July 28, 2013; NBC News (Associated Press)


There’s a new day dawning in American politics, as evinced by President Obama’s lengthy speech on the economy delivered at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, on July 24th. Do you recall that during the campaign, neither President Obama nor his opponent would mention any concerns about poverty or initiatives to address it? While Republicans have been unable to get past their concern about Americans receiving welfare, food stamps, and unemployment assistance, Democrats have been reluctant to talk about anything other than an inchoate category called the “middle class.” That changed noticeably with the president’s speech, the first of several planned on the economy. Although he was still focused on the “middle class,” using the term more than twenty times, he used the words “poverty” four times and “poor” thrice. The president actually made strong statements about poverty—and, more broadly, about the persistence and deepening of economic disparities.

That is the point of the Associated Press report on poverty this past weekend. “Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.” The AP report indicated “race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s,” particularly underscoring the indications that the poverty and “economic insecurity” of whites in the U.S. are “more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data.”

Commenting on the poverty statistics, Harvard University professor William Julius Wilson said, “It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position.” He noted, “there is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front.”

By absolute numbers, the largest group of the poor is white, but by percentage within racial and ethnic groups, the poverty rates of blacks and Latinos is three times higher. The AP report incited Peter Johnson Jr. on Fox & Friends to bemoan the increase in white poverty and the possibility that the “American Dream” might be at risk. There are now as many white single-mother families in poverty as blacks—1.5 million—though only 1.2 million Latino single-mother families in poverty.

The subtext of the AP report was that poverty (or income) is a stronger indicator of many social problems than race. As a result, as both political parties move toward the 2014 and 2016 elections, they will be aiming at speaking to the fears of economically distressed whites.

In his speech, the president recounted the accomplishments of his administration in ending the recession and creating new jobs, but he returned to his focus on using his “executive authority” as POTUS to “help the middle class.” In addition, he promised, “Where I can’t act on my own and Congress isn’t cooperating, I’ll pick up the phone, I’ll call CEOs, I’ll call philanthropists, I’ll call college presidents, I’ll call labor leaders, I’ll call anybody who can help and enlist them in our efforts.”

Enlist them in what? The President basically mentioned cajoling CEOs to hire more people, called for tax reform, reiterated his proposal for expanded pre-school education, and defended the importance of the Affordable Care Act as potential responses. Unfortunately, the President’s new economic plan posted on the White House website returns to the poll-tested campaign theme, with the title, “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class.”

The president’s speech and the AP report, however, combine to remind the nation about the persistence of disparities as a crucial factor in our nation’s socio-economic progress—or the lack of it. While the AP’s insinuation that race is no longer as influential factor as it once was is sort of untenable given the much higher rates of poverty and unemployment affecting blacks and Latinos, there are other divides that are also important. The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit reveals wide, sharp divides between the poor inner city and the region’s exceptionally wealthy suburbs. The long-term solution to Detroit’s problems isn’t to wall off the suburbs from the decay of the city, but, as Kurt Metzger of the nonprofit Data Driven Detroit said, “one of these days, kicking and screaming, we will be able to get beyond this” and get the city and the suburbs to cooperate.

Let’s hope that the president, his Democratic allies, and his Republican opponents, remember to turn to the nonprofit sector to learn about the best ideas—not poll-tested, but experience-proven—for tackling these socio-economic divides and reversing the increasing poverty divide in this country.—Rick Cohen