Poverty Debate Raises Tension Between Obama and Black Leaders

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On Sunday in Memphis, Tavis Smiley, the talk-show host, and Cornel West, the Princeton professor, closed a 16-city bus tour intended to draw attention to some of the rarely discussed aspects of the economic crisis: The poverty rate is 14.3%, the highest since the mid-1990s. A record 45.8 million people receive food stamps.

“Poverty and poor people are an afterthought,” Smiley says. “For many folks in this country – politicians – they’re disposable, they’re invisible.” Poverty rarely stirs powerful political forces. There’s no major Washington lobby for the poor. There are few major Congressional figures with the stature of Ted Kennedy or Daniel Patrick Moynihan who’ve made poverty issues central to their political identities. The term “poverty” has taken on baggage, evoking in some images of the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” introduced by Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. Earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a study questioning the plight of the nearly 44 million Americans whom the Census Bureau categorizes as impoverished, but also own appliances such as air conditioners and TVs.

There is also a racial element. Smiley and West, who are black, avoided calling their mission a “black and brown poverty tour” because most of the poor in the U.S. are white. In West Virginia Ohio earlier this month, they dined with a group of veterans, mostly white, who can’t find jobs. One was on the verge of eviction. But in Chicago, Detroit and Washington, the duo drew throngs of people, many of them black and Latino, who are anxious about the economy. About one-quarter of blacks and Latinos are impoverished, more than double the percentage of whites. Between 2005 and 2009, Latino households’ median wealth plunged more than 66%, compared to 53% among black households and 16% among whites. Even as the unemployment rate for whites declined, it continued to rise for blacks, hovering around 16%. Algernon Austin, an Economic Policy Institute sociologist, predicts the unemployment rate among blacks will not fall below 10% before 2015.

At a Decorah, Iowa, town hall meeting on Monday, President Obama repeated his argument that “a rising tide does lift all boats” – in other words, economic policies that aim to benefit all Americans are sufficient. Smiley offers this: If a car accident sent you to a hospital’s emergency room with head trauma, “I hope they would not start operating on your feet. Everyone’s having a difficult time in this economy,” he says, “but black folks are getting crushed.”

A congressional supercommittee is preparing to consider $1.5 trillion in further deficit reduction, so the idea of a second stimulus package – much less one targeting cities or minorities – is a difficult sell, and the White House is largely powerless to act alone. But Smiley and West say the Obama administration has ignored the plight of blacks and the poor while focusing heavily on business interests. Corporate profits and CEO compensation are surging, while companies remain reluctant to resume hiring. “Wall Street doing well doesn’t necessarily translate into Main Street flourishing,” West says.

Of course, Obama isn’t the first President that Smiley and West have criticized. In the 1990s, Smiley criticized President Bill Clinton for toughening penalties for crack-cocaine possession. West ridiculed President George W. Bush’s handling of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Last week, a C-SPAN anchor asked about Smiley and West’s relationship with Obama. Smiley bemoaned the fact that Obama has declined requests to appear on his television and radio programs, while various conservative commentators have interviewed the President. “Their agenda is to bring the President down, and they still get access to him,” Smiley said in an interview this week. Smiley insists his agenda isn’t anti-Obama. On Obama’s rejection of his interview requests, Smiley says: “I don’t lose any sleep over it.”

Blacks still have deep affection for Obama. In a recent Washington Post poll, 86% of blacks approved of Obama’s job performance. But just 54% approved of his economic policies in the Post poll, down from 77% last fall. The anxiety is palpable: “Blacks and Obama: Time to Break Up,” read a recent headline in The Root. Blacks will maintain their decades-long allegiance to Democrats and overwhelmingly support Obama in 2012. But their enthusiasm, which nearly three years ago helped Obama win battleground states like Virginia and North Carolina, may dim, and result in lower black voter turnout.