WEST HELENA, Ark. — John Edwards seemed to be getting angrier by the moment, as one by one the home health-care workers, mainly middle-aged black women, told their stories.
The women, sitting in the front row of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church's community center, spoke quietly. So Edwards, an edge to his voice, would repeat the key points.
No vacation time. No overtime. No sick leave. Pay ranging between $6 and $8 per hour.
"We are with you in this," Edwards said, his fist cutting the air. "We are with you. We are going to try to get these things changed. I can't promise. But I can promise I'll try."
Edwards has taken hold of the poverty issue like no other major presidential candidate in years. But in doing so, he's opened himself up to criticism.
Conservatives characterize his approaches as liberal giveaways or contrast his anti-poverty efforts with his wealthy lifestyle. One of his Democratic rivals this week seemed to suggest that Edwards is a Johnny-come-lately to the issue.
Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina, was in the rundown Mississippi River town of West Helena this week as part of a back-roads, three-day poverty tour. There were few cheering crowds, no rope lines, no $1,000-per-person cocktail parties.
Instead, Edwards spent much of the week talking with people who live on the margins of American society. He met with Hispanic poultry workers in Canton, Miss., walked in the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King in Marks, Miss., where the late civil rights leader began his Poor People's march, and toured a working-class black neighborhood in Cleveland pockmarked by foreclosures.
At times, Edwards seemed to be trying to exhume the ghost of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, one of the last major political figures to try to bring the face of poverty to the nation's attention.
In the Delta town of Marks, the mayor mistakenly introduced Edwards as "Senator Kennedy." Edwards ended the tour in the same Kentucky town that Kennedy ended his 1968 poverty tour.
Calling poverty "the great moral issue of our day," Edwards spoke in terms that go beyond normal political rhetoric.
"This is the cause of my life," Edwards told a crowd of 250 people in Pittsburgh's impoverished Hill district.
He proposes to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour, to pass legislation outlawing so-called predatory lending, to increase enforcement of labor protection laws, to expand tax credits for the working poor, to create a million temporary public works jobs and to provide universal health-care coverage.
Edwards said his proposals aren't aimed only at the nation's 37 million poor people, but also at uplifting the entire economy. He said many issues, such as the rising cost of college education and the difficulty in finding health insurance, also affect the middle class.
He estimates that his program would cost between $10 billion and $15 billion per year — not counting the $120 billion annual cost for his universal health care plan.
Edwards' anti-poverty plan is the most detailed of any presidential candidate.
"It's very much focused on helping people help themselves," said Rebecca Blank, co-director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. "It's aimed at personal responsibility."
"There is nothing in there that says 'raise welfare benefits,'" said Blank. "It says people should be working. It helps them save and get an education. ... These are very mainstream proposals. These proposals deal with: How do you support people in low-wage work so they can be stably employed and can raise a family?"
But others say that Edwards' prescriptions for poverty are just warmed-over liberal nostrums.
"If you look through the whole list, what you see is everything involves some form of giveaway, from the taxpayer to the recipient," said Robert Rector, a poverty expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.
"The key idea of welfare reform enacted 10 years ago was the idea of reciprocal obligation. The taxpayers would provide assistance, but welfare recipients would be required to engage in constructive activities to lift themselves out of poverty."
"What you see from Edwards is a one-way bargain," Rector said. "There are no new requirements on recipients. The recipients get more stuff."
Fighting poverty wasn't at the top of Edwards' agenda when he was elected to the Senate in 1998. But by the time he ran for president in 2004, Edwards was emphasizing the inequality of the "two Americas." After losing the election, Edwards created a think tank in Chapel Hill, N.C., called the Center for Poverty Work and Opportunity to study the issue.
One of his Democratic rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, seemed to challenge Edwards' poverty credentials on Wednesday, noting that his own first job out of college was as a community organizer.
"This kind of poverty is not just an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign," Obama said during a visit to a poor Washington, D.C., neighborhood.
But while visiting faith-based organizations that help the poor in Memphis, Tenn., and Youngstown, Ohio, Edwards noted his own involvement in a similar organization.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Edwards served on the board of directors of Urban Ministries of Raleigh and contributed $85,000 to it, according to Anne Burke, the anti-poverty group's executive director.
"John certainly did care," Burke said. "Until the tragedy in his family, he approached me wanting to organize the legal community to get behind Urban Ministries because he believed in it so much."
After the death of his son Wade in a 1996 auto wreck, Edwards purchased a building across the street from Raleigh's Broughton High School to start a computer-learning lab to help students after school.
Elizabeth Edwards volunteered full-time at the center, which primarily helped children who didn't have computers at home, until her husband's 1998 election to the Senate. The couple later created a second learning lab at Goldsboro High School, a predominately black school in a rural area outside Raleigh. The Edwards campaign said Edwards' contributions to the two labs totaled several million dollars.
In 1993, Edwards and his law partner, David Kirby, began holding Christmas parties at the Walnut Terrace Child Development Center, which serves children from a southeast Raleigh public housing project where most residents are black. Edwards and Kirby took turns as Santa Claus, handing out presents they provided.
"They were very generous," remembers Connie Kennedy, the center's former director. "All year they would call us and ask if there was anything we needed."
Edwards could afford to be generous because he made millions as a trial lawyer.
Kirby said he was unaware of Edwards doing pro bono work while he headed his own firm, but he often adjusted or waived his fees for persons of limited means. He said that about half of Edwards' clients could be described as the working poor.
"What I saw up close and personal was somebody who never turned his back on anyone who was truly in need," Kirby said. "Probably the most impressive thing about John is he had a core value that everyone deserved respect, whether you were a bank president or whether you were the janitor's assistant cleaning the floor."
(Christensen reports for the The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)
ON THE WEB
For more about Edwards' campaign, go to http://johnedwards.com/