By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A04
Poverty forced its way to the top of President Bush's agenda in the confusing days after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. Confronted with one of the most pressing political crises of his presidency, Bush, who in the past had faced withering criticism for speaking little about the poor, said the nation has a solemn duty to help them.
"All of us saw on television, there's . . . some deep, persistent poverty in this region," he said in a prime-time speech from New Orleans's Jackson Square, 17 days after the Aug. 29 hurricane. "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."
As it happened, poverty's turn in the presidential limelight was brief. Bush has talked little about the issue since the immediate crisis passed, while pursuing policies that his liberal critics say will hurt the poor. He has publicly mentioned domestic poverty six times since giving back-to-back speeches on the issue in September. Domestic poverty did not come up in his State of the Union address in January, and his most recent budget included no new initiatives directed at the poor.
Tony Snow, the president's press secretary, said Bush is unlikely to invoke poverty when he addresses the national convention of the NAACP today, and instead will focus on opportunities available to everyone. "After all, the goal is prosperity," Snow said.
Preoccupied by war and the specter of terrorism and threatened with revolt by his core supporters because of what they see as his free-spending ways, Bush has used the bully pulpit of the presidency not to marshal a new national consensus for fighting poverty but to make the case for cutting taxes along with domestic programs. He has never publicly discussed the growing crisis of young, uneducated black men, whose plight has worsened in the past decade even as the economy has generally flourished, according to a recent spate of academic studies.
Meanwhile, his Office of Management and Budget has sketched scenarios that envision deep funding cuts in an array of programs that aid the poor, including housing assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, community development grants and energy assistance. Budget officials minimize the significance of those projections, saying that they are rarely enacted and that expenditures for many poverty programs have increased sharply since Bush took office.
"Does he often talk about poverty? No," Snow said. "There hasn't been a direct discussion of poverty, but he is focused on eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of people making progress."
Many advocates for the poor point out that budget increases in traditional anti-poverty programs are the work of Congress, not the White House. And they see the budget projections as a clear signal of the administration's policy goals.
"I'll never forget the night the president gave that speech from Jackson Square," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), one of the black lawmakers summoned to meet with administration officials in Katrina's hectic aftermath. "He talked about stamping out poverty. He talked about things that showed the compassionate side of his compassionate conservative stance. Since then, what I've found is that he has been long on conservatism and short on compassion."
The number of Americans living in poverty has risen each year Bush has been president, increasing to 37 million in 2004 from 31.6 million in 2000. Overall, 12.7 percent of the nation's population lives in poverty, which for a family of four means an income less than $20,000 a year.
The increases in poverty come after years of decline in the 1990s, which analysts say was largely fostered by a booming economy and revolutionary changes in the welfare system, which required many recipients to go to work, slashing relief rolls by nearly 60 percent. In addition, wider use of the earned income tax credit and other measures to help people in low-paying jobs lifted many people out of poverty.
Bush's critics say that progress on poverty has stopped because the president has not invested much time in championing the issue. While Bush has been outspoken in his support of religious groups' efforts to combat social ills and has moved to shift federal money to their coffers, he has not shown much faith in the power of government to directly help the poor.
"The Bush administration has shown a total lack of leadership on this issue," said former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who has made a new war on poverty his signature issue as he travels the country in preparation for an expected 2008 presidential bid. "He has consistently opposed ideas that would help lift people out of poverty."
Edwards has called for tax credits for first-time home buyers and to help low-income workers establish savings accounts; expanded opportunities for college; and the creation of 1 million temporary government-subsidized jobs. Bush has hurt the poor, he said, with his long-standing opposition to increasing the minimum wage and expanding the earned income tax credit, which supplements the income of low-wage workers with a refundable tax credit.
Administration officials and outside advisers say education accountability and school choice; home ownership; and efforts to encourage marriage and further revamp welfare by requiring more recipients to work -- all efforts Bush supports -- ultimately help the poor.
"The Bush administration has had a consistent, forward-looking strategy on poverty," said Robert E. Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They have had a consistent effort to raise work levels, reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing and promote marriage."
The percentage of births to unmarried women increased sharply through the 1970s and 1980s before slowing in the mid-1990s. Researchers say the rate has begun to increase again. Meanwhile, marriage rates for women continue to plummet, though not as dramatically as they did in the decades leading up to the mid-1990s.
Bush took a more aggressive stance in the days after Katrina. He laid out an ambitious plan to fight poverty with tax breaks to encourage small- and minority-business development; grants to help storm victims with job training, transportation, child care and other needs; and an urban homesteading program that would turn over unused federal property to poor storm victims who could then build houses on it.
But most of his proposals went nowhere. "I think it has been very difficult for them to move those kinds of things in Congress, so they haven't tried very hard," said Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The truth is that all analysts, even liberal analysts, looked in the cupboard for ideas to push after Katrina, and the cupboard was bare. I don't think it was an accident that we haven't gotten a big set of proposals."
Even though Bush's Katrina plan was largely sidetracked, administration officials have been busy instituting long-standing ideas they think will alleviate poverty as they rebuild the Gulf Coast. "This president gets it in spades about how important it is to build a middle class in New Orleans," said Donald E. Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast recovery.
A large number of the low-achieving public schools in New Orleans are being reopened as charter schools. Also, poverty-stricken public housing units are being rebuilt as mixed-income communities, a strategy that officials think will make once crime-ridden neighborhoods more livable.
That effort has spurred a lawsuit from advocates who are angry that New Orleans is losing thousands of subsidized housing units, leaving no place to return to for poor residents who fled the floodwaters -- although federal housing officials say they will eventually be accommodated.
"We've been talking about eradicating poverty in this country since the 1960s," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson. "We had the Great Society. If that had worked, we would not have had generation after generation of poverty. The president is trying to address this in a systematic way by addressing the elements that are needed to lift people out of poverty."
Nonetheless, many advocates for the poor insist that Bush has squandered an opportunity presented by Katrina to once again make fighting poverty a national cause. "He had a prime opportunity right after Katrina," Cummings said. "But I'm afraid it just got swept away like so many homes and businesses did in that horrific storm."