White House defends its record on poverty


White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, second from right, speaks during the first meeting of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability. (Susan Walsh/AP)
October 21, 2011

Top officials in the Obama administration are defending the president from criticism that he has not done enough to help the poor.

In a wide-ranging conversation hosted Thursday by TheRoot.com, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, and Melody Barnes, the president’s domestic policy adviser, said the administration’s policies have helped to keep millions of Americans from sliding into poverty.

“This president has told us to take a holistic approach when it comes to poverty,” said Barnes, who will leave her White House post at the end of the year. She specifically cited parts of the economic stimulus, such as a program that provided summer jobs for poor youth, and an increase in Pell grant funding for college students.

The White House also released a 44-page report this month on poverty, which is rarely discussed by politicians. The study discusses everything from expanded support for small business to the reach of the food stamp program.

Obama has taken stiff criticism from some progressives, who say he has not done enough to help the poor. This summer Princeton Professor Cornel West and television host Tavis Smiley toured the country in an “Anti-Poverty Tour,” pressed Obama to say the word “poor,” and accused him of being allied with Wall Street titans. The Occupy Wall Street protestors have also denounced a political system that they see as tied to the rich.

Both said the administration’s new report was not a response to specific critics but an answer to the question: What has Obama done for poor people?

“One of our challenges is getting information out,” Jarrett said. “Part of what we have to do is just be better messengers.”

Barnes added, “We’ve been trying to address [poverty] from day one. ... People were asking what have you done, and we knew we have been doing quite a bit over the last couple of years.”

Barnes pointed out that the struggles of low income families are not new and part of the work the administration has done is to focus on the education system and support existing safety-net programs.

“So many people were struggling long before our employment rates went up,” she said. “We know that there are a range of different problems that affect those individuals.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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