John Edwards' views on poverty

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday December 17, 2005

The second biggest item of national news coming from UNC this year was the return of John Edwards to direct the Law School's Program on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Edwards is also a new resident of Orange County, one whom I hoped might offer some insight into our local efforts to address the problems of poverty. This past week I had a conversation with him on that question.

A significant issue for us over the years has revolved around efforts to site facilities to serve the poor. Edwards believes it is possible for neighborhoods and communities to become more welcoming.

"It's similar to the way I talk about this in general," he said. "[Helping] people who are struggling in poverty, it's not something we do for them, it's something we do for us. It's not them and us, it's all of us, people who are struggling want to be part of our community and we want to give them a chance to do better."

He stressed the importance of direct contact with the poor because "what's clear if you spend time with the people who come to these centers is that they are just like us, they are up against more obstacles. They are hoping for many of the same things that most people hope for.

"We need to make sure that people in communities understand in a personal way the struggle that these folks face and become engaged in the notion that it's important for all of us that these folks do better. What you see is what I've seen, is that the vast majority of people who live in poverty are good, hard-working people who are having a hard time."

Edwards talked about the ethnic and racial dimension of poverty that leads to 25 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Latinos living in poverty. He stressed the importance of bridging the "asset gap" that accounts for the average black household having $6,000 in assets and the average Latino household $8,000 as compared to $80,000 for whites. Edwards spoke favorably of a British program that provides "birth bonds" to low-income babies so that "by the time they are 18 they have a chunk of money for buying a home, starting a business, going to college."

A major concern of workers at UNC, including those who clean the former senator's office, is obtaining their right to collective bargaining, currently blocked by state law. Edwards is an outspoken supporter of unions.

"Organized labor is a great anti-poverty movement in American history," he said. "It gives voice to working people, allows them to get decent wage and benefits, created the middle class in America. The more organizing the better."

Edwards is on the side of North Carolina's public employees, insisting "it is absolutely possible to have collective bargaining for public employees which does not risk public safety. It has to be done right with appropriate safeguards in place."

This year, Orange County launched its Partnership to End Homelessness. Edwards cautions that ending homelessness could be more than local communities can accomplish on their own.

He said "it's wonderful that Chapel Hill and Orange County are committed to doing something but this is not just a local issue, it's a national issue, something that requires the nation collectively to engage."

Edwards believes we need more money and better programs for housing the poor: "ideas ranging from better funding for and better use of Section 8 vouchers ... accounts for low-income families so we give them matches to help with rent and house payments and come up with down payments." He wants to "use Section 8 vouchers to integrate neighborhoods racially and economically so that low-income families are not clustered together like they were in New Orleans."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Edwards thinks Americans are ready to tackle these issues. "I've been out there. I've been listening. The country is hungry for something to do. This would not be a hard sell.

"Katrina showed us that the country is willing to do something big and important. People volunteered, they made huge contributions, they took evacuees into their communities, they embraced them. The aftermath of Katrina gave us an enormous opportunity to tap into the good will and consciousness of the American people but leadership is needed to capitalize on that. It won't happen by itself. There was a huge momentum but we need leadership that's willing to take advantage of that momentum."

John Edwards and his family helped serve Thanksgiving meals at the Inter-Faith Council last month. Hopefully, as he establishes his home in Carrboro, his work to galvanize the nation to address poverty and the continuing efforts of the Program on Poverty, Work and Opportunity will boost our efforts to combat poverty and homelessness locally.



I just need to be sure:

You're thinking of this as the biggest piece of national news to come out of the University this year, right?

Right, which I took to be self-evident.

Did you ask Edwards about his views on the next presidential election?

Sad, about what's big news. Here's a story. I know someone in Virginia who opposses the death penalty and is a political centrist. I asked him who he voted for in the Virginia gubernatorial race last month. He said, Kilgore--- because Kilgore helped get Virginia Tech into the ACC--- he really appreciated Kilgore's efforts and thinks VTech in the ACC is the best news to hit Virginia in a long time...

Section 8-- isn't that what Corporal Klinger was after too?

No, I did not. I did not have much time with him and wanted to focus very specifically on issues questions to our local efforts to address poverty.

I called the Center on Work and Poverty this past summer and asked for advice in detangling the issues of poverty and homelessness in Orange County. Under current definitions and legal restrictions, chronic homelessness, where the federal emphasis/money is focused through HUD, an individual must have a disability and have been homeless for at least a year or have a disability and been homeless at least 4 times in 3 years. The County's Partnership to End Homelessness, composed of local government officials and representatives of local social service agencies, is currently developing a 10 year plan to identify strategies for serving this population of individuals.

The Community Initiative to End Homelessness, composed of representatives from local social service agencies, is tasked with conducting a point-in-time study (HUD requirement) in January to update our numbers of both the chronically homeless and those who are temporarily homeless (discharged from criminal justice, medical care; victims of domestic violence, etc.). The count will tally those living on the streets, in emergency shelters, or transitional housing on the night of January 25. (Aside: If you are interested in volunteering to help us that night, please ask Ruby for my email address.)

However, given the cost of living in Orange County and the lack of employment opportunities, I believe our biggest local problem is the large population of residents who are constantly AT RISK of homelessness due to poverty. What is the interplay between poverty and homelessness? What services/supports can we provide to those who are at risk to help them from tumbling over the edge into homelessness?

During the month of January, the Community Initiative will, for the first time, ask local service providers to provide us with a count of the number of individuals who live 'doubled up,' a good start on helping us understand the extent of the local relationship between poverty and homelessness, but it's not enough. For one thing, we know that many of our doubled up residents do not use agency services, so we cannot hope to get an accurate count. Efforts to get a more accurate count require more funding than is available.

When I contacted the Center on Work and Poverty, I asked that they work with us to develop a methodology for studying the problem in more detail, a methodology that could be used as a model by other counties. Although Mr. Edwards had not yet moved to town, I had high hopes that we would hear back from the Center this fall. It's possible that such contact has occurred, but I kind of doubt it. While I understand Mr. Edwards statement to Dan that poverty is "something that requires the nation collectively to engage," I believe that compassion should compel us to act locally at the same time. I'm really hoping to see the Center on Work and Poverty take a more active local role in the upcoming semester.

Does the Community Initiative to End Homelessness have government reps or affiliation?

Thanks, Terri. I also both understood and was disappointed by Edwards' comment. I was hoping someone involved in the initiative would respond. Details on the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness can be found here. Elected body liaisons are listed as Sally Greene and Jacquie Gist.

Folks may also want to check out the report Failing Jobs Falling Wages from the NC Justice Center. It reports that the "living income standard" for Orange County $37,512 for 1 parent/1 child and $52,788 for 2 parents/2 children.

Mark--government reps come to Community Initiative meetings but to be very honest, the organizational structure between CIEH and the Partnership and all the various agencies is very confusing and makes data collection somewhat difficult. But I work with the assessment group of the Community Initiative, so I see just a small part of the picture.

In addition to the links Dan provides on income, another good reference is the County's Housing and Community Development Information and Statistics site: I think their Consolidated Plan does a good job of painting local poverty and homelessness into a single picture.

Without knowing the bureaucratic ins & ouits, I just wonder how much responsibility the local governing bodies (school board front & center on this) will take for the recent moves to subcontract (outsource) janitorial jobs (Orange County) & food serving jobs (CH-C Schools) to companies that pay a lot less than those previously directly employed were getting.

Dan's time was limited; we secured an hour of John's time:

This isn't officially up on the website yet, but hey, it's the holidays.

- daniel

Thanks, Dan, for the link. I had looked to put it in an earlier post but, as you say, it was not yet available. Your interview takes a broader and less local look and definitely complements my own.

One area where Edwards' influence could be helpful is in efforts to overturn GS 95-98 which prohibits collective bargaining for public employees.

Recently UE-150 filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland accusing the state of violating international labor law.

I gave Edwards a copy of a Triangle Business Journal article on this while we were discussing the matter. I hope members of UE-150 are aware of his supportive statements (as above) and are enlisting his active support.

Are you sure you want unionized public workers?

Be careful what you wish for.


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