From the window of Ruth Long's apartment in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, where she has lived for 33 years, Long can see a McDonald's where a man was shot, a building from which five families were forced out by development before the housing crash, and a “big, beautiful grocery store” where she can't afford to buy her food.
Long is an 85-year-old African-American woman who relies on a combination of Social Security, food stamps and Section 8 subsidized housing to stay out of the nursing home that she says, “would be disastrous” for her.
She is also one of an increasing number of low-income Chicagoans whose vulnerable standard of living is further at risk from the austerity measures and cutbacks hitting cities across the country.
Chicago has the third-highest poverty rate among America's cities, according to a 2009 study by the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, with 21.6 percent of the city's residents living below poverty level. But it tops the list in race-based poverty: one in three African-American people in Chicago, 32.2 percent, live in poverty.
These financial disparities are only part of what Chicago is known for; the Windy City is also the adopted home of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, and where he will be returning to run his re-election campaign for 2012. How has Chicago fared under the so-called “urban president,” and what will Obama be able to offer a city leading the nation in black poverty in order to win its votes a second time around?
The Presidency and Urban Policy
“Our job across America is to create communities of choice, not of destiny, and create conditions for neighborhoods where the odds are not stacked against the people who live there. Barack Obama will lead a new federal approach to America's high-poverty areas, an approach that facilitates the economic integration of families and communities with efforts to support the current low-income residents of those areas.”
Barack Obama came into office in 2008 touting his credentials as a community organizer on Chicago's notoriously rough Southside, with his home in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood only blocks away from some of the poorest urban neighborhoods in the country.
One of his initial steps as president was to appoint the first White House director of urban policy, making him the first president since Lyndon B. Johnson to wear his plans for urban renewal in America's cities proudly.
Johnson, coming to power in the midst of the civil rights movement's push for social reform, pledged to fight “a war on poverty,” created the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), increased public housing and created Medicare.
But subsequent presidents all chipped away at Johnson's already underfunded Great Society safety net. Richard Nixon came out swinging against “liberal ideology” and latched onto what CityLimits Magazine called “the boilerplate version of modern American urban history … that cities were destroyed by a menu of activist federal policies implemented during the 1960s.”
The following presidents, from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush, introduced their own policies but didn't stray far from the same narrative, decreasing welfare payments and chronically underfunding city programs.
Meanwhile, federal devolution became an increasing trend – decision-making authority regarding funding for social programs was passed from the federal level to the state and local levels, which left the burden of most public investments, with the exceptions of Social Security and Medicare, financed by state governments.
According to a 2000 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the result of this was that “almost all grants in aid to state and local governments, with the exception of the Medicaid program, fall into the category of capped expenditures, so budget balancing rules entail an erosion of aid to governments.”
As the infrastructure of cities slipped further and further into disrepair, the Democratic Party assumed that they were assured the votes of low-income communities, and urban issues slipped from the dialogue of national politics, according to the report.
With a continuing economic crisis, a growing part of the American population could benefit from the kinds of programs that were originally instituted to help urban communities: Medicaid, Medicare, subsidized housing.
Many of the national policies that most affect the lives of urban residents like Ruth Long aren't categorized as urban policies, say advocates and residents. Instead, they are education, housing and civil liberties, policies that are said to apply equally to all Americans but, when unsuccessful, hit low-income communities the hardest.
Communities prosper when all families have access to affordable housing. Barack Obama and Joe Biden supported efforts to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to create thousands of new units of affordable housing every year. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will also restore cuts to public housing operating subsidies, and ensure that all Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs are restored to their original purpose.
“Much of urban policy is tied up in urban real estate, and the housing market is fundamentally the legacy of the ongoing economic and foreclosure crisis,” said Tom Feltner, vice president of Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on a financial reforms system.
Obama had the misfortune of coming into office just as the housing market fell off the cliff it had been teetering on for years – the bubble popped in 2006 and, two years later, America was ushered into what some say has been the worst housing crisis since the Depression.
Cities across the country were hit hard, but Chicagoans have been losing their homes in record numbers. In 2010, Chicago was number one, above New York and Los Angeles, in foreclosures, and 6,112 properties were foreclosed on in the fourth quarter of 2011 alone. In addition, nearly half of Chicago-area homes are underwater, meaning the homes themselves are worth less than the mortgage.
The key components of Obama's housing policy included the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) and a cut for homeowners from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP).
The HAMP program, which was meant to lower mortgage rates to affordable levels for homeowners, helped a smaller percentage of people than it aimed to – only 70,000 people got help in 2009, according to The Washington Post, while 2.5 million people got foreclosure notices.
Patrick Brosnan, with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), said that he has seen positive results from the money that the group received to fund the program initially, but it hasn't received the funding “to sustain all of its components.”
“It has a dramatic impact, and it is directly connected to the local economy and the development and sustaining of urban communities,” said Brosnan of the HAMP program. As a HUD-certified agency that offers pre- and post-purchase counseling for primarily low-income residents on Chicago's southwest side, BPNC is now fighting for sustained funding for HUD counseling services.
The Obama administration “haven't used all the resources at their disposal to deal with foreclosure in devastated communities,” said Brosnan. “I just don't understand why.”
Part of the issue, says Feltner, is that the administration didn't go far enough to fix some of the structural problems that led to the housing crash, such as “making sure borrowers with loans from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had access to loan modification…. And making sure that borrowers can maintain house ownership.”
In its analysis of Obama's housing programs, The Washington Post sums up the administration's policy by saying: “they consistently unveiled programs that underperformed, did little to reduce mortgage debts owed by ordinary Americans and rejected a get-tough approach with banks…. Doing more to address the housing crisis may be crucial not only for an economy flirting with another recession but also for a president running for reelection.”
Urban communities were also hit particularly hard by job loss and were more likely to be uninsured, an additional income drain that at times led to default on mortgages. And with 5 million more foreclosures estimated in the coming years, advocates expect the problems to continue mounting.
“A world-class education is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs, but whether America can out-compete countries around the world. America's business leaders understand that when it comes to education, we need to up our game. That's why we're working together to put an outstanding education within reach for every child.”
-President Barack Obama, July 18, 2011
In Chicago, the Renaissance 2010 program started by former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, bears a striking resemblance to some of the Obama administration's key education policies. The program, started in 2004, called for 100 new schools by 2010 in Chicago and closing those that were lowest performing.
The result of this change was an increased reliance on standardized testing, a jump in the number of charter schools in Chicago and, critics say, a leeching of much-needed funds from neighborhood schools. The minutiae of this plan includes widely using standardized testing to rate teachers, increasing the flexibility of school administrations to reward teachers who perform well on these metrics and fire those that don't, and reducing local control of education.
The Obama administration's two-pronged education policy – Race to the Top and an increase in charter schools – plays on a similar narrative: parental choice, healthy competition and the freedom to close low-performing schools.
Race to the Top opened a competition for a $4.35 billion pool overseen by the Department of Education (DOE), to “encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation,” and is seen as the Obama administration's answer to No Child Left Behind.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration came into office promising to heavily fund performing charters: “Barack Obama and Joe Biden will double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the creation of more successful charter schools,” promised Change.gov shortly after the election. “Obama and Biden will also prioritize supporting states that help the most successful charter schools to expand to serve more students.”
The administration moved quickly to execute this plan. In the last two years, 19 states have partially or entirely dropped limits on the number of charter schools that are allowed to open. Six school districts have more than 30 percent of their students in charters, and 18 school systems have more than 20 percent of their students attending the privately owned, partially publicly funded institutions, according to the demographics report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Struggling urban school districts house the highest number of students enrolled in public charter schools that receive government subsidies: Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago are home to the top five.
“I think it's been disastrous,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, of the Obama administration's education policy. “It's as if these politicians have just bought into a very regressive educational context, and it's similar to the conversation we had about education at the turn of the last century, where blacks and immigrants were sort of pushed into a very narrow education caste. While there are phrases like 'college and career ready,' none of the policies have really done that.”
Public and charter schools often serve the same population, but a disproportionate number of troubled students leave charters. An investigation by Catalyst Magazine and Chicago public radio station WBEZ found that 1 in 11 charter school students will transfer out or be expelled from a charter.
Funding for public schools comes from local property taxes, leaving low-income areas working with fewer resources initially, and critics of the policy say that it has only taken more money away from public schools. In Chicago, the money that goes to the publicly subsidized charter sector is an estimated $300 million in public funds each year, reported the Chicago Reader.
Most crucially for many urban students, says Lewis, is that a school with high teacher turnover or routine standardized testing doesn't help the other challenges they may face.
“What research tells us is needed for children that have much more challenging lives is that they need smaller class sizes, they need concentrated time for free play, for safety, for the creative part of the school lives. They need things that allow children to express their wonder and the world and to be a part of it.”
Though it is not an explicit policy prescription, Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has also come from the White House and hit Chicago's urban, low-income community hard through the city budget and changes to the parade ordinance that he has instituted in the first six months of his term.
The budget will shut down half of the city's 12 mental health clinics, lay off more than one-fifth of public library staff, privatize all seven of the city's neighborhood health clinics and cut funding for overnight outreach crews to bring homeless people to shelters ahead of what is expected to be one of Chicago's worst winters.
The changes to the parade ordinance would increase fines and require $1 million liability insurance for protesters, as well as mandate a much larger police presence for protests.
Long, speaking at a protest against the ordinance change, said, “I am greatly concerned that the proposal will regress our citizens to leave simple rights: leaving the most vulnerable citizens no redress to speak in defense of whatever misfortunates involve them.”
A member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a protest group focusing on senior rights, Long continued, “I need assurance that I'll be able to advocate for myself and other seniors.”
Whether the primarily negative perception that Emanuel has amassed in his first six months in office will be a hindrance to Obama's re-election campaign remains to be seen, but Maritere Gomez, with Chicago's Occupy el Barrio, says that she sees Emanuel's policies as connected to Obama's.
“I think both of them have been ruling the country with an iron first, to be politically cliche,” said Gomez. “What Obama has done to the immigrant community is harsh and cold-hearted, which is pretty much consistent with what Rahm is doing in Chicago. He doesn't waste time in disguising what he is doing to hurt democracy, freedom of speech, all of the critical rights.”
Gomez, 24, is an undocumented student living on Chicago's Southwest side and working minimum wage jobs to help support her family. “I can't vote, and now I can't even protest,” said Gomez, whose Occupy group focuses on the city's Hispanic communities.
Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else – like education and medical research, a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both.
– State of the Union Speech, January 2012
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, income inequality was a key component of Obama's speech. He touched on an unfair taxing system, the importance of helping young, undocumented people fulfill their dreams and the importance of an affordable higher education.
But he was telling this to a country that had already seen his administration extend the Bush tax breaks and fail to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to legalization for young immigrants, and that is in the midst of a growing student debt bubble.
Neither the White House nor the Obama for America campaign replied to multiple requests for comment.
Long is now an activist on senior rights, but says she still remembers clearly when she had to move to the back of the bus because she was “colored.”
She plans to vote for the first African-American president a second time in the coming election. “I am pleased with our president, but I know this: the president can't go any further than he is allowed to go,” said Long. “We live in a controlled society, by Wall Street and the rich and powerful, one percenters they are called.”
But not everyone is ready to forgive Obama in time for the next election. Occupy, the newest political force, is likely to take a more critical position.
“The immigrant community is definitely and thoroughly disappointed in Obama. If anything, there are more broken up homes because of deportation, more tension in the workplace because of E-Verify,” said Gomez. “There really is no hope, and I really hope that we come out and Occupy.”
Arun Gupta, an independent journalist who has traveled to occupations around the country, says he has seen a mixed consciousness with regard to the coming Obama campaign.
“Obama's 2008 campaign was built on deception. He came into office with a huge mandate for change and a once-in-a-lifetime Democratic super-majority. Instead, we got the third George W. Bush term,” said Gupta.
“So it's heartening to see that people realize electoral politics, on their own, don't result in progressive change…. People do not want the Occupy movement to become a left-wing tea party, and there are forces that are trying to push it in that direction.”
“Like I always say, the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movement.”