Monday, October 31, 2005

[US Domestic Policy] Opportunity Knocks to End Poverty

A student-led campaign with former U.S. Sen. John Edwards as its spokesperson sets out to put an end to poverty

by Steve Sellery

October 27, 2005

Poverty is the great moral issue in America," former U.S. Sen. John Edwards told a rapt audience of close to 1,000, mostly students, who attended his speech at Yale University last week. Levinson Auditorium holds 500, but the overflow crowd filled two large additional rooms, wired for sound. "There are 37 million Americans in poverty," Edwards continued, "and there are 1 million more people in poverty now than last year. There is economic recovery in America for people with capital, but not for working people. They are being squeezed by higher fuel prices, higher housing costs."

Nine students, members of the Project Opportunity Executive Board, sat on the dais with Edwards. Behind them was a poster for Opportunity Rocks, the student-led organization on which Edwards serves as honorary chairman, that is mobilizing to end poverty in America. On Oct. 17, Edwards began a two-week, 10 university tour to ignite student interest in this fight. Each of the 10 universities has mobilized its own Opportunity Rocks chapter that is organizing students who have pledged 20 hours of volunteer work per semester to end poverty in their communities and in the nation.

In his opening comments, Daniel Weeks, a student who is co-director of Project Opportunity at Yale, brought the message home on a local level. "More young blacks and Hispanics are in prison than college in America," Weeks noted. "One-quarter of New Haven citizens are in poverty. Too many people work full time and can't support their families. We have an opportunity to make a difference in these people's lives."

Edwards left the U.S. Senate in January to set up the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina Law School. He joined the Opportunity Rocks campaign in the spring. He told the Yale audience that he has committed his life to ending poverty in America, which, he says, can be done just like we've gone to the Moon. It's all about will, Edwards said. "With Hurricane Katrina we saw the ugly face of poverty," Edwards told the Yale audience. "Why do the poor get hurt most? Because they are living on the razor edge. Many of them will never recover. They live paycheck to paycheck. These folks are extraordinarily vulnerable--to predators, to emergencies. They are different from us, because you and I don't have these vulnerabilities, because we are not poor."
Poverty has a face of color, he continued. African American families have an average of $6,000 in assets. Latino families in America have average assets of $8,000. White families have an average of $80,000 in assets.

And, Edwards noted, it takes assets to climb out of poverty. He proposed helping the poor open savings accounts, so that they are not living paycheck to paycheck and that the government should match their savings. But first, we must raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage in America is a national disgrace, he said, to lengthy applause. Edwards praised Yale students for campaigning for a living wage for those who work at the school. Edwards advocates supporting the unions, which he called the best anti-poverty movement in American history.
"Some people argue that if you're successful you do so by yourself, and that if you fail, you fail on your own. That's a lie," Edwards asserted. "No one succeeds by himself. I had great support from my family and from public education through high school and public education at a state university." Success is about hard work, but it's also about luck, he said.

Edwards identified what he called a thirst for a feeling of national community in America--a feeling that we're bigger than our own self-interest. That sense of national community was evident in the outpouring of response to Hurricane Katrina's victims. That event opened a window for change, Edwards said, but Americans don't have a long attention span. The challenge for Opportunity Rocks is to keep that window open.

"We need to speak the truth. There's such a void of moral leadership in America today," Edwards said to loud applause. "You can fill that void. You'll never find poverty at the top of anyone's political agenda, so we have to speak for [the poor]."

After his speech, Edwards met with reporters and was asked how the momentum would continue. He said that Opportunity Rocks would use the Internet to continue rallying volunteers and sharing experiences of what worked and what didn't. He added that the response has been so great in the three schools he has visited so far, that he plans to extend the tour beyond the originally planned 10 schools.