Fighting poverty should be the most important issue of our generation, former United States Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) said Thursday at an event held for faculty, students and alumni of the School of Law.
Edwards, who began the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke to a group of around 100 at the School’s Dean’s Circle Luncheon Thursday.
The former vice-presidential candidate said he considered poverty to be “the great moral issue of our time,” adding that the only positive result of the hurricanes last year was that poverty became an important issue in the country again.
“People saw vivid pictures in their living rooms of poverty in America,” he said.
As possible ways to lessen poverty, Edwards suggested setting up accounts for low-income workers to save and for the government to match their savings. He also said he supported the idea of housing vouchers, which would allow lower-income families to migrate to slightly better neighborhoods.
“When are we going to figure out that clustering poor people together is not a good idea?” he said, citing New Orleans’ Ninth Ward as an example.
Although Edwards had criticized free-trade agreements like NAFTA during the 2004 campaign, he also said protectionist policies were not in the country’s best interest.
“We will not compete by erecting barriers,” Edwards said, emphasizing the importance of research and education, especially in math, science and technology.
“We ought to make it easier for students to go to college,” he added, citing a North Carolina county program that pays for a student’s college tuition and books as long as the student commits to working 10 hours a week.
Edwards said the U.S. has an opportunity to be the world’s leader on this issue.
“We have to lead on moral issues because it affects the way people view us,” he said. “And there is a hunger in America [for leadership]. The country wants to be inspired.”
Edwards, who said he had spent the last few weeks helping hotel workers unionize, also said he supported UM UNICCO workers for wanting to vote on unionization.
“They deserve the right to organize if they choose,” he said. “We should support democracy in the workplace.”
Before the speech, Edwards met with UM law professor Michael Fischl, Service Employees International Union representative Eric Brakken and two UNICCO employees.
After hearing from the UNICCO employees on their background and the threats they said they faced in the workplace, Edwards told them that he was proud of their work and would call UM President Donna E. Shalala to help in any way he could.
Patricia Mazzei can be contacted at email@example.com.