Obama vs. Poverty

From the back seat of Steve Gates’s white Pontiac, Monique Robbins spotted Jasmine Coleman walking home from school alone. It was an icy December afternoon on Chicago’s South Side, and Jasmine’s only protection against the wind was a thin purple jacket. She looked cold. Gates pulled the car over to the curb, and Robbins hollered at Jasmine to get in.Jasmine was 16, and Robbins and Gates, who were both in their 30s, were her neighbors. All three of them lived in or around Roseland, a patch of distinctly subprime Chicago real estate that stretches from 89th Street to 115th Street, way down past the last stop on the El.

Fifty years ago, Roseland was a prosperous part of Chicago, home to thousands of blue-collar workers, most of them white, employed by the South Side’s many steel and manufacturing plants. But the plants closed long ago, the white residents all moved away and Roseland has become one of the worst-off parts of the city by just about every measure you can think of: unemployment rate, dropout rate, murder rate or just the barren, empty feel of the streets.

Looking out for Jasmine and young people like her in Roseland and other blighted sections of Chicago was Gates’s full-time job. He worked for an organization called Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), acting as a mentor to the students in public high schools who were deemed most “at risk.” I met Gates, who is a laid-back, burly guy with tight dreadlocks and penetrating pale gray eyes, in the fall of 2010, and for several months he let me watch him at work, becoming, in the process, my unofficial guide to Roseland.

Gates pulled the car up in front of Jasmine’s house on Lafayette Avenue, and Jasmine ran in to fetch her brother, Damien, who was also enrolled in YAP. Their house looked small and battered. The metal gate guarding the front door was torn off its hinges, and there was a fist-size hole in the front window. Damien, a handsome 17-year-old, sauntered out to the car behind Jasmine, and the two of them piled in the back while Gates kept the car running for warmth.

“Man, it’s critical in our house,” Damien said with a little laugh.

“It’s cold!” Jasmine said. “You go in there, you think you still outside.”

Damien and Jasmine’s mother had been fighting a long, losing battle with the gas company. The previous summer, after she failed to pay the heating bill, the company shut off the gas line. Now there was no heat at all, winter had arrived in force and that hole in the living-room window let in a steady stream of frigid air all night long.

Gates still lives in the house he grew up in, just a few blocks away from Damien and Jasmine’s home. Things in Roseland were pretty bad when he was growing up, Gates told me, but they are much worse today, and the web of poverty that he saw kids like Damien and Jasmine caught up in, a paralyzing mix of unforgiving economic conditions, destructive social influences and shortsighted personal decisions, seemed almost impossible for them to escape. Some days, it seemed to Gates that he was making progress with the kids in YAP, but often the job felt hopeless and depressing, an unbroken cycle of hospital visits, school-expulsion hearings, court dates and funerals. It was taking a toll on his mood and his health, he told me. He and his girlfriend of 15 years had just broken up. He was smoking way too many Newports. He couldn’t sleep.

One reason Gates’s job was so daunting was the simple fact of the multitude of problems the students were facing. One had just been sent to boot camp for stealing a car. Jasmine’s ex-boyfriend was shot and killed one night while sitting in a car in a snowstorm. A girl in YAP told me she was so angry at her mother for not protecting her from the sexual predations of a relative that she used to come to school just to find somebody to fight. “Just when you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse,” Gates said.

But the job was also daunting because it often seemed like such a lonely enterprise. When you’re down in Roseland, it’s easy to feel very far from the center of the nation’s attention. The big question that Gates wrestled with every day — 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. It is not that poverty itself has disappeared. 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.

If any American president might have been expected to focus his attention on Roseland and its problems, it would be Barack Obama. The neighborhood, as it happens, played a critical role in Obama’s personal and political history. As a young community organizer, he worked in Roseland and at a nearby low-rise housing project called Altgeld Gardens for three years in the late 1980s; it was in these communities, Obama said in the speech announcing his presidential run, that he “received the best education I ever had.” And when he finally left Roseland, for Harvard Law School and a political career, he did so, he said, to gain the knowledge and the resources that would allow him to eventually return and tackle the neighborhood’s problems anew.

When Obama ran for president the first time, urban poverty was a major policy focus for his campaign. Senator Obama gave speeches on the issue, his campaign Web site had a dedicated poverty section with a variety of policy proposals, and in his platform, he committed his administration to “eradicating poverty,” pledging that “working together, we can cut poverty in half within 10 years.” But the official poverty rate has continued to rise under Obama. In May, Bob Herbert, the former New York Times Op-Ed columnist, castigated the president in the online magazine The Grio for his failure to address publicly the “catastrophe” of children growing up in urban poverty. “Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor,’ ” Herbert wrote.

The idea that Obama hasn’t done much for poor Americans is simply not true; by some measures, he has done more than any other recent president. But Herbert is right that 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. What we know about poverty, and specifically about its effect on children, has shifted markedly in the last few decades. New ideas are emerging from the fields of economics, neuroscience and developmental psychology. Four years ago, Barack Obama was the one politician in Washington who seemed attuned to those ideas and most concerned about addressing them. And the intellectual journey that led him to these new ways of thinking about poverty started in Roseland.