Magazine

last week.

Lehrer began by asking if perhaps the answer to predatory lending would be tighter credit controls? Edwards rejected this notion, because he sees opportunity as something that should be available to everyone in America -- the American Dream.

Another interesting question had to do with Edwards' assertion that poverty can be eliminated by 2036. Is this some utopian ideal that taxpayers need to fear? Edwards responded that it is possible to eliminate poverty. Part of the problem, however, stems from the measurement of poverty. The matrix is decades old. He would redefine poverty. People leave poverty when they can support themselves and hold some assets.

In fact, Edwards uses the development of assets as a major plank in his poverty platform. Similar to some of the rhetoric of some conservatives, he believes people have to be able to "own" such things as their homes and health care. Where he differs is in the matter of using the government to help create the opportunity.

Health care also arose as a question. Lehrer built on the introduction given by Cuomo, who firmly stated that America needs single-payer universal health insurance. Why does Edwards' health plan not create a single-payer model?

Edwards explained that his plan would allow employers the option to provide insurance or pay into a fund. The government would also have a plan that covers those who are not able to pay insurance -- basically Medicare Plus. He believes in not dismantling insurance companies because of the incredible disruption and loss of choice. But if in the future everyone chose the government plan, he sees no reason why a single-payer system would not be possible. (Watch this space for a series of articles on the health care reform debate.)

Finally, several questions were asked about welfare reform, structural reasons for poverty and stereotypes of poverty. Edwards agrees with experts, such as Elizabeth Warren, who see flaws in the way we approach poverty. Families, whether poor or middle-class, continue to face pressures in our economy that rob them of opportunity.

He posits that the solution is to create a system that can not only truly address the problem but also offer the cure. Our present legal system includes many of these protections, but they are not enforced, particularly civil rights laws and affirmative action.

I end with the question Edwards began with in his talk. Why does he talk so much about poverty when nobody else will, particularly when it is possibly detrimental to his chances of winning the presidency? He says solving poverty is the right thing to do -- even if it costs him the election. It may. Only time will tell.