What Has Obama Done for Poor People?

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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."


Fegan has similar "good intentions" concerns about the Affordable Care Act: "As this program goes forward, more people will be insured, but at what cost? We provide more people access to care, but we lose by decreasing funding for safety-net providers and cutting back on some of the Medicare reimbursement. But poor patients need more than just a doctor to prescribe medication — they need social services and assistance navigating the system, resources that other providers don't necessarily have."

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.

"The question now becomes whether or not those modifications are sustainable and successful, because we're seeing high re-default rates," she said. "Another concern is around the administration being led by the industry instead of leading the industry. These are banks and institutions that received TARP bailout funds, and I think the administration can do more to make their loan-modification program more effective."


Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, expressed his concern more sharply. "The decimation of black wealth through predatory lending and foreclosures has been a major factor in the widening of the racial wealth gap in this country. What's been really disappointing is that the administration is advocating for a settlement with some of the biggest banks that amounts to a slap on the wrist for the widespread deception and fraud against investors and homeowners," he said, arguing that these firms should be prosecuted, or at least investigated. "Big banks are getting off, while everyday black people in communities all across the country are left holding the bag."

Relief for the Unemployed

Obama's immediate response to the ever-rising unemployment rate — which officially stands at 16 percent for African Americans — has been repeated extensions of unemployment benefits. While pushing a contested bill last summer, he said, "We need to pass it for all the Americans who haven't been able to find work in an economy where there are five applicants for every opening."


According to census data, extended unemployment insurance in 2010 kept 3.2 million people above the poverty line. The American Jobs Act calls for another extension, as well as legislation making it illegal to refuse to hire out-of-work job applicants.

"I commend the Obama administration for beginning to put the pieces of the economic puzzle back together — but when they talk about ‘long-term unemployed,' the longest of the long-term unemployed are not a part of that conversation," said Gregg Rosen, president of the American 99ers Union, an organization representing individuals who have been unemployed for longer than 99 weeks and have exhausted all state and federal unemployment insurance benefits. These workers are not included in Obama-backed legislation, effectively having disappeared from the government's notice.


Rosen contends that extending benefits to the millions of Americans who make up "the 99ers" would have a stimulating effect on the economy. "You're looking at more than 7 million Americans, and the average unemployment insurance check is $303 per week. If you put those dollars into the hands of the 99er community, you're looking at a return investment of billions of dollars every week in economic spending. That, to me, is a solid stimulus."


"In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education," Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union address. Calling for changes in public education, his $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition rewards states with funding if they present innovative plans for turning around their lowest-performing schools.


Modeled after the successful Harlem Children's Zone — which provides charter schools, parenting workshops and weekend community centers to support education from "cradle through college" — the administration's Promise Neighborhoods grant program helps cities jump-start their own neighborhood interventions. On the higher-education front, the president has more than doubled Pell Grants for low-income college students.

Education advocate and author Steve Perry pounces on Obama's reform agenda. "I think the idea behind Race to the Top is a solid one, but with the country in a tremendous deficit, and a recession on top of that, there's not enough money to sustain the changes," he said. "We're borrowing from our children's future with the expectation that it will improve their future?"


Perry, principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn. — and outspoken school-voucher campaigner — says that instead of investing money in schools, federal education money should go directly to families and let them choose the best place for them. "I have more faith in families to pick good schools than I do administrators and Board of Education members, who keep failed schools open. Parents always choose the best schools in the community. If we let them pick them, we'd only have the best ones stay open. I'm not for education reform; I'm for education revolution."


Plugging several provisions from the Recovery Act, the administration says that its youth summer jobs program for low-income youths employed 367,000 young adults — approximately 40 percent of them African American — in 2009 and 2010. The legislation's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families emergency contingency fund hired 260,000 low-income adults in subsidized jobs.


In June the Department of Labor announced $39.7 million in grants to help low-income noncustodial parents and ex-offenders gain job skills (and boost their employability) by placing them in temporary, paid work experiences. And the American Job Act's infrastructure investment reserves $50 million for transportation-related job training for minorities, women and low-income workers.

"Independent economists have looked at this jobs bill, and they've said it will create nearly 2 million jobs," Obama said on Tuesday at a Virginia high school during his three-day bus tour promoting the American Jobs Act, expressing confusion over why Republicans would vote it down. "I don't want us to be playing politics all the time. I want us to meet this moment. I want us to get to work. "


Despite the administration's current efforts, there's still that stubborn 9 percent national unemployment rate. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is reluctant to say that the president hasn't done all he can. "It's important to understand that the administration is not making decisions in an unconstrained environment where the president can do whatever he wants," said Ellison, referring to the Republican blockade in Congress. "The bottom line is, the president has been fighting to fully invest in jobs and alleviate poverty, and he's trying to do the same thing now."

Ellison's primary quibble with the president is not with his policies so much as his political tactics. "I think his orientation toward consensus, and trying to bring two sides together, has been a miscalculation. He's always started out the conversation with the spirit of compromise, and the Republicans are not," he said.


"I think he could have been a lot more combative with them from the beginning, but I've noticed a shift in the president's rhetoric with the American Jobs Act," Ellison continued. "I think it's an acknowledgment that he's dealing with unreasonable people, and he doesn't have to negotiate."

Editor's note: Watch the live stream of The Root's Q&A with the White House on Oct. 20 at 5:30 p.m. The Root's Gynthia Gordy will moderate a conversation with Melody Barnes and Valerie Jarrett about the American Jobs Act and what the administration is doing to help the poor.


Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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