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Poverty emerges as Democratic campaign issue

Obama follows the lead of Edwards in highlighting the poor, but differences lie in the proposed solutions.

July 19, 2007|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — While John Edwards was winding up a tour of America's most impoverished areas, another Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), came to Washington on Wednesday to stake his own claim as a poverty warrior -- and present a vision for fixing struggling inner cities that directly challenges that of Edwards.

In a speech at THEARC, a social and health services campus in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood, Obama did not mention the former North Carolina senator, who has made poverty a centerpiece of his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns. But Obama appeared to allude to Edwards in asserting his own authority as an anti-poverty crusader, which he said was based in his work as a community organizer in Chicago.

"This kind of poverty is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign. It is the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago," he said.

Obama spoke on the same day Edwards finished his eight-state "poverty tour" in Prestonburg, Ky., the town that Robert F. Kennedy visited as part of his own effort to highlight Appalachian poverty in the 1968 campaign. That two candidates this year are vying for the anti-poverty mantle suggests that growing economic inequality is an increasingly important issue for Democrats after many years of pitching proposals toward the middle class.

To the Edwards campaign, Obama's move to address poverty is a sign that its candidate has shifted the debate. "This is another example of Edwards leading on the issues and other candidates are following," campaign spokesman Eric Schultz said.

But the competing claims to the issue also underscore the deep divisions that remain over how best to solve the problem. Edwards has focused on the malignant effects of concentrating poverty in the inner city. He has argued for dispersing low-income families by replacing public housing projects with a greatly expanded rental voucher program to allow families to move where there are more jobs and better schools.

Though Obama offered some of the same proposals as Edwards, such as a transitional jobs program and expanding the earned income tax credit, he presented a sharply different overall objective -- fixing inner city areas so they become places where families have a chance to prosper, without moving elsewhere.

As an example, he cited the Harlem Children's Zone, an initiative that seeks to improve one section of that New York neighborhood with an array of services, including prenatal counseling, early childhood education and free medical services. Obama urged replicating the program in 20 cities, which he estimated would cost a few billion dollars a year.

"If poverty is a disease that infects the entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation," Obama said. "We have to heal that entire community."

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