On stump, talk of poverty is again the rage

A bustling US economy puts more Americans in a sharing mood, and

Suddenly, poverty is back as a presidential campaign issue.

For the first time since Lyndon Johnson launched his war on poverty, Democratic candidates are paying more than passing attention to the poor.

Bill Bradley pledges to "eliminate child poverty as we know it." Al Gore pumps for a higher minimum wage and other measures aimed at the working poor.

Even Republicans are joining in, as John McCain and George W. Bush argue about whose tax cut is better for Americans struggling to reach the middle class.

"The last time we saw candidates talking about poverty to this extent was the Great Society era," says Al Felzenberg, a Heritage Foundation presidential expert.

A proper Democratic candidate must always nod to the left wing of the party by pledging solutions to the problems of the poor, but this year's campaign talk seems to go beyond that.

While analysts say the issue is not nearly the national priority it was in the 1960s, it may have political traction once again because the times are similar. As in the '60s, economic growth in this country is strong, and that has Americans in a sharing mood.

"We've always been a very generous, compassionate people, but there is something new here," says Karlyn Bowman, who tracks public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. "This economic expansion is broad and deep, and it's taken a long time for Americans to appreciate that expansion. But in families, when we feel we're doing well, we feel generous, and that we should do more."

Whispering the 'L' word

That translates into a feeling that the government should do more - though not necessarily in a New Deal, big-government way, says Ms. Bowman. "This is not to say that liberalism is making a comeback."

Tell that to Mr. Bradley, who appears to be embracing the antipoverty message with intensity. Three of his top campaign themes - race, child poverty, and universal health insurance - concern the poor.

"Child poverty is a kind of slow-motion national disaster," Bradley said when he unveiled his $9.8 billion plan in October to fight child poverty. "At a time of great prosperity, I believe we have the wealth to eliminate child poverty as we know it."

While Bradley talks about "big goals," Mr. Gore takes a more measured approach. He wants to go after deadbeat dads who don't pay child support, to increase the minimum wage, and to provide funds for preschool.

Right now, he's getting a boost from his boss, who this week kicked off the administration's plan for Americans left out of the economic boom. On Wednesday, President Clinton proposed a $21 billion increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit. Yesterday he proposed expanding tax credits for business investment in poverty-stricken areas. The concepts - if not the details - enjoy GOP support, and are part of Clinton's "new opportunity" agenda to move the poor into jobs.

Democrats do the talking

Not surprisingly, most of the anti-poverty discussion is taking place among the Democrats. "Do poor people vote? Yes," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "And they vote Democratic."

This is a traditional issue that can motivate primary voters, and there's an element of the party that is "embarrassed" by all the emphasis on trade and markets in the Clinton years, he says.

In truth, Bradley and Gore favor many of the same measures for the poor - including greater tax credits, higher wages, and increased child-care support. "But Bill Bradley seems somehow more sincere, like this is a big mission. For Gore, it's another agenda item," says Mr. Rothenberg.

As for the Republicans, he says, while they may talk about government partnerships with charities or new tax plans that help Americans on the margins, they're "barely touching" the issue. "To the extent Republicans talk about opportunity for the less well to do, like Bush has done, they're doing it not because they expect those people to vote for them. They're doing it to demonstrate the party's compassionate side, which is intended to appeal to middle-upper class, moderate swing voters who don't want to think of their party as hard-hearted and right-wing."

Advocates for the poor say this year's renewed emphasis on poverty is far from satisfying. In a church across from the White House this week, 100 religious leaders gathered to reject the candidates' rhetoric on poverty, especially the idea that the needs of the poor can be solved through government partnerships with faith-based organizations.

"There hasn't been a conversation about the wage gap in this country yet," says Arnie Graf, of the Industrial Areas Foundation, an advocacy group that promotes a minimum "living wage" of $25,000 and affordable home-ownership. "This is not a serious discussion about the poor."

But others say that the best program for the poor is to simply keep the strong economy going. It's the long-standing and deep economic expansion that has done the most to bring the poverty rate down from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 12.7 percent last year, says Greg Acs, at the Urban Institute.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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