A little over five years ago, in a poor neighborhood of Washington, a promising presidential candidate delivered what was widely considered an extraordinary speech on a subject that had largely disappeared from American political discourse. "We can't afford to lose a generation of tomorrow's doctors and scientists and teachers to poverty," Barack Obama said that day in Anacostia. "We can make excuses for it or we can fight about it or we can ignore poverty altogether, but as long as it's here it will always be a betrayal of the ideals we hold as Americans. It's not who we are."
Since then, poverty has arguably become a greater part of who we are than at any other time in the past five decades. More than 6 million Americans have fallen into poverty since 2008 and the poverty rate is approaching levels not seen since the 1960s. Yet as another election approaches, neither Obama nor his opponent, Mitt Romney, have had much to say about it.
In Tuesday night's debate, Romney used the word "poverty" five times, while making 20 mentions of "middle-income" people or the "middle-class." Obama, who also sprinkled his rhetoric with the usual middle-class references, never mentioned poverty once.
The absence of poverty from this year's campaign talk has vexed many progressives, and on the day after the debate, several shared their frustrations. Cornel West, a onetime Obama supporter who has turned into one of the president's most animated liberal critics, spoke in doleful tones over the phone about the "obsession" of both candidates with getting votes. Tavis Smiley, the talk show host and liberal advocate and a longtime friend of West's, talked himself hoarse on the subject. "It was clear last night that Obama was prepared to take Mr. Romeny on, but he wouldn't take him on on poverty," Smiley said. "For the life of me I can't figure out why that is."
Barbara Duffield, the policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an organization that has been rather critical of the administration's record on child poverty, said, "We live in cynical times, and this is the most cynical of seasons." Granted, you'd be hard pressed to find many outside of Romney's campaign headquarters who would seriously argue that the Republican's few references to poverty amount to anything more than lip service. "I've been abundantly clear about this," said Smiley. "President Obama has done much more on the issue of poverty. The president does have a record of having done things right.
"But that's not the standard for me," Smiley added. "The standard is what he's gonna do in the second term."
Among liberals, then, the consensus seemed to be that Obama has shirked a moral responsibility. But how did the debate go over with poor people themselves? At least one self-described member of the "47 percent" offered a very different perspective.
Steve Gates, the Chicago director of Youth Advocate Programs, an organization that connects disadvantaged kids with jobs and social service systems, lives and works in Roseland, the poor Chicago neighborhood where a young Barack Obama worked as a community organizer. Reached by phone after the debate, Gates, who was featured in a New York Times magazine story and a book by the author Paul Tough, said he thought Obama did "a hell of a job." Unlike Smiley, he saw nothing mystifying about Obama's reticence on poverty. "I think it would be political suicide to talk about continuing to pour money into poor neighborhoods," said Gates. "Ethically and morally, I think that he'd do his legacy a disservice if he didn't pay more attention to some of those riskier issues, but do I think that this is the time for that? Not necessarily."
As Tough writes, Gates has spent many stressful hours trying to help the poor kids in his community escape poverty. "It was taking a toll on his mood and his health," Tough reports. "He and his girlfriend of 15 years had just broken up. He was smoking way too many Newports. He couldn’t sleep."
That stress, however, was somewhat alleviated by the stimulus bill that Obama signed shortly after taking office. Some of the stimulus money went to the Chicago public schools about about $10 million of it made its way to Youth Advocate Programs. David Williams, a regional director for YAP, said the money helped the organization provide services to about 600 families in the Chicago area. Williams argued that the effects were felt well beyond the boundaries of those homes that received direct help .
From 2009 to 2011, Chicago public schools reported a 46 percent decrease in serious misconducts leading to suspension and expulsion, a 26 percent decrease in minor misconducts, and an 8 percent improvement in school attendance.
Gates said he was particularly impressed with the moment in Tuesday night's debate when Obama answered a question about gun control by mentioning the violence in his "hometown of Chicago." If young people have "opportunity," he said, then they're less likely to engage in violent acts. "We're not going to eliminate everybody who is mentally disturbed, and we've got to make sure that they don't get weapons. But we can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed."
And so while some advocates may have wished that Obama was more specific about the economic barriers that stand between those young people and the rest of society, Gates said he just hoped that Obama would get another chance to chip away at them. Obama has already done a lot for poor people, he said. "I just hope that he's able to see his plan through."