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Echoes of '68

A very unexpected thing has happened this week in the Democratic presidential nominating contest: something of a debate broke out between John Edwards and Barack Obama on the subject of how to deal with entrenched inner-city poverty.

Edwards was concluding his eight-state "poverty tour," an emulation of a similar effort by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, while unveiling his comprehensive anti-poverty agenda.

Obama delivered a speech in the hyper-poor Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC (picking up an endorsement by Mayor Adrian Fenty), and offered his own prescription for reducing inner-city poverty.

As an excellent analysis by the Washington Post's Alec MacGillis explains, Edwards and Obama are offering sharply different approaches to what might be called the geography of inner-city poverty, with the former arguing that some poor and isolated urban neighborhoods need to be broken up, and the latter arguing that they can be revitalized. This difference is most dramatically reflected in Edwards' proposal for dispersed low-income housing through rental vouchers, and Obama's proposal for a new inner-city housing Trust Fund. On a more personal note, Edwards is touting his long-standing work on poverty issues, dating back to the 2004 campaign, while Obama's speech is full of references to his own work as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago.

The dispersal-versus-revitalization debate is an ancient one. Low-income housing dispersal, while popular among urban policy wonks, has always been politically perilous for the obvious reason that it simultaneously offends the community sentiment of inner-city dwellers while threatening those whose neighborhoods would be the target of relocation efforts. On the other hand, national inner-city revitalization plans (the most recent being the Clinton-era Empowerment Zone initiative, headed up by Andrew Cuomo), have at best a very checkered history. Obama appears to be distinguishing his own approach from its predecessors by emphasizing small, locally-driven and field-tested programs, though his emphasis on community-based non-governmental organizations was also an emblem of the Johnson-era War on Poverty, which deliberately bypassed state and local governments.

There is more than a bit of historical irony in Edwards' invocation of RFK's 1968 campaign. One of the most famous moments in that campaign was during the debate between RFK and Gene McCarthy on the eve of the California primary, just prior to Kennedy's assassination. Asked about inner-city housing, McCarthy, much like Edwards today, called for public housing dispersal. And Kennedy responded by saying:

We have 10 million Negroes who are in the ghettos at the present time. . . You say you are going to take 10,000 black people and move them into Orange County. It is just going to be catastrophic.

This incident has always been a favorite of Bobby-haters, who view it as reflecting at best political opportunism, and at worst a willingness to exploit racial fears (a bit implausible, since RFK won California by sweeping the minority vote).

The other irony, of course, is that John Edwards' presidential hopes completely depend on his ability to win the caucuses in Iowa, a place where efforts to deal with entrenched inner-city poverty is considerably less important than three or four different questions involving ethanol subsidies. Meanwhile, Edwards is by universal assessment not doing very well among low-income and minority voters (Garance Franke-Ruta has a provocative commentary on that subject over at The American Prospect).

Obama's decision to contest Edwards' mantle as a poverty-fighter does make some basic political sense. Aside from the fact that the subject enables him to tout his own experience--and highlight a biographical credential that predates his political career--Obama really needs to improve his narrow lead over Hillary Clinton among African-American voters.

However it all turns out for Edwards or Obama, you don't have to be an inner-city resident, or a nostalgic baby boomer, to be happy about the growing visibility of this issue in the 2008 campaign.

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Good catch on the McCarthy/Kennedy. That was one of the more memorable moments from the debate -- repeated in the campaign biographies of RFK.

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