When former Sen. John Edwards took the Law School auditorium podium Wednesday night, he said poverty is not a matter of charity, but justice.
The former Democratic vice-presidential candidate delivered his speech as part of the launch of Project Opportunity, the Yale chapter of Edwards’ national Opportunity Rocks campaign, which seeks to tackle poverty in the United States. Edwards discussed the recent rise in families living below the poverty line and the need for increased aid for the indigent through housing vouchers, work bonds and a higher minimum wage.
“I think the great moral issue in America today is the 37 million people in poverty,” Edwards said. “There is such a void of moral leadership in America today.”
Edwards said poverty in the United States remains concentrated along racial and gender lines, and he proposed a number of policies to tackle the problem of economic inequality.
“Poverty has a face in this country, and it is, though not exclusively, based on color,” he said. “If you go to a poverty center … most of them are women and most are single mothers. We need to raise the minimum wage [and] it should go up to $7.50.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, Edwards said, the American public has become more aware of poverty in regions that have previously received far less public attention. He said the disaster provides an ideal opportunity for communities to address the problem, but warned that it requires immediate action.
“That window opened for the first time in 40 to 50 years and people were paying attention to people in poverty,” he said. “How long will they pay attention to that? The attention span of the American public is short.”
Alissa Stollwerk ’06, the co-director of Project Opportunity and president of the Yale College Democrats, said she thought students were excited to see Edwards on campus and responded well to his message about poverty.
“Senator Edwards addressed an issue that everyone is afraid to talk about,” Stollwerk said. “Tonight he challenged us to fight poverty in New Haven and Connecticut, [and] students accepted that challenge.”
John Coggin ’06 said he thinks Edwards has come a long way since the presidential elections last year.
“I thought it was a very different John Edwards,” Coggin said. “He was more passionate and more open compared to the one we heard in 2004. I was very impressed with his candor.”
Other students said they are not convinced that Edwards’ campaign is realistic or entirely genuine.
Nate Becker ’09 said he thinks the senator’s motives are not necessarily altruistic, and he said Edwards failed to offer any concrete solutions to the problems he discussed.
“He identified the problem, but I would have liked to have seen less rhetoric and more ways in which we can get involved,” Becker said. “I am sure he has some passion, but his self-interest is being addressed.”
Craig Kafura ’09 said he thinks the campaign may ultimately have little impact.
“It’s a good idea, but is it going to end poverty?” Kafura said. “No. But he is right, we are lacking moral leadership.”
The key purpose of the Opportunity Rocks campaign is to create a movement to fight poverty on both the national and local levels, Edwards said.
The Yale chapter’s immediate goals are to increase on-campus awareness of poverty and to lobby the state for increases in earned income tax credit, said Dara Lind ’09, communications director for Project Opportunity.
“Very few Yale students are in poverty, but it exists a few blocks away,” Lind said. “The more aware people are that they can do something, the better we will be as a campus and as a country.”