Former senator John Edwards is back in the news. As a politician, Edwards’s main theme was “poverty.” He ran on this issue twice in Democratic presidential primaries and as candidate for vice president in 2004. Edwards famously declared there were “two Americas,” one rich and one poor; as a candidate, he spent most of his time exaggerating the chasm between the two.
In Edwards’s vision of America, nearly 40 million Americans live in “terrible” conditions, their daily life a “struggle with incredible poverty.” According to Edwards, America’s poor, who number “one in eight of us … do not have enough money for the food, shelter, and clothing they need.”
In his stump speeches, Edwards proclaimed, ”Tonight, a 10-year-old little girl will go to bed hungry, hoping and praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today because she doesn’t have the coat to keep her warm.” Challenged by skeptics, Edwards’s staff reluctantly admitted the girl was “metaphorical.” But that never stopped Edwards from featuring her in speech after speech as the symbol of the “plague of poverty” ravaging an eighth of the nation.
Edwards understood the emotive power of the word “poverty.” To the average American, “poverty” means significant material deprivation, an inability to provide a family with adequate nutritious food, reasonable shelter, and clothing. Liberal activists reinforce this view, declaring that being poor in U.S. means being “unable to obtain the basic material necessities of life.” The news media amplify this idea; most new stories on poverty in the U.S. feature homeless families, people living in crumbling shacks, or lines of the downtrodden eating in soup kitchens.
It is true that, while Edwards was on the campaign trail, the U.S. Census Bureau regularly declared that nearly 40 million Americans were living “in poverty.” The question is, how many of the 40 million people defined as “poor” by the government were actually living in the dire conditions described by Edwards and the mainstream media? The answer: very few. As scholar James Q. Wilson has stated, “The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.”
While Edwards campaigned for the presidency, the typical “poor” household, as defined by the government, had air conditioning and a car. For entertainment, the household had cable or satellite TV, two color televisions, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children in the home (especially boys), the family had a game system such as an X-box or Play Station.
These are verifiable government data, not metaphors. And there are more. The typical “poor” kitchen had a microwave, refrigerator, oven, and stove. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, cordless phones, and a coffee maker.
The home of the average poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. (Note: That’s average European, not poor European.) The family was able to obtain medical care when needed.
By its own report, the family was not hungry; actually, the majority of poor adults, like most Americans, were overweight. When asked, most poor families stated they had had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs. While poor families struggled to make ends meet, in most cases, they were struggling to pay for a car, air conditioning, and cable TV, while putting ample food on the table.
Edwards lectured the public endlessly about children in poverty, painting pictures of toddlers with empty stomachs living in shacks. But he never discussed the causes of child poverty. These are: very low levels of work among poor parents (even during economic boom times) and the collapse of marriage in low-income communities.
Ironically, Edwards was right about “two nations” in one sense: marriage is now the main economic dividing line among families. Today, over 40 percent of children are born outside marriage. America is rapidly evolving into two castes: Children in the top half are being raised by married parents with college degrees, while children in the bottom third are born to and raised by unmarried mothers with a high-school degree or less.
Another topic Edwards scrupulously avoided was the size of the welfare state. Last year, government spent nearly $900 billion on means-tested assistance, providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to low-income Americans. This sum (which does not include Social Security and Medicare) amounts to over $20,000 for each poor American.
As the nation’s most vocal anti-poverty warrior, Edwards always maintained a pious silence about topics such as the causes of poverty and the size of the welfare state. Instead, living in a $5 million mansion and sporting $450 haircuts, he intoned endlessly about little girls with empty stomachs who walked to school, on cold wintry mornings, without even a coat to keep warm. Behind the empty rhetoric was a man with vanity and ambition, and not much else.