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Poverty on their minds

July 18, 2007 |  8:42 pm

As John Edwards stopped in Kentucky Wednesday to wrap up a three-day tour aimed at focusing attention on poverty in America, Barack Obama --- perhaps not coincidentially --- tackled the same issue just a few miles away from where he works as a U.S. senator.

Obama delivered a lengthy speech in Anacostia, a long-blighted District of Columbia community almost literally in the shadow of the Capitol. Some of what Obama had to say echoed what Edwards has been stressing in his bid to elevate poverty as a major topic in the Democratic presidential campaign. Indeed, for both men, Robert F. Kennedy is serving as a point of departure.

Edwards ended his trip in Prestonsburg, Ky., where Kennedy concluded a visit to impoverished parts of Appalachia during his 1968 presidential campaign. Obama invoked Kennedy and the question he posed about intense pockets of poverty in America --- “How can a country like this allow it?” --- at the very start of his speech.

Obama, no doubt cognizant of criticisms that he was light on specifics in the initial stage of his campaign, went beyond mere rhetoric as his remarks progressed, zeroing in on how he would combat urban poverty. He spotlighted the Harlem Children’s Zone, which he termed "an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance" (the program was profiled in a "60 Minutes" report about a year ago).

He pledged that as president, he would "replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities across the country. We’ll train staff, we’ll have them draw up detailed plans with attainable goals, and the federal government will provide half of the funding for each city, with the rest coming from philanthropies and businesses."

He addressed the next obvious question: cost. "I’ll be honest --– it can’t be done on the cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year." But he shied away from the logical follow-up, where will those funds come from? He said simply: "We will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to."

He offered several other concrete proposals, including a program for inner cities comparable to the World Bank, which aims to stimulate economic development in other counties. You can read Obama's speech here.

Edwards, for his part, has been consistently detailing his plans for attacking poverty. Proposals he unveiled Wednesday included increasing federal funding for family literacy programs. You can read the campaign's re-cap of his remarks here.

For the latest website story on the two campaigns' approaches to fighting poverty, click here. The same story is in Thursday's print edition of The Times.

-- Don Frederick