John Edwards Presents "Call to Public Service" Lecture at Mount Union College
January 26, 2006
According to former United States Senator and 2004 Vice-Presidential Candidate John Edwards, there are people out there who represent what our country is all about - hard-working individuals who hope for a brighter future. They are among the 37 million people in this country who wake up in poverty everyday.
"It is morally wrong to have this many people living in poverty in America," said Edwards, who has been appointed to direct the new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "No one speaks up for them. They don't know what it's like to have a champion."
As Edwards addressed the audience of Mount Union students, faculty, administrators and friends, he recounted numerous anecdotes of his travels around the country and encounters with those living in impoverished situations.
"I have spent the last three years traveling and listening," he said. "I can tell you, there is a hunger in this country to be a part of something big. We want to believe in something again. We want to believe in a national community."
According to Edwards, our country was brought together by its desire for a national community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but the tragedy also showed us the face of poverty for the first time. "Many asked why people stayed in their homes before the hurricane hit," said Edwards. "When you have no car, no money, no credit cards and no way to sustain yourself elsewhere, there really is no choice.
"Yes, all of us have had bad things happen to us and most of us pull through," he added. "But those living in poverty often don't."
Edwards acknowledged the stereotype that the impoverished are lazy and the belief that you can't help those who don't want to help themselves, but he insists that few accomplishments are ever earned alone.
"I can never ask for more in my life than I have - but I didn't do it by myself," he said. "None of us get here by ourselves. What we do as a nation matters."
And Edwards has a plan for what we can do as a nation to end poverty. It begins with raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour, a rate that he considers to be "a national disgrace." He also hopes to expand earned income tax credits and set up work bonds so that those living in poverty can build assets and avoid "pay day" and "predatory" lenders.
Public housing, which Edwards believes is segregating our neighborhoods both racially and economically, is also addressed by his plan. He proposes that we allow individuals to use housing vouchers to get out of public housing areas and move into better neighborhoods.
"If we all believe America is a county where we all have equal worth, then when are we going to start living together," he said.
Edwards' plan also addresses the issue of education in the United States, providing possible solutions to problems within our public school system and with access to higher education.
"For many families living in poverty, it is necessary for 17 and 18-year-olds to work and help their families financially," said Edwards. "College is not often an option. And with parents who never went to college, they don't even know how to begin the application process or seek out financial assistance. That's why we have started a charter program in Eastern North Carolina that makes it easy to go to college. Upon high school graduation, students can go to college, and if they agree to work 10 hours a week, their tuition and book fees are paid."
Edwards also cited health care issues and societal problems as contributors to poverty, but he noted that we are not the only country struggling with these issues. He believes that America needs to stand up and lead against world issues including genocide, extreme poverty and the AIDS epidemic.
"Hunger is not just at home," he said. "America must lead in the fight against problems that face the entire world."
He concluded by encouraging the students of Mount Union to join other young people across the country in the war against poverty in America. Using the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as an example of young people standing up for their beliefs and achieving great success, he encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity.
"Young people can do this again," he said. "You can do this. You can be their champions. You can change America."
Edwards is the third speaker in Mount Union's "A Call to Public Service: The Future of Our State and Nation" Speaker Series, part of the College's Center for Public Service. Mount Union has established the Center for Public Service to prepare students for careers in public service and is a response to the urgent and ongoing need for additional public servants in our federal, state and local government.