A Facing South Exclusive

Facing South has provided extensive coverage of the Katrina disaster and how it exposed the face of poverty in America. More recently, a study of children's wellbeing revealed much room for improvement in the South, and the common denominator was poverty.

Former North Carolina Senator, Presidential primary candidate, and Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards underscored the issue of poverty with his "two Americas" theme during the 2004 presidential elections. Since then, he has been a champion in the fight against poverty through his work as the Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his One America Committee.

We recently asked Senator Edwards via e-mail about poverty in the South, some of the causes and effects, and what we can do about it. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions, and here is what he had to say.

R. Neal, for Facing South: A recent "Kids Count" study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that several Southern states fare poorly in a number of categories such as infant mortality, children's wellbeing, high-school dropout rates, and others. One common theme expressed by state officials and activists was poverty. What are some of the consequences of poverty for families and society in general that maybe aren't so obvious and that people should be more aware of?

Sen. John Edwards We often hear skeptics talk about how costly it would be to make the investments necessary to end poverty. What you don't hear as much about is how expensive it is for America to have so many citizens mired in poverty. We all pay a price when young people who could someday find the cure for AIDS or make a fuel cell work are unemployed or stuck in low-wage jobs because they didn't get the education they need.

We all pay a price when our people turn to crime because they have no other hope. A Harvard professor estimates that growing incarceration costs and unemployment of ex-offenders costs 4 percent of our economy, each and every year. And we all pay a steep price when the American dream no longer seems attainable to every citizen.

Facing South: Southern states are consistently ranked near the bottom in education, health care, household income, and other measures of social progress. Is poverty a cause, or an effect? And why is poverty more prevalent in the South?

Sen. Edwards: I think it would be an oversimplification to describe poverty as either a cause or an effect of other problems. We have to adopt a holistic view in order to understand what it means to be poor or to be living at the edge of poverty in America today.

My friend David Shipler, tells a striking story about a single mother he met while researching his book, The Working Poor. She had no savings and low earnings, so she had to live in a drafty wooden house. This exacerbated her son's asthma. That led to two ambulance rides to the hospital. Those trips led to ambulance charges she couldn't pay. Those charges damaged her credit report. And so then she was denied a loan to buy a mobile home. That meant she had to stay in that drafty house. And she had to buy a car from a sleazy dealership that charged her 15 percent interest.

This is just one vivid example of how a combination of forces act together to keep people stuck in a cycle of poverty -- despite their best efforts.

It is important not to overlook rural poverty, which is particularly prevalent in the South. Eighty-two percent of the poorest rural counties in America are in the South. We need to offer tailored solutions to meet the needs of America's small towns and rural communities. We should invest in community colleges, which are particularly important in rural areas and open rural small business centers to provide investment capital and advice to help entrepreneurs get off the ground.

Facing South: What role does education, or a lack thereof, play in poverty? And why do Southern states consistently rank near the bottom in education spending? Do people in the South not value education as much as they do in other parts of the country, or is there some other explanation?

Sen. Edwards: I believe people in the South value education just as much as other Americans and we will never end poverty in the South, or anywhere else, unless we improve our schools. Today, almost one in three students don't graduate. On average, minority students enter high school four years behind their peers.

We should start by expanding preschool for three- and four-year-olds, getting good teachers into the places we need them most, and overhauling our outdated high schools.
We can never overcome poverty until we address the dropout crisis in our nation -- not by lowering standards, but by making sure everyone can meet them. We should have "second-chance schools" to lift up former dropouts, offering them one-on-one attention and a chance to earn a diploma at night or at a local community college.

Finally, the skyrocketing cost of college can be an insurmountable barrier for many students. Higher education should be accessible to every American child. I am involved with a pilot program in Greene County, North Carolina, which allows students to go to the first year of college for free if they are willing to stay out of trouble and take a part-time job. This year, we were able to provide students there over $300,000 in aid. That means kids who never before would have dreamed of going to college are not only leaving for school this fall -- but paying for their first year without going into debt.

Facing South: In your view, what are the most important strategic policy initiatives that we should be pursuing at the state and federal levels to fight poverty?

Sen. Edwards: We need to restore the American dream by finding ways to help everyone who works hard and makes smart choices get ahead. First, we need to raise the minimum wage substantially. No one should work full-time and live in poverty. Since the Republicans in Washington won't raise the minimum wage, we are taking this fight to the states.

It's time to finish the job of welfare reform by giving low-income men the opportunity to work and challenging them to take responsibility for doing so. Welfare reform asked young mothers to join the workforce and gave them help to get there. Millions of poor women benefited, but poor men lost ground during the best economy we've ever had. In America today, there are communities where half the young men are out of work.

I believe that we should create one million "stepping stone" jobs over five years. A good job that will let people work their way out of poverty in the short term, and help them get experience so they can get better jobs in the future.

We also need to give America's workers a real right to organize. Unions helped move manufacturing jobs into the foundation of our middle class, and they can do the same for our service economy.

There's a saying -- "income is what you use to get by, but assets are what you use to get ahead." It's true, and it's why we should help every working American build their own assets with homeownership tax credits and "Work Bonds," which would match low-income workers' wages with a tax credit to help jumpstart their savings accounts. And if we are going to help families save, we also need to protect the assets they have by stopping predatory lenders.

Finally, we need a new approach to housing. We need to integrate our neighborhoods economically. The federal government has built public housing in the worst neighborhoods and overlooked the need for affordable housing in the suburbs. These policies cut willing workers off from entry-level jobs, which are often created in the suburbs, far from public transportation. And they keep low-income children far from good schools.

Facing South: What can people do in their own communities to fight poverty?

Sen. Edwards Fighting poverty is a job for government, but it is also a job for all of us in our own communities. I believe our nation is up to this challenge. Hurricane Katrina exposed us to heartbreaking images of extreme poverty but it also reminded us of the extraordinary compassion of the American people -- millions opened their hearts, homes and wallets after the storm.

We need to speak up when we know something is wrong. Let's put poverty on top of the national agenda and pledge to hold our government accountable for ignoring the suffering of so many for far too long. I've traveled the country for more than a year, meeting with people who are struggling to get out of poverty. One thing I've noticed in these conversations is that they have never had a champion. They have no idea what it's like to have somebody to speak up for them. All of us must champion their cause.

We must act both locally and nationally to fight for a higher minimum wage and other measures that will improve the lives of low-income families. And we need to get involved when our neighbors are in need. This can be as simple as volunteering your time to be a mentor to a young person or to help build a house for a homeless family. Each of us can make a huge difference.

Facing South would like to thank Senator Edwards for taking the time to share his thoughts on how we can solve the problem of poverty in America. To learn more, and to find out how you can get involved in the fight against poverty, visit One America.