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latimes.com: Slow to define his candidacy, Gore attacked from right and left alike

latimes.com WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- Like Bill Bradley before him, Ralph Nader doesn't think President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have done enough to help the poor. "The cruel truth," Nader declared last week, "is that few of the benefits of a booming stock market and good economic times at the top have trickled down to millions of American families."

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That's a common complaint from liberals--perhaps the left's core critique against Clinton and Gore. Bradley aggressively made that case in his challenge to Gore for the presidential nomination during the Democratic primaries. Nader is reprising it in his surprisingly effective bid as the Green Party's presidential candidate. To many on the left, it stands as proof that Clinton and Gore, in pursuit of suburban and upscale voters, have abandoned their party's historic commitment to uplifting the needy.

There's only one problem with the argument: It's unambiguously wrong.

The poor are indeed still with us. But after eight years of Clinton's presidency, there are significantly fewer of them. Under Clinton, the number of Americans in poverty has fallen more rapidly than at any time since the boom years of the late 1960s.

Families, kids fare better

From any angle, Census Bureau numbers show unmistakable progress. From 1993 through 1999 (the latest year for which figures are available), the number of Americans living in poverty dropped by more than 7 million--from 15.1% of the population to just less than 12%. That's a 22% decline--enough to shrink the overall poverty rate to the lowest level since 1979.

Among children, a central focus for Bradley and Nader, the poverty rate has fallen even faster. It now stands at 16.9%, down from nearly 23% when Clinton took office. That's a decline of more than one-fourth--and also the lowest rate since 1979.

Even among families where a single woman is raising children, the poverty rate is plummeting. Nader backers such as author Barbara Ehrenreich cite as one reason for supporting him "the increasingly ugly fallout from the changes in welfare." But by moving millions of women from dependency into the work force, welfare reform has significantly contributed to the reduction of poverty. Since 1993, the poverty rate among families headed by single women has dropped by more than one-fifth--to about 30%. That's still too high, but it is by far the lowest level ever recorded.

All of these numbers are calculated before government benefits are figured in. But in 1993, Clinton won a major increase in the earned-income tax credit, which provides tax subsidies to the working poor. When benefits from the credit and other government programs such as food stamps are added--and the cost of state and federal taxes are subtracted--the share of Americans in poverty shrinks to just 9.4% of the population, the Census Bureau calculates. Under that definition, the poverty rate among children is down to 12%--a drop of more than one-third since Clinton was inaugurated.

Can more be done? Sure, especially for the working poor. But, again like Bradley, Nader doesn't give Clinton and Gore enough credit for what they've already accomplished--mostly over the resistance of Republicans in Congress.

Apart from the massive increase in the earned-income tax credit, Clinton also won a hike in the minimum wage in 1996, which was not something the new Republican congressional majority expected to be enacting when it took power a year earlier. In 1997, Clinton signed into law the children's health insurance program, known as CHIP, which provides coverage for uninsured children of the working poor. Through dogged budget negotiations, he also has nearly doubled federal child care subsidies for low-income families. Far from the headlines, these are achievements that tangibly change lives.

And Gore has proposed important steps to further bolster the working poor. Gore says he would make all children eligible for CHIP, and for the first time, cover working-poor parents under the program. He's proposed to increase the minimum wage, enlarge the earned-income tax credit again and make the tax credit for child-care costs available to more low-income families. He would increase access to child care by providing states grants to vastly expand the availability of preschool and by subsidizing after-school programs. That may not add up to the Great Society, but it's hardly benign neglect either.

By exaggerating his critique of Gore, Nader obscures his own insights about poverty and urban decay. Nader has advanced a series of intriguing (if politically difficult) ideas that Gore, if elected, may want to consider. (Republican nominee George W. Bush is unlikely to support any of them.) Among them are capping the mortgage interest deduction for upper-income families and using the savings to subsidize home ownership for working-class Americans, and linking the minimum wage to inflation. Most provocatively, Nader has suggested that government should encourage the spread of grass-roots community groups that provide cooperative services in poor neighborhoods--nonprofit health maintenance organizations, for instance, in which members help care for one another.

Gore has only belatedly noticed the Nader challenge. In his obsessive fear of discussing the last eight years, the vice president somehow offered no comment when the striking Census Bureau numbers on poverty were released last month. And he's said remarkably little about his plans to help the working poor or to continue the revival now underway in many cities.

Something for everyone

Gore has been just as slow in reacting to Bush's critique from the right. For weeks, Bush has denounced Gore as a pre-Clinton, big-government liberal; the vice president did not systematically respond until last week when, in a series of speeches, he dusted off New Democrat promises of government reform that he has shelved all fall.

These problems have the same root: By failing to emphasize reform, and by allowing his campaign to devolve mostly into promises of new goodies for middle-class voters (particularly a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens), Gore has left himself open to more philosophical challenges from left and right. Nader now is winning votes by portraying Gore as a conservative sellout even as Bush attracts converts by painting the vice president as a liberal throwback. The common success of those inherently contradictory arguments is the best measure of Gore's failure to articulate an overarching rationale for his candidacy.


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Monday, October 30, 2000

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