Obama's (former) vow to attack poverty | Bleader

Obama's (former) vow to attack poverty

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Obama in Chicago on election night in 2008
  • David Katz/Obama for America
  • Obama in Chicago on election night in 2008
"Today I want to talk about what we can do as a nation to combat the poverty that persists in our cities," Barack Obama said.

No, he didn't give this speech yesterday—or last week, or last year. That would have been big news. He hasn't delivered a speech about combating poverty anytime since he took office. This speech was delivered five years ago, in Washington, when he was a candidate.

One of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator John Edwards, was talking nonstop in his campaign about fighting poverty. And so in July 2007, Obama went to Anacostia, an intensely poor D.C. neighborhood, and spoke passionately on the subject.

The theme of the speech, the idea Obama kept returning to, was that it was beneath America to allow poverty to maim its people, especially its children.

He began by evoking an image of Senator Robert F. Kennedy 40 years earlier, "crouched in a shack along the Mississippi Delta," looking into "the wide, listless eyes of a hungry child.

"Again and again he tried to talk to this child," Obama told the packed auditorium, "but each time his efforts were met with only a blank stare of desperation. And when Kennedy turned to the reporters traveling with him, with tears in his eyes he asked a single question about poverty in America: 'How can a country like this allow it?' Forty years later, we're still asking that question."

Forty years later, half of the children in Anacostia were living below the poverty line, Obama reminded his audience, which was mostly African-American. "How can a country like this allow it?" he asked. "The most American answer I can think of to that question is two words: we can't. We can't allow this kind of suffering and hopelessness to exist in our country. . . We can make excuses for it or we can fight about it or we can ignore poverty altogether, but as long as it's here it will always be a betrayal of the ideals we hold as Americans.”

Poverty was "not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign," Senator Obama said, in a not-so-veiled swipe at Senator Edwards. "It is the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago."

He sketched his work as a community organizer on Chicago's south side, in neighborhoods where "businesses were boarded up and schools were crumbling and teenagers were standing aimlessly on street corners, without jobs and without hope." He learned then that in some neighborhoods, poverty was "a disease that infects every corner of the community." In such neighborhoods, he realized that treating a few symptoms wasn't sufficient: "We have to heal that entire community."

The Harlem Children's Zone showed how it could be done, he said. HCZ is the renowned program offering not just schooling for children, but also counseling, child care, and medical services for their families. The money for all that programming has come largely from the fund-raising of HCZ's charismatic founder, Geoffrey Canada. Obama said HCZ was "saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance."

"It's time to change the odds for neighborhoods all across America," Obama told the crowd in Anacostia. And so, he said, when he became president, "the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country."

"I'll be honest—it can't be done on the cheap," Obama went on. "It will cost a few billion dollars a year. . . We will find the money to do this because we can't afford not to."

When Obama made that speech, the U.S. poverty rate was 12.5 percent. As of 2010, it was 15.1 percent. The poverty rate for African-American children was 34.5 percent in 2007; now, it's 38.2 percent.

There's been $40 million, total, to replicate HCZ so far, with another $60 million to be disbursed later this year, in what's called the "Promise Neighborhoods" program. What happened to that promised few billion dollars a year? The economic crisis Obama inherited precluded that, aides to the president told journalist Paul Tough, who wrote on Obama and urban poverty in Sunday's New York Times magazine.

The aides told Tough that Obama has done plenty for the poor. Most of the help his administration has provided, however, has gone to the working poor via the stimulus, in the form of extended unemployment insurance benefits, and broadened eligibility for food stamps and earned-income and child tax credits. These have all helped to keep more people from falling into poverty—no small thing. But it's far short of an assault on the deep, concentrated poverty that perseveres in Anacostia, on the south and west sides of Chicago, and in many other cities.

Obama as president is also less eloquent on poverty than he was before he got elected. Less eloquent as in tongue-tied. “Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor,’” former NYT columnist Bob Herbert wrote in the online magazine The Grio in May. Peter Edelman, in his recent book So Rich, So Poor, said he was disappointed that Obama "seldom said the 'p' word, and his emphasis on the middle class with infrequent references to those at the bottom dismayed me." Edelman is a Georgetown law professor and was a top adviser to the same Robert Kennedy that Obama brought up in his Anacostia speech. "I continue to believe that the unwillingness of our national leadership to engage the nation in a straightforward discussion on American poverty is corrosive," Edelman wrote.

Tough said in his article that he asked Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama and the president's longtime friend from Chicago, about Obama's "relative silence on urban poverty." According to Tough, Jarrett "said that the way the president spoke about poverty as a candidate in Anacostia—as a unique problem specific to one group of Americans—simply wasn’t the right way for him to speak about it as president. A better approach, Jarrett said, was for the president to propose and support a set of broad programs that raised all Americans economically." He quoted Jarrett as saying, "We try to talk about this in a way where everyone understands why it is in their self-interest.”

As a candidate, you can sometimes appeal to voters' altrusim. If you get elected, you start aiming lower.

Near the end of his address in Anacostia, Obama returned to his theme. "The moral question about poverty in America—'How can a country like this allow it?'—has an easy answer: we can't."

Oh yes we can.

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