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Offer poor a way to earn a better life

John McCain has been on the Republican equivalent of a Bed-Stuy tour. Bedford-Stuyvesant was once a frequent campaign stop for Democratic candidates who stood in front of destroyed or rundown buildings amid some of the worst poverty in New York City, promising to fix the place with more government spending.

McCain has been touring poor neighborhoods where the likelihood of his winning votes is nil. In New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, he stood with the new Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and pledged to the residents of the Ninth Ward, 'the people of New Orleans, and the people of this country that never again, never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way it was handled.'

All of this is fine and it might even help diminish the usual slurs Democrats use against Republicans about how they care nothing for the poor. The answer to this is that if Democrats care about the poor, why haven't they solved the problem of poverty? And the answer to that is that Democrats need people to remain poor and, thus, dependent on them so they can get their votes. McCain has repeatedly said he wants a 'civil' campaign, so don't look for him to offer such a response.

Here is some advice for McCain: Stop identifying with failure and begin identifying with success. Before the era of entitlement and low expectations, there were Horatio Alger stories about people who overcame difficult circumstances and prospered. McCain should begin identifying people who have overcome poverty and let them tell their stories of how they did it. Those stories are better than the stories of people mired in poverty, largely because of wrong decisions, who are doomed to remain there because they've been told the best they can hope for is a government check. Success becomes an example for others to follow. Stories about poverty inspire no one.

Victory not defeat, achievement not failure ought to be McCain's strategy. These American stories are really the story of America.

One doesn't 'tackle poverty' like a football player. One shows the way of escape and provides sufficient role models along with capital and moral and educational structures that serve as ladders so people who want to climb out of the hole can do so.

Here's one way it might work, based on strategies developed for the Third World by the humanitarian organization World Vision and the micro-loan vision of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. McCain could announce the formation of HOPEFUL, which would stand for Helping Other People Enjoy Full and Useful Lives. Churches (the moral structure), businesses (some capital and training) and individuals (more capital and encouragement) would be involved in HOPEFUL. Every American participating would 'adopt' a poor person who would be screened for drug and alcohol addiction, criminal backgrounds and interviewed to determine whether, if given a chance, they were - or might be - motivated to escape poverty.

Individuals would contribute, say, $20 per month to a privately managed account in the recipient's name. The money would be managed by HOPEFUL to help the poor person with a private school education, job training, capital for starting a small business and whatever else it takes to help. The sponsor would be urged to meet and serve as a mentor to the poor person, or at least correspond with encouraging words. Regular progress reports would be sent to the sponsor(s) and when the person is declared a success, all would rejoice and the nation would be better off. This would not be a government program, improving its chance of success.

If you're reading this newspaper, chances are you are not poor. Do you know any poor people? If your life has been built around pursuing happiness by the accumulation of material goods and wealth, investing yourself in another human being and seeing him or her triumph might be the greatest gift you could give yourself and your nation. I know this from personal experience.

If John McCain rallied the good nature of Americans behind such a vision, it could be his top achievement should he become president. And it's a good idea, no matter who wins.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.