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Clinton’s poverty tour misses the larger point

Cresident Bill Clinton’s decision to visit desperately poor rural and urban settings was a laudable gesture, calling attention to not only the invisible millions whom the economic boom has passed by but also, in the case of Native Americans, to those still suffering from centuries of injustice.

With 18 months to go in office, Slobodan Milosevic on the ropes and the economy so hot that a common problem is worker shortages, Clinton understandably might decide to coast the rest of the way.

To his credit, he decided instead to focus national attention on the 35 million Americans who have been left behind.

In the wake of the noble gesture, of course, is the overriding question, “What can he do?”

For what becomes evident in the context of this opportunity taken are the more significant opportunities either missed or intentionally avoided.

What Clinton can do immediately is bring along the considerable credibility he seems to have with the business community as well as a solid track record of creating jobs. According to news reports, a combination of new and existing programs is expected to pump up to $15 billion in private sector funds into poor rural and urban communities.

It is a fairly safe bet that the follow-up to Clinton’s trip will be some new housing for migrants, new loan possibilities for poor communities and new retail establishments in locations that too long have remained off the site-selection maps of major chains and lending institutions.

Without impugning motives, what clearly is at work here is Clinton’s almost unerring political instincts. Timing is everything: This is the time, the prosperous time, when the rest of the country will find initiatives toward the poor easy to tolerate.

The downside, of course, is that using such a calculus, as Clinton has done his entire tenure, squeezes out the possibility of the truly large gesture, the fashioning of a national purpose that relies more on a classic sense of government as an agent of the common good than on the latest polls.

Good political instincts say, as Clinton has, “If we can’t do it now, we’ll never get it done.” The healthier national purpose would say, “We’re all the more impoverished if we aren’t getting it done.”

Clinton’s solutions are his global approach applied to the local community. It is an approach in which government abdicates its leadership functions to the marketplace, becoming a facilitator of bids and investment options.

In this context, leading with the market is charity disguised as justice. Justice changes systems, markets exploit them. Justice advocates for the long haul, markets are a short-term fix. The market can only turn a buck, and that’s not enough where much in people’s lives needs to be turned around.

People may make money, but the deeper human needs -- health care, education, better schools, child care, personal dignity and self-esteem -- will remain largely untouched unless someone is willing and able to galvanize the national will to something larger.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999