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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Edwards got it right about poverty

WASHINGTON
IN ANY COLLECTION of Americans who have earned the right to say I told you so, John Edwards should make every short list.

But, in character, last year's Democratic vice presidential nominee passed up a nice chance to do that yesterday.

Instead, the person who insisted on pressing the country's diseased political culture to confront the moral issue of poverty long before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast used some nice spotlight time to continue pressing.

Edwards was right in saying at the Center for American Progress that Katrina not only exposed America's dirty secret but presented a ''historic moment" when it is clear the country is ready to support action but is short on the leadership that can prompt it.

In a clue to his instinctive understanding of poverty, Edwards's summary of first principles includes the central concept (I first heard it from Hubert Humphrey on the subject of civil rights some 40 years ago) that confronting poverty is not something ''we" do for ''them."

''This is something we do for us -- for all of us. It makes us stronger; it makes us better," he said.

On Edwards's website, the One America Committee -- the idealistic synthesis for the sad, contemporary reality of the Two Americas he made famous -- there is a major plug for a very simple idea. Raising the minimum wage, after nearly a decade of stagnation, is the most obvious, but also dramatic, poverty-fighting step the country could take.

Another would be at least a doubling of the earned income tax credit, in effect a rebate for those with incomes too low to expose them to the income tax.

These simple ideas flow from a basic fact of modern life that is much too frequently forgotten -- nearly all officially poor people work full time.

''Nobody who works full-time should have to raise children in poverty or in fear that one health emergency or pink slip will drive them over the cliff," said Edwards.

Instead of Newt Gingrich's Conservative Opportunity Society or President Bush's even more narrow-minded Ownership Society, Edwards's conceptual framework surrounds the country most of us know every day: a Working Society. Bill Clinton famously aimed his 1992 presidential campaign at the Americans willing to ''work hard and play by the rules," and in the 1990s there was finally some progress in what have to be the twin objectives of national policy -- promoting vigorous economic growth and making long-delayed progress against poverty.

Those objectives have suffered in the first half of this decade, and Edwards is pushing for a revival.

Edwards is also attentive to bad ideas. Yesterday, he spent a few moments decrying post-Katrina visions of mass trailer parks and the Bush idea of pseudo-homesteaders crammed onto federally owned land.

''If we know anything from a half-century of urban development, it is that concentrating poor people close to each other and away from jobs is a lousy idea," he said. ''If the Great Depression brought forth Hoovervilles, these trailer towns may someday be known as Bushvilles."

Edwards has largely labored in the postelection shadows this year, as befits any national figure in an odd-numbered year. He has set up an institute at the University of North Carolina to be an antipoverty think tank, he is speaking some, and he is involved in projects that will beef up his foreign policy credentials. Inevitably, events like yesterday will be viewed through the distorted lens of 2008 politics.

It is both absurd and inevitable. History teaches that the first, odd-numbered, year after an election is irrelevant to the second, even-numbered, year. What really counts is that the public square remains there for a potential occupier and the only question is who has something to say that is worth listening to.

Edwards burst from the pack along with John Kerry in post-Christmas Iowa in 2004 because the caucus participants turned out to be most interested in candidates who wanted to talk about their lives instead of ambition or even Iraq.

Edwards doesn't seemed to have changed much since those upside-down days. He still has an uncanny ability to reach people, and it is now a fact that what he emphasized during the campaign is today what the country clearly wishes its political leaders to emphasize.

Who knows if that might help him in New Hampshire if there's a next time. It's more important to note what Edwards refrains from noting: He told us so.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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