Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 5, 2008: Antipoverty Advocates Urged to Unite to Influence Next President

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As the 2008 election nears, antipoverty advocates should work together on a bipartisan basis to ensure the next president gives priority to narrowing the gap between rich and poor, speakers at a conference said today.

“We need to ask the next president whether poverty and opportunity are issues of importance to him or her, and if so, what he or she will do about it,” said Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, in Boston, one of several grant makers that created a project called Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity: Foundations Ask Presidential Candidates What They۪ll Do for America.

Ms. Silbert called on foundations to play a leading role in getting the issue on the president۪s radar screen. Despite increased spending by grant makers on antipoverty projects, she said, the country۪s poverty rate has not significantly decreased over the last 30 years. “More and more foundations are funding public-policy initiatives,” she said. “But we have to take it one step further. We have to aggregate the power of our voices.”

The conference sponsors Spotlight on Poverty, the Brookings Institution, and the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality released a new study showing that newspaper and wire-service coverage of the political debate over poverty was up 145 percent in 2007 (4,344 articles) compared with the previous pre-presidential-election year of 2003 (1,775 articles).

Coverage jumped significantly during the 2004 election year, which suggests that 2008 will bring even more articles about poverty and politics than in 2007. That is good news for antipoverty advocates and policy makers, said Thomas Freedman, president of Freedman Consulting, in Washington, which helped conduct the study. “Clearly there۪s an opportunity here to make your case,” he said.

Speakers at the conference discussed proposals that were most likely to get support from both Democrats, who are generally more sympathetic to social programs, and Republicans, who generally favor programs that promote personal responsibility.

Several said expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides cash to low-income workers, falls in that category because it rewards people who hold onto jobs. Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is now a political consultant in Washington, said antipoverty advocates might find a sympathetic ear in John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, since he prides himself on his independence and “is not comfortable with the pro-tax-cut, pro-corporate agenda.” Mr. McCain may also find common ground with young evangelical voters who are concerned about both global and domestic poverty, he added.

Mr. Weber and William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings and a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said using the right terminology to describe efforts to lift people out of poverty is critical to attracting bipartisan support. Referring to “opportunity” will have broader appeal than referring to “inequality,” they both agreed.

The Eos Foundation started Spotlight on Poverty, which tracks on a Web site news about poverty and the positions of the presidential candidates, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in Baltimore, last October. Since then, they have been joined by the California Endowment, in Los Angeles; the Endowment for Health, in Concord, N.H.; the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, in Baton Rouge, La.; and the George Gund Foundation, in Cleveland.

Suzanne Perry

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