A Voice for the Poor?

The withdrawal of former Senator John Edwards from the Democratic primary field following his third-place finish in his native South Carolina deprives the national political debate of an uncommon degree of honesty and intelligence. Early in the campaign, contrary to conventional political practice, Mr. Edwards acknowledged that his vote authorizing the war in Iraq had been a mistake. For many months, his was the campaign of ideas, seeding the issues other candidates would address only many months later, when those ideas had proved themselves politically viable, especially in the field of health care.

A number of factors contributed to Mr. Edwards’s losses in the early caucus and primary states. Even though he was often correct in his analyses of problems, the stridency of his critique of corporate America came up against the wall of public indifference built in the Reagan years against “class warfare,” itself an ideological attempt to defuse resentment against the upward transfer of wealth. In addition, his notion of “two Americas” conflicted with a post-partisan desire for national unity that became clearer only as the primaries unfolded. His personal lifestyle also became the occasion for exaggerated charges of hypocrisy. The 19th-century French scholar Ernst Renan once advised that if you would be unorthodox in doctrine, you must be unimpeachable in your morals. Mr. Edwards’s $400 haircuts, his 28,000 sq. ft. mansion complex and his choice of interim employment with a hedge fund all led to supercilious commentary by the media, always alert to personal eccentricities, that he was an unworthy spokesman for the poor and a suspect critic of economic inequality.


Whenever the poor have made advances in Western history, however, it has been in alliance with the well-placed and well-to-do. Whether it was the Gracchi in ancient Rome or the Roosevelts and the Kennedys in 20th-century America, the privileged have often led the deprived in the march to progress. But the chattering classes, who now may themselves be counted among the privileged, used these peccadilloes as grounds to deny Senator Edwards a platform to make his case against inequality. We do not expect politicians to be saints; but in an age of sound bites and photo-ops, “gotcha” journalism can close down debate unless it falls within the boundaries set by conventional wisdom. For the most part, even though the middle class has been shrinking, poverty growing and inequality reaching its highest point since the start of the Great Depression, attempts to explore the causes of economic inequality, and especially remedies for it, were put outside the circle of permissible discussion in the early primaries.

By the time he announced the end of his presidential campaign, Edwards was clear about his own desire to be a voice for the poor. In his withdrawal announcement, he declared that he had secured commitments from the two remaining Democratic candidates, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, that they would continue his struggle on behalf of the poor. Both Democratic candidates independently voiced their commitment to that struggle.

The leading Republican candidates, Senator John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney, are not vocal on the issues of poverty and inequality, but their primary campaigns, articulated within the parameters of Republican orthodoxy, continue to rely on the failed policies of laissez-faire for business, continued regressive tax cuts for the wealthy and a smaller government through reduced nonmilitary, domestic spending. These policies seek to spread the wealth in a trickle-down pattern from expanding business to the struggling middle and lower classes. In the general election campaign, of course, things could change, especially if the longtime maverick John McCain, a onetime critic of President Bush’s tax cuts, becomes the party nominee. But across the field, both Democratic and Republican, the question is, who will be a voice for the poor?

Catholic social teaching makes clear the church’s “option for the poor.” In their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, the U.S. bishops insisted that the fundamental standard for economic policy is how it affects the poor. In their quadrennial pre-election statement, Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship (see America, 11/5/07), they reaffirmed that “a basic test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable among us. In a society marked by increasing disparities between rich and poor, Scripture gives us the story of the Last Judgment (See Mt 25:31-46) and reminds us that we will be judged by how we treat ‘the least among us.’” With respect to workers, they wrote, “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.” This is what the late John Paul II termed “the priority of labor.” In the coming election, many Catholic voters will be listening to hear which candidates give voice to the needs of the poor and priority in economic life to working people.

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David Pasinski
10 years 11 months ago
Thank you for a fine ediorial. I knew Edwards was doomed even as I cheered his populism with his own economic discordances and strident tone that doesn't easily invite alliances. Nonetheless, his issues are critical as we balloon debt and grow in societal disenfranchisements. My great fear again is our hierarchy's pre-occupation with the abortion issue that will mute their other social counsel and split enough votes again to secure a continued laissez-faire approach. "We can do better."
10 years 11 months ago
We as a people should take care of the poor through our own actions, not the government. In case we forget, "the government" means your taxes. Mr. Edwards is a hypocrite in so many ways and he and the extreme left care little about the unborn.
Todd Phillipe
10 years 11 months ago
Left or right, conservative or liberal, it matters not to me where the high-road call on behalf of the poor originates. Thank God at least one candidate (Edwards) even with his flaws had the courage to bring it up. Edwards does the nation a service in reminding us of the poor among us, regardless of how active we think the government or private individuals should be in helping them. I live in a place with relatively few poor (I think), and I actually feel obliged to help others through my taxes. I pray the nominees, whoever they end up being, will heed Edward's call, which is nothing less than hearing the words of Jesus.
leonard Nugent
10 years 11 months ago
Who will speak for the poorest of the poor, the unborn who are being aborted daily. Democrats these days are very good about human rights for the born... those they consider human. Leonard Nugent
Paul Seishas
10 years 11 months ago
People indeed have a responsibility to care for the poor. However, I would suggest that the care we offer must include, not merely individual acts of charity, but active support in the battle against the systemic causes of poverty. This necessarily involves government which means those representatives that stand for the people. The church has long taught that our vote must consider no single issue, but the full range of moral concern.
Michael Saso
10 years 11 months ago
Let us voice our support for the poor by refusing to take the tax rebate, and sending it back so the poor will not have their medicare and medicaid funds cut, by our unchristian and inhuman politicians
Paul Louisell
10 years 11 months ago
As individuals, we have a responsibility to help the poor. Government enforced charity is no charity at all. The role of government should be limited to providing a social structure that allows individuals to prosper. As government increases its role, individual initiative and responsibility are proportionately diminished. This trend is a formula for social disaster.
10 years 11 months ago
Re: A Voice for the Poor? America. Feb 18, 2008 Dear Editor; Eighteen children under age 5 die every minute from malnutrition and diseases of poverty that we no longer fear nor know much about anymore. There are 12 million sub-Saharan African children orphaned by AIDS, where a dollar a day would have kept most of their parents alive. Three thousand children die each day from malaria when a $5 insecticide treated bed net could have prevented most of the malaria-carrying mosquito bites. The U.S. Bishops wrote, “The economy must serve the people, not the other way around.” Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus challenges us that businesses can be created to achieve social good, not just grow profits. His “social business” model, described in “Creating a World Without Poverty” is worth studying. Matthew 25:45 is unambiguous. “Amen I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” Seattle, WA
E.Patrick Mosman
10 years 11 months ago
'For you will have the poor always with you" Matthew 26.11 and nowhere in the New Testament does jesus Christ lay the responsibilty for caring for the poor, the sick the hungary or thirsty, the homeless or any oppressed people on any governmental body. He did not cite King Herod, the priests of the temple, the local mayor or the Roman powers as the source of Charity. He made it an individual responsibility time after time in His sermons,in His parables and in His own acts. The Good Samaritan was not an example because he stopped at the nearest inn and asked that a 911 call be made but because he acted. Regarding the old canard about"regressive tax cuts for the wealthy', the fact is only the wealthy pay income taxes,ie,the top 1% of income earners pay 39% of all federal income taxes, the top 25% of income earners pay 86% and the top 50% pay 97% of all federal income taxes.That means that the lowest 50$ of income earners pay only 3% of federal income tax revenues while most actually receive checks from the government, welfare payments disguised as earned income tax credits, children's tax credits as well as a packages of federally funded programs for the poor too many to list here.
Thomas Cook
10 years 8 months ago
The statement the "whenever the poor have made advances in western hisory it has been in alliance with the well placed and well to do" is absurd and enough to cast suspicion on any thing the editors have to say. Every day there are poor in the US working their way into middle class and upper middle class comfort. For more than 2 centuries people despised or ignored by the majority have worked their way from poverty to above average incomes. If you don't know that you don't know America and should shut up about her you do. Edwards is a posturing hypocrite, and the editors are not much better. I am concerned about the poor but outside of stable families our country is the best option for the poor there is.


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