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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Getty Images

If Obama hadn’t given up on the single-payer system from the start of 2009’s health care debate, Fegan thinks the resulting compromise might have been easier to administer. “People say that the Affordable Care Act is socialized medicine, but nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “We’re pushing people into the private insurance industry. We did what was politically expedient, but we put in place a very complicated system.”

Safety Net

The president often points out that when he first took office, each month we were bleeding nearly 750,000 jobs. Tax cuts from his American Recovery Act, the administration says, kept 1.6 million Americans out of poverty and gave relief to more than 100 million others. The stimulus measure also expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which, despite increasing poverty, staved off a rise in child hunger.

Pitching the Recovery Act in February 2009, at his first joint session of Congress, Obama said, “I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves, that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.”

Economist Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women, says there’s no doubt that Obama has provided assistance to the poor, but cites challenges. “There are some really good things that the administration has done around poverty, but they have not been proportionate to the extent to which the problem has increased,” she said.

“You’re nibbling around the edge when you say there’s a little program here and there’s a tax cut there,” she continued. “I think this should have been more central two years ago because, while doing health care was great, the first thing people want to do is be fed and know they’ll have a secure situation. And many Americans just don’t know that anymore.”

Housing Crisis

With 4 million Americans seriously behind on mortgage payments or in foreclosure, and a continued drop in housing prices, the president says that he has taken critical steps to meet historic needs. Through its loan-adjustment programs, the administration takes credit for more than 4 million loan modifications and touts the Hardest Hit Fund, which provides $7.6 billion for anti-foreclosure plans in states hurting most from the crisis.

“Creating Pathways to Opportunity” claims that the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, connecting families to supportive services like rental assistance and credit counseling, has averted or ended homelessness for more than 1 million Americans. And the administration’s $126 million Choice Neighborhood grant funds coordinated efforts to transform poor neighborhoods, including mixed-income housing, transit and job opportunities.

“The foreclosure crisis hit the African-American and Latino communities in 2002, so we’re talking about a problem that is really entrenched,” said Lisa Rice, vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “I think the administration has done some things well, but we’re playing catch-up to a large degree.”

Rice clarifies the report’s “4 million loan modifications” figure — a baffling number, since, as of August, Obama’s floundering mortgage-modification program had served only about 816,000 homeowners. The number refers to a range of efforts not necessarily initiated by the administration, such as private modifications by loan servicers and pre-existing Federal Housing Administration programs.