What Has Obama Done for Poor People?

He's done a lot, says the White House in a new report. Anti-poverty advocates weigh in on their progress.

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Anger and disillusionment over the widening wealth gap may have reached a national tipping point, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet leading politicians rarely mention poor folks.

"It's almost as if poverty is a dirty word," economist Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women, told The Root. "Joe Biden is leading the Middle Class Task Force, and I think they're doing some good work -- but what about the poor?"

Perhaps the Obama administration has taken heed. Last week the White House released "Creating Pathways to Opportunity" (pdf), a report that confronts the country's dismal unemployment rates and the growing ranks of Americans below the poverty line. The 44-page document makes its case for numerous actions that the administration has taken to deliver help to low-income communities, from targeted job-training programs to expanded Pell Grants. It also contends that President Obama's American Jobs Act -- which he continues to push, despite its failure to pass in the Senate -- is needed to build upon their progress. 

But does the scale of the president's policies match the scale of the challenges? And with the economy struggling and African Americans facing a record 16 percent unemployment, can the administration really afford to rest on its accomplishments? 

The Root will pose these questions and others to Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett in a special "Open for Questions" event hosted by the White House on Thursday. The 45-minute discussion, in front of a live audience, will be streamed on The Root and whitehouse.gov/live; it will also allow questions from the audience and readers on Facebook and Twitter.

For this article, The Root posed the questions to experts outside of the White House on six core areas.

Health Care

On Day 16 of Obama's presidency, he signed legislation expanding health coverage to 4 million uninsured children. The law added to the 7 million kids already covered under the Children's Health Insurance Program in part by allowing the children of documented immigrants to enroll (instead of requiring them to wait five years after entering the country, as was done previously).

"This bill is only a first step," the president vowed at the signing ceremony. "Providing coverage to 11 million children through CHIP is a down payment on my commitment to cover every single American." As the administration sees it, Obama kept his promise. They claim that 2010's Affordable Care Act will ensure coverage for 34 million uninsured people when fully implemented, with the poor being eligible for either Medicaid or tax credits to buy insurance.

Claudia Fegan, a physician serving low-income patients in Chicago and a spokesperson for Physicians for a National Health Program, says that Obama's initiatives have good intentions. "But the process is too complicated for most poor people, who have fairly chaotic lives, to access," she said, citing the bureaucratic application process for CHIP as an example. "It's hard enough to get people the care they need without making them prove that the need it, requiring documentation and jumping through hoops to get it."

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM