Thursday, July 19, 2007

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama yesterday introduced a broad agenda to combat urban poverty, which he said would cost “billions of dollars a year” but be funded by savings from ending the Iraq war.

The Illinois senator said he would spend about $6 billion annually, with his first task being to replicate in 20 cities such successful child and youth development programs as the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and the Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus in the District, where he outlined his plan.

“I’ll be honest, it can”t be done on the cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year,” he said. “We won”t just spend the money because we can — every step these cities take will be evaluated, and if certain plans or programs aren”t working, we will stop them and try something else, but we will find the money to do this because we can’t afford not to.”

Mr. Obama not only gave voters some of his first detailed policy objectives, but he also effectively stole the thunder from former Sen. John Edwards, who yesterday concluded a trip mimicking Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 poverty tour in Prestonsburg, Ky., where the Kennedy tour ended.

Mr. Obama also invoked Mr. Kennedy’s repeated journeys through the South and Appalachia as a kickoff for his remarks, asking the audience the same question that Mr. Kennedy posed 40 years ago: “How can a country like this allow it?”

But both Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards, who are running second and third in most Democratic presidential polls, have seized a jump on front-running Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has not announced any detailed anti-poverty proposals.

There was a stark contrast between the two speeches as Mr. Edwards’ focused on poverty broadly, including rural and urban communities while Mr. Obama focused his initiative on cities, although he said he would “roll out” his rural agenda in the coming weeks.

“The reason I’m here is because I want America to remember what he did decades ago, and I want America to join us, all of us, to end the great work that Bobby Kennedy started,” said Mr. Edwards of North Carolina in his speech.

But Mr. Obama noted that his work on poverty issues spans a quarter-century, another slight to Mr. Edwards.

“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. “I was just two years out of college when I first moved to the South Side of Chicago to become a community organizer.”

The government has spent $11 trillion on the war on poverty since it was declared by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, said Robert Rector, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation. In 2004 federal, state and local governments spent $583 billion, or 5 percent of the gross domestic product, on food, housing, medical and targeted social services for the poor, Mr. Rector said.

Mr. Obama’s plan to replicate successful urban youth programs would greatly expand the federal government’s role in helping the nonprofit groups that now operate them — paying half the costs, with the rest coming from philanthropies and businesses.

“The Harlem Children’s Zone is saving a generation of children for $46 million a year,” Mr. Obama said, adding that this amount is “about what the war in Iraq costs American taxpayers every four hours.”

He also vowed to pass a plan that he outlined last year to provide more financial support to unwed fathers who help raise their children and crack down on fathers who don’t and to help new mothers by expanding the Nurse-Family Partnership, which offers home visits by registered nurses to low-income mothers and mothers-to-be. He would also spend $1 billion over five years in jobs programs that place unemployed workers into temporary jobs and then train them for permanent ones.

Perhaps the most ambitious feature of his plan is his promise to raise the minimum wage automatically every year by tying it to the cost-of-living index.

In addition, Mr. Obama said he would create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund dedicated to adding as many as 112,000 units annually in mixed-income neighborhoods and ensure that capital for inner-city businesses is available using a national network of business incubators.

Throughout his speech, Mr. Obama attempted to solidify his centrist position by chastising Democrats for defending programs enacted by Mr. Johnson’s Great Society that they knew to be “ineffective” as well as for ignoring the role of absent fathers and inner-city crime in the persistence of poverty.

At the same time, he criticized Republicans for not valuing such investments in youth and working families.

“The right has often seized on these failings as proof that the government can’t and shouldn’t do a thing about poverty — that it is a result of individual moral failings and cultural pathologies, and so we should just sit back and let these cities fend for themselves,” he said.

“And so Ronald Reagan launched his assault on quote-unquote welfare queens, and George Bush spent the last six years slashing programs to combat poverty, and job training, and substance abuse, and child abuse.”

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