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2012 Election, Economics

Does Poverty Matter in Election 2012?

The political season is here!

And while some are so intensely focused on the faux outrages of the day (like Joe Biden’s “chains” comment), many other important topics pass by without even a nod of feigned attention…

  • Education? (Crickets)
  • Housing policy? (Crickets)
  • Foreign policy? (Crickets)

And of course, the issue personally most important to me…poverty.

At the risk of letting Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan off the hook, I really don’t care what they have to say.  It’s not so much that I don’t think they should be focused on alleviating poverty, it’s that I think they care about the issue about as much as I care about Stevie J on Love and Hip Hop.  I hadn’t heard of it until it was explained to me by a friend a week ago and, while I have a bewilderment of what’s going on and why millions of people care, I have no desire to waste my time on it…

President Obama on the other hand…?

His focus on poverty, even during the “Hope and Change” days was inadequate to me.  But I was sympathetic to the hopes of others that, given his background as a community organizer, that he would have a unique perspective on poverty, at least among Washington politicians.

But fast forward four years later, and an interesting dichotomy has occurred, which is described tremendously in this NYT Magazine article by Paul Tough.  Without a doubt, primarily via the stimulus, the Obama administration has provided significant amounts of aid to poor people.  In fact it’s the basis for the baseless charge of Newt Gingrich calling him the “Food Stamp President.”  In the face of some dire economic circumstances, the Obama administration deserves credit for making sure people could actually eat and received unemployment insurance, amongst others.  At the same time…

In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent of the population; in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 15.1 percent. And the child-poverty rate is 22 percent — substantially higher today than it was then. And yet as a political issue, especially during this presidential campaign season, poverty has receded almost to silence…

…Obama has stopped talking publicly about the subject. Obama hasn’t made a single speech devoted to poverty as president, and if you visit barackobama.com these days, you would be hard-pressed to find any reference to the subject whatsoever. As a result, he is missing — so far, at least — an important opportunity to change and elevate the national conversation on poverty…

It can be (easily) argued that Obama is not at fault for this situation. He inherited a catastrophic economy and in some counterfactual ways, it’s a credit that the poverty numbers are not worse.  At the same time, as the article explains, his campaign promise to fundamentally change how we address poverty, by focusing on tackling problems at their source, instead of papering over them with band-aids has not taken fruition.

“When I’m president,” Obama said, “the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities across the country.” With a candor unusual for a presidential candidate, Obama acknowledged the high price of his program: “Now, how much will this cost?” he asked. “I’ll be honest — it can’t be done on the cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year. . . . But we will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to.”

Contrast that with the reality of his Presidency…

As president, Obama has followed a very different path from the one he described in Anacostia. The Promise Neighborhoods program exists, but it is a small item tucked away in the discretionary budget of the Department of Education. Rather than devoting “a few billion dollars a year,” his administration has spent a total of $40 million on the program in the last three years, with another $60 million in grants going out to community groups later this year. A few other initiatives have focused on concentrated urban poverty, but they are mostly small and scattered. Instead, the antipoverty path that Obama has pursued looks more like a traditional Great Society Democratic approach: his administration has spent billions of dollars on direct aid to poor people, mostly working-poor families.

Again, there are reasons for that – namely the Great Recession which shifted priorities considerably. Additionally, perhaps it was determined that replicating Geoffrey Canada’s model was not achievable, as some others have surmised given the amount of money that HCZ requires (annual budget of $46M), and the benefits it’s received from having someone as connected and charismatic as Canada leading it.  After all, it’s not like the model has been replicated by those outside the government either. But the fact that others have no interest in doubling down on Canada’s vision could just be a market failure which requires more, not less, government intervention.

Regardless, the net effect is that we are no nearer a solution to addressing poverty in 2012 than we were in 2008.  And, in fact, we face a perilous future with respect to the subject – and that’s disregarding the possibility that Romney / Ryan are elected.  Even with a second-term of Barack Obama, the funds that were made available for the temporary direct-aid to lower income communities and individuals are running out, austerity is likely to be a focus moving forward, and there still remains no discussion, much less a commitment, to figuring out long term solutions to the dire issue of poverty in the US.

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