October 14, 2011; Source: The White House Blog | It is a rare document from leading politicians that explicitly names and addresses the issue of poverty. The Obama Administration’s “Creating Pathways to Opportunity” (PDF) doesn’t duck the recent Census finding that 2.6 million Americans slipped below the poverty level between 2009 and 2010. The report, as White House senior staffers Melody Barnes and Gene Sperling describe in a blog posting, highlights the “steps the [Obama] Administration has taken to reverse these trends…[and] to help more Americans climb the ladder to the middle class.”

One fact is obvious: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—ARRA or the “stimulus”—turned out to be the largest and most significant anti-poverty initiative since the War on Poverty, with 6 million people in 2009-2010 kept out of poverty by stimulus-funded programs.

The report’s list of programs that really counted in improving the conditions of poor people seem to be predominantly those rooted in the stimulus legislation, including the following:

  • $1.5 billion to prevent homelessness through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program
  • 367,000 young people hired for summer jobs and 260,000 low-income persons placed in subsidized jobs
  • Enhanced lending capacity for community development financial institutions (CDFIs) (funding increases that the Administration got Congress to continue after the Recovery Act dollars began to dry up)
  • Expansion of the New Markets Tax Credit program
  • The Neighborhood Stabilization Program for rehabilitating foreclosed homes

Many of these programs as well as others not mentioned in the White House report were dependent on the capability and commitment of the nonprofit sector, but nonprofits get scarcely a nod in the text other than as potential implementers of outreach under Medicaid and CHIP funding. However, we can note that nonprofits will participate in the relatively tiny $40 million Promise Neighborhoods program and $160 million in HUD Choice program funding.

However, there are some eyebrow-raising parts of the report, particularly the fact that the Obama Administration takes credit for 4 million permanent loan modifications. That inventive calculation has been challenged by a few sources, notably the Greenlining Institute and the Obama-skeptic blog Firedoglake, with the latter suggesting the correct figure may be more like 700,000.

The report ends with a pitch for President Obama’s American Jobs Act, which Republicans in Congress have already scotched. The hidden message of the report might be that it takes something big, a real anti-poverty stimulus to slow the free-fall of the nation’s lowest income quintile into even deeper socio-economic distress.

Maybe the U.S., whether Obama is in the White House or not, will never again be able to mobilize and deploy the nation’s resources to tackle poverty the way FDR did with the New Deal or LBJ did with the War on Poverty. But without doing something substantial, with real dollars directed to and through the nonprofit sector, it is hard to imagine that the Democrats will be able to muster much more than cheap, small-bore programs designed to give Obama something to run on as well as something with which to try to distract his more liberal supporters from their bitter disappointment at what they view as his inaction on poverty.—Rick Cohen