Obama must make poverty reduction a priority for his second term

To be a truly transformative president, Obama must bring the issue of urban poverty out from the political fringes.

As Barack Obama prepares for his second inauguration in front of the Capitol building on Monday, most politicos are by now familiar with the demographics which helped put him there. Election night saw 96 per cent of African-Americans vote for the President; 70 per cent of Hispanics and 73 per cent of Asian Americans. Less dependent on traditional independent voters, the Democrats 'expanded the electorate' by boosting turnout in these communities. 

That this causes a problem for the Republicans has quickly become conventional wisdom. It's been little noted, though, how the demographics of 6 November create a challenge for the Democrats too. An important component of the Obama campaign's "get-out-the-vote" (GOTV) effort was the President's personal appeal. There was a pronounced sense of a personal connection between many non-white voters and Obama, and of protectiveness (of which race was one but not the only factor).

The question for 2016 is, how do the Democrats maintain that level of support without Obama on the ticket? They are unlikely to find a candidate with the charisma, backstory and platform to match Obama, whose breakthrough was a truly once-in-a-generation event. 

The answer can only be that, from the White House to the Senate, Democrats need to go further in the next four years to deliver on substance for these communities. Here, immigration reform is often mentioned. But just as pressing is the indelible link between race and poverty in America, particularly in urban areas.

Far too many of the majority black neighbourhoods that helped deliver Obama's re-election in states like Virginia or Ohio continue to be blighted by hardship. A litany of grim statistics bears this out. More than 1 in 4 African-Americans and Hispanics grow up in extreme poverty - with millions struggling just above this threshold. Forty per cent of children in African-American communities grow up below the poverty line (the US is ranked 34 out of 35 of industrialised countries when it comes to child poverty). Poverty is not of course simply an ethnic minority issue – but they are clearly disproportionately affected.

None of this is new. The statistics are familiar, and wash over many American heads by now. But as Michael Harrington once wrote in his seminal book on the subject, The Other America, "you can rationalise statistics...but you cannot rationalise an indignity". Nearly fifty years after Martin Luther-King said that "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture of their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits", a significant chunk of the US is still held down by hunger, violence, illness, poor education and precariousness. And sadly, that number has increased since 2007.

Anyone going door-to-door in the election in some of the poorer parts of places like Franklin County in Ohio would have found many who benefited in some small way from the President's first term. Particularly so on healthcare. Stimulus spending and his general stewardship of the economy have also stopped a total collapse in living standards. It could have been a lot worse.

But, as the likes of Paul Tough have argued brilliantly, this is not the prospectus on poverty that Obama the candidate first emerged on. Then, he gave speeches – like the one in Anacostia which Tough details – arguing for a wide-ranging approach to poverty in America. Higher minimum wages and better union representation featured, but also specialised parenting, nutrition and early education programmes. 

If the campaign was anything to go by, the prospect of returning to this seems weak. In the parks and multi-purpose arenas in which Obama delivered his campaign stump speech, the mention of poverty was noticeably scant for a candidate largely relying on GOTV among poor neighbourhoods. If it was name checked it was in a more conventionally liberal way, usually about the need for more teachers – rather than at the heart of his moral vision as once before; his words had lost their transformative edge. As some observed, at times it was like listening to a John Kerry speech.

Prior to that, in office, Obama put up none of the fight for an increase in the minimum wage that he had pledged. He gave not one single speech on poverty itself. Many of the programs he once envisioned exist but remain under-funded and minuscule compared to his initial vision. The basis of union organisation remains weak, as legislation aimed at strengthening it fizzled out early on.

Little of this is Obama's fault alone, of course, but it speaks to a nation's priorities. It's part of a wider cultural blind spot in the US. As Harrington wrote all those years ago, a key dimension of poverty in America is its invisibility to many people. There are certain neighbourhoods most folks don't go into, certain parts of town many go their whole lives without seeing, especially in places like Washington. There's little space in the 'American dream' narrative for those who don't pull themselves up to greatness, or the middle class, but who quietly struggle for their whole lives. It's time the President carved one.

As in the UK, the problem is one not just of unemployment but perilously low wages and economic insecurity. The percentage of those working but still in poverty is at its highest in nearly two decades; average wages are in a thirty year slump. And more and more Americans are falling closer to the threshold

For this reason, it's particularly welcome that Obama prioritised, fought for and won protection of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit in the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, which the Republicans had earmarked for abolition. Beyond that, though, he urgently needs to rediscover the spirit and ideas that animated his early words and interventions on poverty, like the one in Anacostia. African-American community leaders are gathering this week to pressure the President into making urban poverty a priority for his second term. 

There's no doubt that Obama remains a deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, of authentic social compassion. But his record on poverty is a case study in his journey from transformational candidate to good, solid but unspectacular liberal incumbent. He is said to worry about his place in history in this respect, and has asked historians how he can match up to likes of Lincoln. Bringing poverty out from the political fringes offers him this opportunity. For the Democrats, too, it can no longer be dismissed as a 'core vote' concern which turns off swing voters – if they are to replicate 2012's voting coalition in 2016, turnout among minority voters is the swing vote. They will need to act and deliver on a malaise still ubiquitous in far too many of those voters' lives. An electoral imperative has been given to an issue which should long ago have been a moral one.

Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the audience at Burrville Elementary School after participating in National Day of Service on January 19, 2013 in Washington DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

Ralph Orlowski / Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

0800 7318496