Obama Heads the Right Way on Poverty, Jobs

William Julius Wilson
Job seekers at a job fair in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — Despite all the rhetoric about reclaiming the American dream for middle-class Americans in this past presidential election, Barack Obama has done more for lower-income Americans than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson. Quite frankly, I think that Obama's programs prevented poverty — including concentrated poverty — from rapidly rising over the past several years, considering the terrible economy. 

Obama's stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) earmarked $80 billion dollars for low-income Americans, which included an extension of unemployment benefits, a temporary increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit and substantial additional funds for food stamps (what we now call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). It also included nearly $4 billion in job training and workforce-enhancement programs, and $2 billion for neighborhood-stabilization efforts. 


Moreover, I consider the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly termed Obamacare) as an antipoverty program. Over the long term, this health care legislation will significantly benefit lower-income Americans. Indeed, the share of Americans who are uninsured declined between 2010 and 2011. And this improvement was in part due to a provision of the health care bill that allows children to remain on their parents' health insurance plan until they reach age 26.

Also, Obama worked out a deal with Congress to address the impact of the recession on lower-income Americans, a negotiation that led to a 13-month extension of federal unemployment benefits for more than 7 million jobless workers, as well as the continuation of programs that benefit the poor and working classes, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the refundable component of the Child Tax Credit and the 2 percent reduction in the Social Security payroll tax for one year — all of which put more money in the hands of ordinary Americans. Finally, I should mention the $144 billion package passed in early 2012 by Congress to extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance, programs that Obama pushed.

Considering how these policies fit in with the broader sweep of policy changes over the last few decades, one has to acknowledge that the legislation enacted was in response to the extraordinary economic situation that now plagues this country. Taken together, they far exceed any legislation beneficial to low-income Americans passed during the Carter, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush administrations.

But much more needs to be done to address the continuing effects of fundamental changes in the economy, especially the impact of these changes on the African-American community.


More specifically, the computer revolution rewards skilled workers and displaces low-skilled workers, and the globalization of the economy puts low-skilled workers in this country in greater competition with low-skilled workers in developing countries. So if you don't have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are minimal. 

This is a problem for all low-skilled workers, but it is even more of a problem for low-skilled blacks because of the problem of race and employer racial preferences, not to mention the added problem of segregation, which decreases access to areas of employment growth. The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males. Many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities.


As the late black economist Vivian Henderson pointed out several decades ago, it is as if historic racism and discrimination have put blacks in their economic place, in the sense that a disproportionate percentage of the African-American population is poor and unskilled and has stepped aside to watch changes in the economy — including increasing technology — worsen their economic misery. The unfortunate thing is that those poor blacks who have lost their jobs to technological innovations and the growing internationalization of economic activity are unlikely to get those jobs back.

So I would strongly recommend legislation that targets areas of high unemployment with job-creation strategies, including the creation of public-sector jobs in these areas. Such a program would address unemployment not only in, say, black inner-city neighborhoods, which feature high rates of joblessness, but also in white, Latino and Asian areas marked by high jobless rates. 


I suggest such legislation with few illusions that it can be achieved without facing stern political opposition, given that Republicans control the House of Representatives, but with the hope that it will indeed receive serious consideration by members of Congress and the American public in the future, perhaps during President Obama's second term of office. 

William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University.

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