Last spring, hoping to spark a national debate, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota set off on a tour of some of the country's poorest communities. In doing so, he was following the same route that his hero, Robert F. Kennedy, went down 30 years earlier.
Kennedy's trip revealed gut-wrenching scenes of hunger and want in the midst of a thriving nation, prompting changes in federal anti-poverty programs and helping to propel him into the presidential race the next year. Wellstone, by contrast, found that progress has been made over the past three decades. That led him to shift the emphasis of his tour, by highlighting programs that are succeeding.
Tomorrow Wellstone, 53, will end his journey with a daylong visit to Baltimore. Accompanied by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, he'll make a number of stops, including Canton Middle School, the Flag House Courts housing project and a Head Start program in Harlem Park.
A fiery speaker and one of the most liberal members of Congress, Wellstone is currently considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. He spoke recently with Paul West of The Sun's Washington bureau.
You've explored rural poverty in the Mississippi Delta and the coal fields of Kentucky. You've been to inner city Chicago and Los Angeles. What made you choose Baltimore, and what do you expect to see here that you haven't seen elsewhere?
I thought I would have an opportunity to really see some very good work. I had talked with the mayor and he said: "Look, you know, there are some very good things going on. And there are also, clearly, places where we can do better." We're going to see both.
It's not true that we don't know what to do. Here's what's being done at Canton Middle School and here's some of the models of teaching and learning that work, and of course we can do much better for kids.
As you know, poverty rates in America are declining, thanks at least in part to a growing economy. What new ideas do you have to deal with the poverty that remains?
The most successful thing that could be done would be to focus on good education and good jobs.
Possibly the most effective solutions are going to be community-based. The critiques by conservatives and others -- certainly as a former community organizer it's a critique I've always believed in -- of overly centralized and overly bureaucratized public policy is a very important one.
What does it mean to be poor in America today? In terms of dollars, where do you draw the line?
The official definition is around $15,000 for an urban family of four. If anyone was to think about this in the Baltimore area, whether $15,000 for a family of four is enough to get by, given the cost of housing, health care, utilities, food, clothing, you name it, it's very minimum. Actually, I think $15,000 is rather low.
Last spring, when you began your tour, you wanted to "put a human face" on poverty and show that -- in the midst of this wealthy nation -- there are still serious problems. At the beginning you seemed to be focusing mainly on the fact that the glass was half-empty.
Now, as the tour comes to an end, you're highlighting what works. Why do you think the idea of exposing poverty didn't play better?
The reason I want to really emphasize the positive is not to make the argument that things have really gotten much better in this country over the last 30 years. But rather it's to point to a lot of the really successful things that are being done at the neighborhood and community level in Baltimore and other cities.
Why aren't we investing more resources in these kinds of efforts since they are successful? That's why I've emphasized the positive. Not to try to sugarcoat the rest of it. I'm not going to do that at all.
And what's the answer to your question of why we're not investing more? Most of what you're saying nobody would disagree with. But what it really boils down to is who is going to cough up the money for this?
Low-income families and low-income children have been off the radar screen. They're not the focus, at least in the Senate, of our work.
It's an issue of political powerlessness. It's an issue of who votes and who doesn't vote. It's an issue of who are the givers and the well-connected and the heavy hitters, and who isn't. It's an issue of who marches on Washington every day, and who's never there.
What the Republican Party quite often says is, "Look, these are problems, but when it comes to these kinds of pressing issues there is nothing the government can or should do. That's not the role of the government." And what the Democrats are saying is, "Oh, no, affordable child care and rebuilding crumbling schools and affordable housing are terribly important. But politically we can't do anything, either."
Your original plan was to focus on the impact of welfare cuts and stimulate a national debate. Are you disappointed that this hasn't happened?
No, I think there will be. I'm not done. I'm just starting.
Most Democrats in Congress, including you, voted against the welfare-reform law that President Clinton signed last year. Now that the law has taken effect, how do you think those changes are working, and when do you think we'll know whether they have achieved the goal of moving people off welfare and into jobs?
On welfare, please don't define reform in terms of reduction of caseload. A liberal, a conservative, a Democrat, a Republican, a fool can reduce the caseload: Just tell people they're off AFDC assistance.
At the very minimum what we need to do, and I'm going to make such a proposal, is that we need to come up with some way of measuring family self-sufficiency and get reports from states every six months over the next four years. Because, remember, after four years everyone's off welfare.
You just made a campaign-style swing through New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state. You've been to Iowa, another early presidential state, five times. In August, you told your hometown paper that in your "heart and soul" you want to run for president. So is this poverty tour simply another way of testing the waters for a presidential candidacy? Or is it about something bigger?
This would not be the road to the White House, I don't think. Whether I run or not, I'm 50-50. But what I do know is that this travel and this work, which has been almost my whole adult life's work, will continue.
If you run, would it simply be to make a point? Or would you be in it to win? After all, there are others -- including Jesse Jackson and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt -- who say they're ready to fight Al Gore from the left for the soul of the Democratic Party. If you did it, what would be the reason?
If I do it, it would not be to make a point. It would be a serious effort to win.
But I have to make a really rigorous analysis in my own mind, as to, OK, what would be the winning plan and how would you make it happen? Given that I'd be certainly an underdog, I need to figure that out. I'm used to underdog races. I'm used to David and Goliath races.
Pub Date: 11/18/97