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

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The investigation into Australia’s “Abu Ghraib” could neglect wider abuses in the Northern Territory

Footage from a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory capital, Darwin, may not be enough for authorities to finally address endemic discrimination in the region.

It isn’t Abu Ghraib, but you could be forgiven for making the mistake when you first see the picture of the hooded 17-year-old.

In shocking footage made available to the public for the first time on Monday night, guards at a juvenile detention centre in Darwin are seen apparently systematically abusing the teenager Dylan Voller in a horrific timelapse.

The Australian investigative series Four Corners aired CCTV footage showing guards body-slamming him to the ground, punching him in the head, violently stripping him naked, and pinning him to the ground in a hog-tie position.

It continues, piling atrocity on atrocity from when he was a 13-year-old detainee in 2010, until he is shown shackled to the chair in the already infamous photo from footage this year. It is understood that Voller has long been the object of special animosity from the guards.

Voller was not the only child suffering in the Don Dale facility over the years; tapes also showed six boys being tear-gassed in August of 2014. They had reportedly been kept in tiny isolation cells for 23 hours a day, some of them for weeks, though laws limited such confinement to 72 hours.

At the time, the press was told that there had been a riot at the prison in its maximum security cells but the newly-released footage shows a markedly different set of events. Guards had left one of the boy’s doors unlocked, and he slipped out of his cell and broke a window. Just as he appeared to be surrendering, guards took the decision to gas all six boys in the wing, five of whom were in their cells.

This situation would be shocking enough, but attitude shown by the guards – who laughed when the would-be escapee soiled himself, calling him unprintable names – has sent the whole country into an uproar.

Australia has a complicated justice system; it is technically governed by the Crown and it’s made up of both states and Territories. Policies shift wildly between them, and the Northern Territories are governed by what Australians call The Intervention, a series of paternalistic policies meant to cut back on crime and violence in Indigenous communities.

In 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard announced that pornography and alcohol would be banned for Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territories, and welfare spending restricted by item.

Though only 3 per cent of the general population, Indigenous people make up 28 per cent of Australia’s incarcerated adult population, and 54 per cent of jailed youth nationwide. In the Northern Territories that youth number nearly doubles to 97 per cent

John Elferidge, who until yesterday was the NT Minister for Corrections, said that the trouble was due to a “lack of training”.  Adam Giles, the NT’s Chief Minister, has sacked Elferidge and personally taken over the portfolio, saying he was kept in the dark about these events Giles has pledged to appoint a permanent Inspector General for the Territory.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for a Royal Commission into the allegations of abuse and torture by prison workers, to be completed by early next year.

This is in itself controversial, because Turnbull has taken the decision to limit the Commission’s scope to the Don Dale facility alone – in the interest of speed and efficiency, he says – instead of investigating the whole of the Territory. Given that some of these guards have since transferred to other facilities, many people are concerned that this narrow investigation will fail to remedy the horrific problems.

Dylan Voller remains in isolation in an adult prison. Peter O’Brien, solicitor for both Voller and another of the boys, has called for his immediate release, saying that three of the guards from Don Dale are still in charge of his welfare.

It is unclear how much of this abuse is actionable. In most of Australia the statute of limitations to allege abuse by staff is three-six years. In the Northern Territories, it is a mere 28 days.

Linda Tirado is an author and activist who works in America, Australia, and the UK.