President Barack Obama recently participated in a long overdue panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University. As regular readers of this column know, I have been complaining for years about the fixation this administration has had on helping the middle class while giving only passing mentions to race and poverty.
I wrote in July 2013, “According to research conducted by Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, in Obama’s first two years in office, the nation’s first black president made fewer speeches and offered fewer executive policies on race than any Democratic president since 1961.”
In addition, I stated, “Frederick C. Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, noted that Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor.”
So, I was not only delighted that Obama joined the Georgetown discussion on poverty, but elated that he candidly addressed the issues of poverty and race.
In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty,” introducing Head Start, Upward Bound and the Job Corps program, providing food stamps and nutritional programs for the poor, and expanding Social Security benefits
Nearly two and a half decades later, President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1988 State of the Union remarks, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
“I think it is a mistake for us to suggest that somehow every effort we make has failed and we are powerless to address poverty,” he said at Georgetown University. “That’s just not true. First of all, just in absolute terms, the poverty rate when you take into account tax and transfer programs, has been reduced about 40 percent since 1967.
“Now, that does not lessen our concern about communities where poverty remains chronic. It does suggest, though, that we have been able to lessen poverty when we decide we want to do something about it.”
The problem is Congress’ unwillingness to conduct more than a budgetary skirmish on poverty.
“We have been stuck, I think for a long time, in a debate that creates a couple of straw men,” Obama said. “The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that’s one stereotype. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.”
President Obama added, “Now, one other thing I’ve got to say about this is that even back in [fellow panelist’s] day that was also happening. It’s just it was happening to black people. And so, in some ways, part of what’s changed is that those biases or those restrictions on who had access to resources that allowed them to climb out of poverty — who had access to the firefighters job, who had access to the assembly line job, the blue-collar job that paid well enough to be in the middle class and then got you to the suburbs, and then the next generation was suddenly office workers — all those things were foreclosed to a big chunk of the minority population in this country for decades.
“And that accumulated and built up. And over time, people with less and less resources, more and more strains — because it’s hard being poor. People don’t like being poor. It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful. It’s hard. And so over time, families frayed. Men who could not get jobs left. Mothers who are single are not able to read as much to their kids. So all that was happening 40 years ago to African Americans. And now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community.”
President Obama called out Fox News for its distorted reporting on the poor, with various commentators saying such asinine things as if “they don’t want to be poor” they should get a job and “the rich suffered more.”
Enough said about Fox.
Obama thinks that this may be a unique time to finally unite around the issue of poverty.
He said, “I think that we are at a moment — in part because of what’s happened in Baltimore and Ferguson and other places, but in part because a growing awareness of inequality in our society — where it may be possible not only to refocus attention on the issue of poverty, but also maybe to bridge some of the gaps that have existed and the ideological divides that have prevented us from making progress.”
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.