Is poverty among Obama's priorities? | Bleader

Is poverty among Obama's priorities?


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Barack Obama in Chicago on election night in 2008
  • David Katz
  • Barack Obama in Chicago on election night in 2008
"On the first day, I said, 'Mr. President, which crisis do you want to tackle first?'" Rahm Emanuel recalled last night in his speech at the Democratic National Convention. "He looked me in the eye, with that look reserved just for his chief of staff. 'Rahm, we were sent here to tackle all of them, not choose between them.'"

That's an inspiring tale. But in truth, no president tackles all of a nation's crises. He'd be foolish to try, given the number of crises. He chooses between them, and politics determines his choices. A first-term president focuses on the crises he must try to solve to win a second term.

The 2008 Democratic platform said poverty was a national concern that could no longer be ignored. "When Bobby Kennedy saw the shacks and poverty along the Mississippi Delta, he asked, 'How can a country like this allow it?'" the platform noted, referring to a visit Senator Robert F. Kennedy had made to the Delta in 1967. "The most American answer we can give is: 'We won't allow it,'" the platform went on. "One in eight Americans lives in poverty today all across our country . . . We can't allow this kind of suffering and hopelessness to exist in our country."

The Bobby Kennedy story and most of the platform's language were taken from a campaign speech Barack Obama gave in Anacostia, a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in July 2007.

The poverty plank in that 2008 platform included the usual bromides. All children would get a "world-class education." Businesses would be brought back to inner cities. The fight against poverty would be a "national priority."

But there also was a specific, measurable promise: "Working together, we can cut poverty in half within ten years."

The chances of that look slim four years later. When Obama made his Anacostia speech, the poverty rate that the nation simply couldn't allow was 12.5 percent. Now it's 15.1 percent.

Yes, Obama inherited a troubled economy that's worsened poverty—although those troubles were largely predictable when the vow to fight poverty was made.

And, yes, for much of his term the president had a Republican House eager to thwart his initiatives.

On poverty, however, he rarely offered them. His key pledge in Anacostia was to invest a "few billion dollars a year" to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities nationally. HCZ is the holistic approach to fighting poverty developed by Geoffrey Canada, offering not only schooling for children, but broad services for their families. Obama was going to use the successes of the HCZ program to show that poverty really could be eradicated. But his administration's "Promise Neighborhoods" program, based on the HCZ model, today is just a "small item tucked away in the discretionary budget of the Department of Education," as Paul Tough observed last month in the New York Times. Instead of a few billion a year, it's getting a mere $100 million over four years.

Meantime, Obama has put $4.3 billion into a "Race to the Top" schools program focused on the assessment of teachers and principals—a program that seems designed not to attack poverty holistically but to placate conservatives.

A president must choose which crises he'll take on squarely. With Obama, as with every president since Lyndon Johnson, poverty hasn't made the cut.

In the poverty plank of their platform this year, the Democrats again promise to fight for a "world-class education for every child," and to "make ending poverty a national priority." Gone is the vow to cut poverty in half in ten years—or any specific promise by which the party (like teachers) can later be assessed.

The 2008 platform observed that eradicating poverty would require the "sustained commitment" of the president. "Sustained commitment" was lifted verbatim from Obama's Anacostia speech. There's no such phrase in the poverty plank this time around. Maybe it would be embarrassing to talk about sustaining a commitment that hasn't yet begun.

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