BY LAUREN POPPER
After six years in the Senate, former senator John Edwards is now trying to change our country from outside Washington.
Calling poverty “the great moral issue of today,” Edwards visited Harvard on October 20th seeking to engage Harvard students in a grassroots national movement against poverty. Addressing an unexpectedly large crowd on the grass outside the Kennedy school, Edwards put responsibility on every Harvard student listening to his speech to help start such a national movement: “Without you,” Edwards said, “nothing will happen.”
He visited the campus as the fourth stop on a ten-campus college tour called “Opportunity Rocks,” sponsored by his new organization, The Center for Promise and Opportunity. After retiring from the Senate, Edwards founded the Center, which is a research and advocacy organization that will work under his leadership to “expand opportunity and realize the promise of our country for all Americans.” The college tour highlighted the fight against poverty as the area his Center was focusing on where students could make the biggest difference.
In his speech, Edwards called for another anti-poverty initiative on the scale of the Great Society, saying that while “we made some mistakes,” programs like Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act helped cut poverty almost in half in a decade. “It’s time to do it again,” he said.
Edwards believes that students and young people may be the best advocates for social change in this area. He pointed to successful student campaigns against racial discrimination, the Vietnam War, and Apartheid as models for the movement he would like to see started by students to fight poverty. The event attracted so many students that it had to be moved to a lawn outside the Kennedy School. Approximately 850 students braved a cold and windy day to hear Edwards’ speech, according to a spokesperson from his organization.
According to the Census Bureau, 37 million Americans live in poverty, including 570,000 in Massachusetts and more than 9,000 Cambridge children. As part of his speech, Edwards shared stories he had heard from these families and children about their experiences and explained how the media and politicians sometimes distort what poverty means in America.
He observed that although the “eyes of the country” were opened to the problem of poverty in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it is not clear how long the nation and the national media will remain interested in addressing the problem. It is up to students and other citizens, therefore, to keep the national interest in fighting poverty alive. “We know we can’t count on the politicians to do this for us,” Edwards said. “That’s the reason I am here and not in Washington.”
To address the problem of poverty, Edwards proposed fighting to expand access to college and to increase the national minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50. To help more families develop savings and household assets, essential to staying afloat over time, he suggested a government sponsored program that would provide matching funds for money a low-wage worker put into a savings account. He also proposed a new type of housing vouchers to break up geographic concentrations of poverty.
Possibly previewing the themes of another presidential run, Edwards said, “There is a huge void of moral leadership in this country. We’ve shown that we are willing to use our muscle. Here’s the question: are we willing to lead in the great moral issues that face the world?”
Edwards made poverty an issue in his 2004 presidential run, which emphasized the theme of “two Americas.”
Edwards praised Sen. Ted Kennedy’s work to raise the minimum wage, but he did not mention John Kerry — Massachusetts’ other senator and Edwards’ former running mate — in his remarks.
The event at the Kennedy School was organized by the Project Opportunity arm of Edwards’ Center for Promise and Opportunity in conjunction with an undergraduate organization, Students Taking On Poverty (STOP). Many law school students made it to the Kennedy school campus to listen to the speech. “It’s encouraging to see a major political figure like John Edwards focusing on poverty” said Brian Levine, a 1L and former Edwards staffer who attended the event.
More information on Edwards’ efforts is available at www.projectopportunity.org and at http://www.promiseandopportunity.com.