Elephants in the room: Urban poverty, climate change, and other problems we love to ignore
In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, longtime education writer Paul Tough has an insightful treatise on President Obama’s policies regarding poverty — the issue that, more than any other, holds American cities down, and one that we seem incapable of addressing in any rational, lasting way.
Tough is the author of Whatever It Takes, a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone, a trailblazing program that offers poor kids a web of services designed to carry them out of the ’hood and into the middle class. On the campaign trail in 2007, Obama promised to pour a few billion dollars a year into creating Children’s Zones in cities across the country. Here he is in a speech at the community center in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.:
We know this works. And if we know it works, there’s no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem. It’s time to change the odds for neighborhoods all across America.
The proposal, which Obama later dubbed Promise Neighborhoods, sent waves of excitement through American cities. In 2009, dozens of communities hastily compiled proposals to be one of the first 20 test cases.
At the time, I was writing for a magazine in Baltimore, a city that has suffered the whole stew of urban ills, from soaring dropout rates to drug abuse and crime. When Tough came to town to speak about his book, people packed a local synagogue to see him.
After Tough’s talk, representatives of community groups stood to ask for his advice on how to win the Promise Neighborhood funding and to make the impassioned case that their proposal outshone all the others. Tough, of course, had no say in who won the government money, but the tone that night said volumes about the desperation people felt in inner-city neighborhoods — and the hope they put in the new president. (I wrote a story about Baltimore’s Promise Neighborhood efforts here. The city was not among those selected for the pilot program.)
But as Tough writes in his Times Magazine piece, the billions that Obama promised have never materialized. Instead, the program doled out just $40 million to a handful of cities in its first two years, while another $60 million will be distributed later this year. Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod told Tough that the administration had to practice “economic triage” to prevent a second Great Depression, and Promise Neighborhoods was one program that was left on the battlefield.
But the money isn’t the only thing that disappeared. Tough writes that the entire conversation seems to have vanished:
The big question — how do you help young people growing up in poverty to succeed? — was not too long ago a major focus of public debate in the United States. During the Johnson administration, the place to be for smart, ambitious young people in Washington was the Office of Economic Opportunity, the command center for the War on Poverty. In the 1990s, Washington once again saw a robust public discussion of poverty, much of it centered on the issue of welfare reform. But not today … As a political issue, especially during this presidential campaign season, poverty has receded almost to silence.
Obama has arguably done more for poor Americans than any other president, Tough says, but it’s largely been through traditional programs such as food stamps. While these moves may have helped stave off another Great Depression, Tough writes, Obama “is missing an important opportunity to change and elevate the national conversation on poverty.”
Why the silence? Tough surmises that with millions of Americans on the economic ropes, Obama is hesitant to single out the urban poor. Never mind that one in 10 American children live in households that make less than about $11,000 a year — what the government deems “deep poverty.” Any mention of helping poor people is essentially verboten in mixed company.
Of course this has everything to do with election-year politics. Obama once talked openly about fighting climate change, too, but now mentions it only rarely. Yet this particular pathology is not limited to politicians seeking re-election. Whether it is race or health care or climate change, Americans seem to be tongue-tied when it comes to our most pressing problems.
This summer, Grist has been running a series of videos called Slow Ride Stories, produced by Erik Fyfe and Albert Thrower, who are traveling the Northeast by motorcycle, talking to people about extreme weather and climate change. What strikes you about these videos is not the different opinions about global warming, but the fact that, almost without exception, people squirm when Fyfe and Thrower raise the subject.
Connecticut farmer Art Talmadge put it this way:
We know what we’re dealing with — that the climate is changing — but we don’t really talk about it as climate change … When I talk to other guys that are growing, it’ll just be, “Man, it was hot,” or “Man, it was cold,” … but that’s the end of the conversation and nobody ever talks about why … maybe because most of the people I know are so involved in right now — “What have I got to get done today?”
With climate change, as with poverty, the problem is clear, the solutions are at hand — and yet we are either too preoccupied with day-to-day survival, or just too damned polite, to talk about it. On both issues, we’ve essentially forfeited the whole conversation to the wacko fringe — climate deniers and people like Newt Gingrich, who suggested in January that inner-city kids be put to work as janitors.
Many of us hoped that Obama would bring a voice of reason to these discussions in Washington, but like the rest of us, he’s apparently been too focused on putting out fires to think much about innovative, long-term solutions. (I’ve written more about Obama’s record on urban policy here.)
Tough said it well in an interview about his new article:
Working on this story, I thought a lot about that Rahm Emanuel quote from the early days of the administration: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” There were a lot of Democrats thinking that way right after the inauguration — that this was a great opportunity, and that the crisis would let them do a lot of the stuff they’d always wanted to do. But in fact, inheriting a crisis like that is no fun at all. You spend all your time staving off terrible disasters and spending money on programs that by definition don’t have a lot of long-term impact. One thing I took away from this piece was that for a president, this kind of financial crisis really doesn’t have a silver lining.
Of course, we weren’t making a whole lot of progress before the economy went kaplooey, either. But then, that’s probably not something I should bring up in polite company.
Or maybe it’s time that more of us force the issue and demand more of our political leaders, who ought to be looking out for our long-term well-being. Until we find a way to talk about these problems, we’ll be hard-pressed to solve them.