Citizen Obama and the Anti-Poverty/Pro-Prosperity People

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

President Barack Obama is officially sworn-in by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Blue Room of the White House during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Sunday Jan. 20, 2013. Next to Obama are first lady Michelle Obama, holding the Robinson Family Bible, and daughters Malia and Sasha. (AP Photo/Pool, Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama is officially sworn-in by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Blue Room of the White House during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Sunday Jan. 20, 2013. Next to Obama are first lady Michelle Obama, holding the Robinson Family Bible, and daughters Malia and Sasha. (AP Photo/Pool, Charles Dharapak)

“So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change…. Only you have the power to move us forward.”

— President Obama, Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech, 9/6/12

“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.”

— President Obama, Inaugural address, 1/21/13

On Monday, in his second Inaugural address, President Obama offered words that inspired hope among some advocates who work every day on economic security issues — whether creating opportunities for families struggling in poverty, or creating better jobs for all workers.

There was hope in Obama saying that “we are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Hope in the idea that “the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship,” and that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”

Hope in the notion that we will “empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher.”

Hope in the reaffirmation that “we, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.”

Hope in touting “the commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.”

Hope in his emphasizing — as he did in his 2012 Democratic convention speech — the common ground between his work as president and ours as citizens: “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time.”

Which is exactly what so many in the anti-poverty movement have been striving to do for decades now.

Nation executive editor Betsy Reed aptly notes in her post, “What Obama’s Inaugural Address Got Wrong About Poverty,” the “chasm” between the America that Obama envisioned in his address, and the real lives of low-income people today: “Given the chasm that now separates rich from poor, improving conditions in schools or preserving Medicaid and other existing social programs is not going to give a hard-knocks Bronx kid the chance to compete with his Park Avenue counterpart on a level playing field.” She argues that those born in poverty will never have an equal shot at success, and that to suggest otherwise is both intellectually dishonest and harmful, as it makes it seem as though someone only becomes stuck in poverty due to his own failings.

But those who would blame the poor for being poor will always do so, no matter the circumstances. In my opinion, Obama is right to lay out the ideal we should be striving for — whether we reach it in a generation, or two, or never — and he is especially right that it is up to citizens to move this nation where we want to go.

Protecting and improving existing programs will not fully achieve the kind of equality and equal opportunity that the president described. But promoting policies that reflect a commitment to ending hunger, raising wages and labor standards, pursuing full employment, making college affordable, creating alternative career pathways, implementing progressive tax reform, building affordable housing and more will surely move us in the right direction, even if progress comes in fits and starts.

Obama’s vision and impassioned plea for citizen action clearly had an effect on Ai-jen Poo, co-director of Caring Across Generations, who wrote in an e-mail following the address: “Hearing these words made me hopeful about the next four years. He’s been hearing us.… This year we will have to turn these words into real change. It will depend on us, speaking up, taking action, and putting it all on the table.” And Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said: “In precise, elegant terms, the president reminded us why we are all in this together and why expanding economic opportunity is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity…. While we hope, Mr. President, that you will forcefully lead on the vital issues of hunger, poverty, and inequality, advocates understand that it is also our job to build the public support to enable you to get the job done.”

President Obama declared that “we are made for this moment and we will seize it.” I will suggest again that the anti-poverty movement is made for this moment too. Its leaders and groups have done the work required — pick your topic, and you will find numerous studies and evidence on what works, what it costs and what the economic benefits are.

The question now is this: after the anti-poverty/pro-economic security crowd is done defending what needs to be defended in these budget debates — and it is doing an extraordinary job unifying in that regard, including through the Save For All campaign, which over 1,900 organizations are participating in — what will it do to go on the offensive? To offer a powerful, unfied vision for a more equitable economy? What will it do to change the current conversation in city halls, statehouses, Congress and the White House? In neighborhoods and workplaces? At kitchen tables and conference tables? What will be its Stonewall, its Seneca Falls, its Selma?

In my opinion, the anti-poverty movement will need to be as creative, visible, and gripping — in its own way — as the Occupy Wall Street movement was in 2011. The change needed — the kind of change Obama spoke to — won’t happen through hushed conversations in quiet rooms, and it won’t happen if it’s disconnected from the voices of a working and middle class.

I don’t have the answers, but I know that the leaders and groups in this movement — whether at the national level or the grassroots — can come up with them. What will they now do to respond collectively to Americans who are yearning for the land of equal opportunity that Obama described?

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  • Anonymous

    Since the 1960s and LBJ’s so called War On Poverty, the taxpayers of this country transferred over $17 Trillion of their hard earned money to the poor and low income through means tested welfare programs. We have over 80 such programs. All of this was to eliminate poverty. We now have a huge poverty problem and are $16 Trillion in debt. I guess all that transferring didn’t work out very well.

    The cost of all the wars this country has ever been in are a drop in the bucket compared to this giveaway fiasco that relieves people of all responsibility to care for themselves. I know the
    current financial situation exacerbates the long term problem but that does not change the fact that it is a long term problem about people being told by the government that they don’t have to be responsible for themselves, they can always “qualify” for somebody else’s hard earned money. As long as that attitude continues we will have growing debt and a weaker country.