JRE on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer
In addition to the misery and ruin caused by Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of the storm is exposing the pervasiveness of poverty right here in the United States.
Among those who are saying Katrina represents a chance to address America's growing class divide, among other subjects, is the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina, John Edwards. He's now the director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
And John Edwards is joining us now, live from Raleigh.
Senator, it's good to have you back on "Late Edition."
Thanks very much for joining us.
JOHN EDWARDS, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Glad to be with you.
BLITZER: Let's get to the issue at hand, the recovery operation right now. Are you satisfied the way the situation is going?
EDWARDS: You mean now?
BLITZER: Right now.
EDWARDS: I'm satisfied with some things that are happening and, obviously, there's a more intense effort going on now than happened originally right after the hurricane hit.
There are some things that I'm concerned about. For example, they're moving away from the use of these $2,000 debit cards and instead they're suggesting they're going to put -- deposit into bank accounts for folks.
The problem is a lot of people -- they got devastated by this hurricane -- they don't have bank accounts. The president, apparently, is suspending Davis Bacon, which is a law that requires a prevailing wage be used in federal contracts in the reconstruction effort.
I think that's a mistake. I think there are a number of things happening which indicate what is continuing, which is a lack of understanding of the pervasiveness of poverty in the inner city in New Orleans: why these folks live in poverty, the problems they had in responding to the hurricane as a result and the ongoing problems that not only they, but the 37 million people across America that live in poverty face every day.
We don't seem, in this administration, to have an understanding of what their lives are like.
BLITZER: A lot of us who covered the campaign last year will remember: You kept speaking of those two Americas that you saw out there, one affluent, well-to-do, educated; yet, there was another America you used to point out, a very poor America.
Certainly we see that. We have seen that the past couple of weeks in Louisiana, specifically, and Mississippi to a certain degree. These are two of among the poorest states in the United States from unemployment, from wealth, from education, from very -- from a whole lot of perspectives.
What's the major lesson that you learned in the aftermath of Katrina as far as this whole issue of class and race, poverty in America?
EDWARDS: Well, it's a microcosm of the problem that exists all over this country. You just pointed it out. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in America. Alabama also hit, the third highest poverty rate. Louisiana has the fifth highest poverty rate. Almost one out of four people who lived in the city of New Orleans live in poverty.
And it's a huge issue, not just on the Gulf Coast but all across America. And the people who got hurt by Katrina and got hurt the worst by Katrina are the same people that are always hurt the worst when something like this happens. They're vulnerable; they don't have any assets.
There's a huge asset gap in America. For example, white families have an average net worth of about $80,000 in this country. African- American families are about $6,000. That gap means something in people's lives, because if something goes wrong -- you know, a hurricane or something a lot less serious like their kid gets sick or they have a layoff or some kind of financial problem.
If you think about it, all of us have run into things that we don't expect that are bad. These folks have nothing to fall back on. And as a result their lives -- they go right in the ditch. Their lives are devastated. And so that's what we see.
BLITZER: Do you think the president, as some Democrats, some of his critics have suggested, including Howard Dean, the chairman of your party, the Democratic party -- do you think the president doesn't care about some of these people?
EDWARDS: No, here's what I think. I think that -- and, by the way, I think this has gone on for decades. I don't think this is something that's happened in the last few years.
No, I think what we've seen is a lack of understanding in the federal government of how these folks live their lives. You know, we issue an evacuation order, we expect everybody to leave. Well, a lot of these people unfortunately don't have bank accounts. They don't have a car. You know, the hurricane hits a few days before their payday, which they're waiting for to be able to get the money to buy gas and to buy food -- you know, they are in a very different place and that continues.
I mean, even now they're in a different place. They don't have a job. They didn't have insurance. They basically have nothing left.
And one of the things that I hope we will do is look at this as an opportunity not only to shine a bright light on poverty in America and do something about it nationally -- I think it's one of the great moral causes that face America today -- but to use New Orleans as a shining example of what we can do.
Let's have, for example, a WPA project in New Orleans. Take these displaced folks, put them to work in New Orleans. Pay them a good wage. Pay them decent benefits so that they cannot only reconstruct their city, they can reconstruct their lives and have the dignity that comes from having a good job and being able to support your family.
BLITZER: There was a "Time" magazine poll that's just come out this weekend -- are you worried that the government won't provide relief to your community after a natural disaster? Fifty seven percent of the American public says yes, 41 percent says no.
North Carolina could be a victim in the coming days. Hurricane Ophelia sort of hovering on the Atlantic Coast right now. Some projections suggesting it could hit the coast of your home state.
Is your state prepared for what potentially could happen?
EDWARDS: Well, we've had a lot of experience with hurricanes, Wolf, as I know you know. And we are as prepared as you can be, and right now it's a category 1 hurricane. We're not sure exactly where it's going to hit. You know, we hope it won't make landfall at all, but, yes, we're prepared. Governor Easley has focused on it. He knows what needs to be done.
So we have a lot of experience with this, and I might add, we know from our own state from having been hit with serious hurricanes in the past, we've had the same experience that you're seeing in New Orleans right now.
Principal (ph), a small town, largely African-American population, in eastern North Carolina was devastated when we were hit by a very bad hurricane a few years ago.
So this is not new, what we're seeing in New Orleans. We're not seeing it on this scale, of course.
But what we're seeing in New Orleans, which is the most vulnerable people being hit the hardest, the people in Ward 9, for example, which is the lowest lying area, which is about 98 percent African-American -- I mean, those are the people that get hurt the worst whenever something like this happens, and I might add they're also the folks that get hurt the most when anything happens in their lives. It's what they deal with every day.
BLITZER: We're out of time, but are you running for president again?
EDWARDS: I don't think we should be talking about that. I haven't made any decision about it.
Let's focus now on doing something to help these people on the Gulf Coast and doing something about 37 million people who live in poverty.
BLITZER: A lot of our viewers, Senator, want to know how your wife Elizabeth is doing. How is she doing?
EDWARDS: Thank you for asking.
She's actually doing very well. She's finished her treatment. Doctors are very optimistic. We're optimistic.
Obviously, it's a huge thing in our lives. We love and adore Elizabeth, and she's doing very well right now.
BLITZER: Well, that's good to hear.
Give her our best, Senator Edwards. We hope to have you back soon here on CNN.
EDWARDS: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: Thank you very much.
Great ideas, good poise...sorry I missed you, JRE. I wasn't at home when you were on tv.