Why Poverty Matters

By Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo

John Edwards is focusing his presidential campaign on the fight against poverty, using the tag line "creating opportunity, rewarding work."  In many ways, this approach is both smart and just and, not surprisingly, other candidates are picking up on the theme.  As Edwards explained to a reporter who asked whether his approach would play well with middle-class voters, poverty is a moral issue.  As a country that defines itself as virtuous and generous, poverty should matter to everyone, no matter how comfortable.

Edwards brings morality into the discussion, too, in proposals to encourage poor people to save money, provide for their children, and avoid becoming pregnant.  An underlying theme of his policy discussion is the idea of rewarding the "deserving" poor.  He doesn't use that language, but that's the idea: if people work hard, if they put in the effort, if they live a good life, then they deserve assistance.

But, as Edwards and his staff understand, morality of any kind won't win the election.  He has to persuade voters that his ideas are practical, and he has to assure us that his message is about people like us.  On a practical level, Edwards must make clear that the policies he's outlined to fight poverty will help all Americans.  At the same time, he has to speak more directly to the working class.

The first part is fairly simple.  Expanding access to college education will help ease poverty, but it also speaks to the middle class, many of whom struggle to pay college tuition.  As the housing market wobbles because of predatory lending, Edwards' call for rules that protect homeowners should appeal to middle-class voters out of their own self-interest, not because they care about poor people.  While a few of Edwards' proposals address the specific needs of the poor, many reflect issues that affect Americans across the economic spectrum.  He may couch a discussion of access to health care in terms of fighting poverty, but it has the potential to engage much more privileged voters as well.

The more complex challenge for Edwards will be engaging the full range of voters in the cause of poverty.  Americans have a unique and often contradictory understanding of class (a term that he, like most politicians, almost never uses).  Asked to rank themselves in one tenth of the U.S. population, more than 80 percent placed themselves somewhere in the top 50%.  Less than 20% placed themselves in the bottom 50%.  In other words, most Americans don't see themselves as part of the group Edwards is talking about.  

And if you listen carefully, a good part of what Edwards is saying really is about the working class – not the old blue-collar industrial working class, but the new service industry working class.  The largest group of people affected by predatory lending, inadequate housing and health care, low wages, and lack of access to good education are not the ones that most Americans visualize when they think of poverty or the "lower class" – those who are unemployed or working only sporadically.  Rather, the working class is janitors, waitresses, nursing home aides, and cashiers.  These jobs are not threatened by outsourcing.  They don't pay well, often don't require a college education, and offer little or no opportunity for advancement.  And no matter how much the American economy grows or how much education we make available to lower-income children, workers like these will always be with us.  And providing better wages, benefits, job protections, and social services for them will improve the overall economy.  

For Edwards, this group could be a core constituency.  But he has a problem: he won't use the label that they themselves probably prefer.  They don't think of themselves as poor.  In fact, working-class people feel great pride in the hard work and solid moral values that, as they see it, make them fundamentally different from the lower class.  Another part of the General Social Survey asks Americans which of four or five class categories they belong to, and the results show consistently, across three decades, that Americans divide themselves almost equally between middle class and working class – somewhere between 41 and 46 percent putting themselves into each category.  Almost no one identifies themselves as lower class – only 4.3 percent.  If Edwards wants to signal low-income workers that he's talking about them, he should say so:  talk about the working class.  That's who they are.  

Labor Day recognizes the value of work and, by extension, of workers themselves.  As the candidates discuss economic policy, they should keep in mind that a surprisingly large percentage of Americans think of themselves as working class.  Not as people in poverty, not even as members of the "working poor," but as part of a real social class that despite hard work and struggle still has less education, less opportunity, and less influence than most of those who shape public policy.  As Edwards and others use working-class issues to argue for a fight against poverty, they should remember these differences and acknowledge the working class.

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Sherry Lee Linkon is a professor of English and American Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at YSU. She was the founding president of the Working-Class Studies Association.  Along with John Russo, she published a book about work and community in Youngstown, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown (University Press of Kansas, 2002) and edited a recent book entitled New Working-Class Studies (Cornell University Press, 2005).

John Russo is the Coordinator of the Labor Studies Program in the Warren P. Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University and is a founder and the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.  Dr. Russo has written widely of labor and social issues and is recognized as a national expert on labor unions and working-class issues.  His most recent publication is a book co-authored with Sherry Linkon, Steeltown, USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown (2002).  Also with Sherry Linkon, an edited book entitled New Working-Class Studies was published in 2005 by Cornell University Press in 2005.