Bill Clinton has not been a poverty-fighter in the grand tradition of the Democratic Party. No "Great Society" campaigns have come out of the Clinton White House. That's partly a matter of this president's centrist, fiscally moderate inclinations. It also reflects the White House-Congress divide that has marked the Clinton years.
But now, with scarcely 18 months left in office, Mr. Clinton has decided to put poverty back on the map. And whatever the mix of political and personal motivations behind his recent tour of impoverished "pockets," the emphasis on increasing opportunity for all Americans is welcome.
It's unquestionably true that the US economic boom of the '90s has not reached all corners of society. The current low national unemployment rate indicates that prosperity has indeed spread widely, but in places like Watts, East St. Louis, parts of Appalachia, and the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, the rate is many times the national average. Clinton's visit to these places, and others, is a needed reminder: The country has unfinished business here.
It's debatable whether the measures proposed by the president - tax credits and loan guarantees to spur private investment where it's most needed - always work as hoped. They've been tried in various forms with varied results. It's even more debatable whether he can get Congress aboard for any of his plans.
But only positive things can come from putting the subject back on the national agenda. We look for the business executives who accompanied the president to follow through with plans of their own to develop untapped labor and retail markets. We hope community organizers are encouraged by the president's tour and will redouble their efforts. And we'd like to see the politicians vying to succeed Clinton put forward their own ideas for eliminating the poverty that still grips millions of American families.
The biggest poverty-related initiative of the Clinton era remains welfare reform. That effort to break dependency on the public dole and move people toward work is, potentially, part of the solution. Its long-term effectiveness will hinge largely on whether more and better employment can be created in the communities where most welfare recipients live. The president is right to underscore this other half of the job.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society