The University of Michigan's Rebecca Blank recently wrote a thoughtful piece (pdf) grading the various presidential candidates on their plans to tackle poverty. Here's her bottom line on the Dem front-runners:
Obama, Edwards, and Clinton all have multifaceted and serious anti-poverty plans. Anyone concerned with poverty issues could happily vote for any of them. Edwards has made poverty a centerpiece issue for his campaign from the beginning; Clinton has the best early childhood proposals; Obama is the most thoughtful on jobs for disadvantaged youth and urban change and (for my money) the most creative in putting new policy ideas on the table, such as low-cost Internet service in poor neighborhoods. But all of them understand that the measure of this country is not just the size of its GDP or the wealth of its richest citizens.
That still leaves open the question: How hard would each candidate actually push for anti-poverty policies? Edwards's approach, notably, seems to mirror what Tony Blair did in Britain on taking office in 1997: Blair set ambitious public targets (pledging to halve child poverty by 2010), and, in the ensuing years, Labour officials constantly reassessed what they were doing to make sure they were on track. The Wall Street Journal recently looked at Blair's efforts, noting that, while he didn't solve all the nation's ills, Britain's child poverty rate still dropped from 24 percent in 1998 to 11 percent in 2005. Now, Britain isn't exactly the United States—for starters, its safety-net programs aren't decentralized like ours often are—but it's a sign that a focused drive to reduce poverty really can accomplish a lot, if people set their minds to it. See Krugman for more.
On the Republican side, Blank notes that only John McCain has "stated support for a number of antipoverty efforts." Even that's too generous, I'd say. After all, McCain now appears to have outsourced his economic thinking to Phil Gramm, who never saw a safety net he didn't want to shred. Gramm, recall, was leading the GOP charge during the '90s to hack up Medicaid and the earned-income tax credit. (He was also one of the few Republicans to celebrate the government shutdown in 1995, quipping, "Have you really noticed a difference?") If Gramm's expected to play a major role in McCain's White House, that seems more significant than any vague gestures McCain might be making toward poverty right now.