Obama Says He, Too, Is a Poverty Fighter

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

While John Edwards was winding up a tour of America's most impoverished areas, another Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), came to Anacostia yesterday to stake his own claim as a poverty warrior -- and to present a vision for fixing struggling inner cities that directly challenges that of Edwards.

In a speech at the Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus, or THEARC, Obama did not mention the former North Carolina senator and trial lawyer who has made poverty a centerpiece of his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns. But Obama appeared to allude to Edwards in asserting his own authority as an anti-poverty crusader, which he said was based in his work as a community organizer in Chicago.

"This kind of poverty is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign. It is the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago," he said.

Obama spoke on the day that Edwards finished his eight-state poverty tour in Prestonsburg, Ky., the town that Robert F. Kennedy visited as part of his own effort to highlight Appalachian poverty in the 1968 campaign. That two candidates this year are vying for the anti-poverty mantle suggests that growing economic inequality is an increasingly important issue for Democrats after many years of pitching proposals toward the middle class.

To the Edwards campaign, Obama's move to address poverty is a sign that Edwards has shifted the debate. "This is another example of Edwards leading on the issues and other candidates following," campaign spokesman Eric Schultz said.

But the competing claims to the issue also underscore the deep divisions over how best to solve the problem. Edwards has focused on the malignant effects of the concentration of poverty in inner cities. He has argued for dispersing low-income families by replacing public housing with a greatly expanded rental voucher program to allow families to move where there are more jobs and better schools.

"Too many Americans today are segregated in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty -- many more than in 1968," he said yesterday in Prestonsburg. "These families are cut off from opportunity -- far from good jobs and schools, far from many examples of success, far from the bright light of America."

Although Obama offered some of the same proposals as Edwards, such as a transitional jobs program and an expanded earned-income tax credit, he presented a sharply different overall objective: fixing inner-city areas so they become places where families have a shot at prospering, without having to move.

As an example, he cited the Harlem Children's Zone, an initiative that seeks to improve one section of that New York neighborhood with an array of services, including prenatal counseling, early childhood education and free medical services. Obama urged replicating the program in 20 cities, which he estimated would cost a few billion dollars a year. "If poverty is a disease that infects the entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation," he said. "We have to heal that entire community."

There are downsides to both approaches, experts say. A federal experiment called Moving to Opportunity found that families given vouchers to move out of inner-city public housing reported improved health but few gains in earnings, educational outcomes and the well-being of teenage boys. Those studying the results say many families did not move far enough, possibly because of a lack of affordable housing in better areas.

At the same time, many attempts to lift blighted areas have been unsuccessful, which is one reason Edwards has argued for a more radical approach. There are few examples of skill-development initiatives, beyond the Harlem one, that have succeeded on the scale Obama proposes. He would increase funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, but billions spent on jobs and housing through the grants over the years have failed to turn around many areas.

The candidates' contrasting approaches to inner-city blight point to broader differences in their perspective, said Greg Duncan, a Northwestern University economist. Edwards grew up in rural North Carolina and often seems more comfortable in rural settings than in urban ones, whereas Obama got his poverty education on Chicago's South Side and speaks more freely about the cultural underpinnings of urban ills, such as absent fathers.

"As a community organizer in his former life, I'm sure [Obama] has seen a lot of the potential strength in communities as they are," Duncan said. "It's the background and experience of the candidates that are leading to the different approaches."

Several of those attending the Anacostia event said they took to heart Obama's conviction that inner cities could be saved. "If people were to leave, the areas where they were going would become saturated," said Renau Daniels, who was visiting the District on behalf of a New Jersey-based foundation. "You want to fix the problem rather than fleeing from it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company