Edwards in Mississippi: Raise pay, improve health care to fight poverty

Published 4:21 pm Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards took his poverty tour to the job-hungry Mississippi Delta on Monday, saying he wants to increase the federal minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and create universal health care.

Standing under a canopy of pecan trees in a park next to a rural highway, Edwards talked about the civil rights history of Marks, where a poor people’s mule train started its journey to the nation’s capital in May 1968. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Marks in late March 1968, about two weeks before he was assassinated about 75 miles away in Memphis.

“It’s an incredible honor for me to be able to walk in the same places that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked years ago and bringing attention to the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised in America,” Edwards told a racially mixed crowd of about 250 people. “We still have work to do. And our responsibility is to finish his work.”

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The former North Carolina senator said many Americans think poverty only exists in large cities when it’s also prevalent in places like Marks, a town of 1,840 that’s surrounded by cotton, soybean and rice fields.

The crowd responded with calls of “amen” and “that’s right” when Edwards said every worker in the U.S. should get at least seven days a year of sick leave and should be treated with dignity and respect on the job.

The appearance was part of Edwards’ three-day poverty tour that he hopes will draw attention to the economic struggles many people face, and ways to fix those problems. Before traveling to Marks, he met with poultry workers at a church in Canton in central Mississippi. He was scheduled to make stops in Arkansas and Tennessee later in the day.

Paul Pride, 36, of Marks, worked with a crew from his barbecue business to cook dozens of hamburgers, hot dogs and several racks of ribs to feed the crowd before Edwards arrived.

Pride, who grew up in Marks, said this part of the state needs jobs that pay decent living wages. In addition to running his barbecue business, Pride drives a truck. He said he works seven days a week, sometimes late into the night.

Pride said he supports Edwards for president.

“You know why?,” he asked. “Look at where he’s at today. Where’s Obama? Where’s Clinton? They’re not here.”

Bernadine Cauthern, 38, manager of Pride’s barbecue business and a full-time nursing student at nearby Coahoma Community College, agreed that the Delta needs jobs.

“I left when I graduated from high school. I left the same day,” said Cauthern, who finished Quitman County High School in 1986.

She said she worked in Dallas for two years before returning home to be with her father, who was ill.

“Now it’s even worse than it was when I left, with the jobs,” she said. “There’s not enough for people to do here.”

A few hours earlier in Canton, the 2004 vice presidential nominee met with poultry plant workers at Mt. Levi Full Gospel Church and said their plight demonstrated the government’s shortcomings in addressing workers’ wage and health issues.

The poultry workers complained that they are not receiving full wages and they can’t support their families on their paychecks. Marvie Chapman told Edwards that many employees work up to 50 hours a week but do not receive the overtime pay they are due.

Edwards said there was a perception in this country that many who live in poverty are “just ne’er-do-wells or they don’t want to work,” but the workers’ stories he heard show that is not the case.

“They have a hard time paying their bills and supporting their families because No. 1 their pay is low. No. 2 they don’t have the kind of benefits you would hope they’d have and No. 3, they’re actually being cheated out of what they are entitled to and being forced to work in incredibly dangerous conditions,” Edwards said.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, with 19.9 percent of its population living below the poverty level.

Edwards, who formally kicked off his race for the Democratic nomination in New Orleans in December, returned to the city Sunday for a tour of the Lower 9th Ward, a low-income area that was among the worst-hit by Katrina. On Monday, he took questions at a town hall meeting in the French Quarter, then toured Kingsley House, a charitable agency that provides education programs and other services for children in need.

At each appearance he lamented the city’s slow recovery — its population remains down by around 40 percent and vast areas have yet to recover from post-storm blight. He said one of the federal government’s priorities should be finding out why billions allocated for storm relief have not reached local governments and storm victims. And he said President Bush should exercise more leadership in getting the problems solved.

The Bush administration says it has allocated over $110 billion to Gulf Coast hurricane recovery, but local officials and storm victims say they have yet to see much of the money for needed infrastructure repairs.

Local officials have blamed state and federal bureaucracy for tying up federal funds, but state and federal officials say they are trying to be responsible with taxpayer money and make sure it is properly spent.

The setting for the town hall meeting broadcast on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program was the Cabildo, one of the two 18th century buildings flanking St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter’s Jackson Square. As people began gathering for the event, homeless people slept on benches just around the corner from the cathedral.

Inside, Edwards said people living on the streets are only part of the poverty problem in America.

“A huge portion of the people who live in poverty in this country work every day, work all the time,” he said.