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

Show Hide image

With the Greek summer at an end, the refugee crisis is just beginning

Refugee camps are battling floods – and even arson. With each passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase.

The Greek summer came to an abrupt end at the start of September. Nowhere was spared the storms or the floods. At the Katsikas refugee camp, near the north-western city of Ioannina, the effects were dramatic. The site, formerly a military airport, flooded. The gravel turned to mud, swamping the floors of tents that were completely unsuitable for this terrain or weather.

Hundreds of people were relocated to hotels in the city. Officials from the municipality and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees scrambled to find families suitable shelter. A former orphanage on the outskirts of the city was supposed to have been renovated to house the refugees, but bureaucracy has held up the work.

Autumn falls heavily in the western region of Epirus. The danger of refugees being caught outside is real.

“We all know that when the morning fog from the lake [of Ioannina] comes in, the tents will rot away,” Filipos Filios, a former mayor of the town and now the co-ordinator between the state and the charities in the region, tells me. “They [Europe] need to relocate 20,000 people from Greece. That would have solved pretty much all of our problems. Instead, they’ve taken 3,000.”

Around Epirus, the facilities available to refugees are in good shape. Empty civil-service buildings have been repurposed to host families or single people separately. Special measures are in place for Yazidi refugees, who are in danger from others in the camps. As at the other centres across Greece, however, the problems here are not organisational.

“We have 500 people living in tents with bathrooms available, grills and cleaners, with a fully stocked food storage space and doctors always present. There’s even a centre for creative activities for the children,” Filios says. “It’s the very existence of the camp, and the need for more like it, that is the difficulty.”

On 19 September, tents at the overcrowded Moria detention centre on the island of Lesbos were set on fire. False rumours had been circulating that large numbers of Afghans were about to be sent to Turkey. Four thousand people were evacuated and a night of anguish followed. Refugees slept on the streets and local people, who oppose the presence of the camp, seized the opportunity to attack refugees and activists.

The Greek far right, led by followers of the Golden Dawn party, is stirring up anti-refugee sentiment. Attacks on journalists on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios have become more frequent. There is talk of vigilante-style citizen patrols around the camps, staffed by residents worried about their livelihoods.

During an anti-refugee demonstration in Chios on 14 September, Ioannis Stevis, the editor of the Astraparis news website, was attacked.

“No trouble had started when the representative of Golden Dawn attacked me,” he told me. “The invitation [to march] wasn’t from the far right, but the direction of the demo once there was very specific; they had the upper hand. Some who had gone in good faith left when they heard chants like ‘Greece of Christian Greeks’.”

The march in Chios took a nasty turn when extreme elements headed to the Vial refugee camp. There, they were confronted by riot police. The refugees also fought back, throwing stones at the marchers from inside the camp.

“There was no plan to attack the camp and not everybody followed that march,” Stevis says. “We have 3,700 people here in inadequate conditions, and there is some small-scale delinquency – we can’t hide that. But there are people who try to magnify that. There definitely is a desire for citizen patrols, and not just from the far right. Especially in the village near the camp, people want to organise without being [associated with the] far right.”

With every passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase. It has become clear that the relocation programme, designed to distribute refugees proportionally across European Union member countries according to population, is not working. These refugees are now stuck in Greece. Mere dozens leave every month for other EU countries, and fewer still depart for Turkey.

The rumours that they will be sent back to the places they have fled are no longer just rumours. On 5 October the EU and Afghanistan announced an agreement to repatriate Afghans who have been turned down for asylum. EU data shows that in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, and 176,900 of those claimed asylum. More than 50 per cent of these applications were rejected. Later, a leaked memo from the negotiations showed that Afghanistan was threatened with a reduction in aid if the country did not commit to accepting at least 80,000 returning refugees.

What does all of this mean in the camps? It is the most vulnerable refugees to whom we must look to understand.

At the Moria detention centre on Lesbos, four teenagers have been arrested for allegedly gang-raping an unaccompanied 16-year-old Pakistani boy. The actions of these children, who are perhaps the ones receiving the most direct support, expose how stretched and inadequate the system is.

Even for unaccompanied children, the focus of much international attention, conditions are terrible. Officials have been saying for months that the Moria camp, which has no private rooms or locks on its doors, is unsuitable for children. An activist there, who didn’t want to be named in order to protect their work, told me that they had witnessed a teenage girl being confined in the same space as 80 boys for weeks on end.

Back at the Katsikas camp, autumn is settling in. Rain, humidity and cold have replaced the warm summer days. There is word that this camp and the others like it might soon be evacuated permanently, though there is no hint where the people might go. If they are deported to the war-torn countries they have escaped, as the EU wishes, there is little to prevent them making the journey back here. They are desperate, and many are barely surviving. Yet the message from the EU governments is clear: we’re hoping they won’t make it. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge