ARGUMENT | När Barack Obama kandiderade till presidentposten var han en av de få politikerna i Washington som talade om fattigdomen.
Sedan han trädde in i Vita huset har man hör väldigt lite, om ens något, om ämnet i Obamas tal. Vilket är märkligt eftersom problemet på många områden har förvärrats.
“The number of families in deep poverty grew sharply during the recent recession and its aftermath, and in 2010, the share of Americans whose families made less than half of the poverty line hit a record: 6.7 percent of the population, or 1 in 15 Americans. The numbers are even higher for children, disturbingly so. In 2010, 1 in every 10 American children lived in deep poverty”, skriver t.ex. Paul Tough i The New York Times Magazine.
Administrationen försvarar sig med att den ekonomiska krisen har hindrat presidenten att agera kraftfullare. Men detta förklarar inte tystnaden.
Att inte ta upp problemen är ju det samma som att medvetet avstå ifrån ett argument som rimligtvis borde ha ökat människors förståelse för de omfattande ekonomiska stimulansåtgärder som presidenten föreslog.
If any American president might have been expected to focus his attention on Roseland and its problems, it would be Barack Obama. The neighborhood, as it happens, played a critical role in Obama’s personal and political history. As a young community organizer, he worked in Roseland and at a nearby low-rise housing project called Altgeld Gardens for three years in the late 1980s; it was in these communities, Obama said in the speech announcing his presidential run, that he “received the best education I ever had.” And when he finally left Roseland, for Harvard Law School and a political career, he did so, he said, to gain the knowledge and the resources that would allow him to eventually return and tackle the neighborhood’s problems anew.
When Obama ran for president the first time, urban poverty was a major policy focus for his campaign. Senator Obama gave speeches on the issue, his campaign Web site had a dedicated poverty section with a variety of policy proposals, and in his platform, he committed his administration to “eradicating poverty,” pledging that “working together, we can cut poverty in half within 10 years.” But the official poverty rate has continued to rise under Obama. In May, Bob Herbert, the former New York Times Op-Ed columnist, castigated the president in the online magazine The Grio for his failure to address publicly the “catastrophe” of children growing up in urban poverty. “Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor,’ ” Herbert wrote.
The idea that Obama hasn’t done much for poor Americans is simply not true; by some measures, he has done more than any other recent president. But Herbert is right that Obama has stopped talking publicly about the subject. Obama hasn’t made a single speech devoted to poverty as president, and if you visit barackobama.com these days, you would be hard-pressed to find any reference to the subject whatsoever. As a result, he is missing — so far, at least — an important opportunity to change and elevate the national conversation on poverty.
Early in his presidential campaign, in July 2007, he gave an entire speech about poverty at a community center in Anacostia, a high-poverty neighborhood in southeast Washington.
Looking back at the Anacostia speech today, what is striking about Obama’s proposal, beyond its size and scope, was that he didn’t conceive of it as just one more federal spending program. It was, instead, something more potentially disruptive: a thorough overhaul of existing federal aid to inner cities, a blueprint for a more coordinated, more effective, more responsive way to direct the often haphazard flow of government money into urban neighborhoods devastated by the multiple effects of concentrated poverty. It represented a break from the past: a new way of doing things in neighborhoods like Roseland.
As president, Obama has followed a very different path from the one he described in Anacostia. The Promise Neighborhoods program exists, but it is a small item tucked away in the discretionary budget of the Department of Education. Rather than devoting “a few billion dollars a year,” his administration has spent a total of $40 million on the program in the last three years, with another $60 million in grants going out to community groups later this year. A few other initiatives have focused on concentrated urban poverty, but they are mostly small and scattered. Instead, the antipoverty path that Obama has pursued looks more like a traditional Great Society Democratic approach: his administration has spent billions of dollars on direct aid to poor people, mostly working-poor families.
The reason for this shift in priorities, according to people in the Obama administration, was the economic crisis they inherited.
And while it’s almost a cliché among liberals that what Obama needs to do is give a few more good speeches, it really would make a difference for a president to talk publicly about the challenges of poverty policy in the candid and thoughtful ways that Obama did as a senator and in his first presidential campaign. When I asked Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime friend and mentor who is now a senior adviser to the president, about his relative silence on urban poverty, she 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, an approach that she described as inclusive. She added: “I think our chances for successfully helping people move from poverty to the middle class is greater if everyone understands why it is in their best interest that these paths of opportunity are available for everyone. We try to talk about this in a way where everyone understands why it is in their self-interest.”
It’s a challenge for any politician in troubled economic times: how do you persuade voters to devote tax dollars to help the truly disadvantaged when the middle class is feeling disadvantaged itself? The problem is that universal economic progress will not help those in deep poverty — or at least not enough. Places like Roseland need specific, targeted, effective help if they are ever going to change.
Bild: Tidskriftsomslaget övan är The New York Times Magazine den 19 augusti 2012.