President Barack Obama is gradually making good on his campaign promise to revitalize some of the nation’s more troubled urban centers – black inner cities that have been plagued by rising crime, skyrocketing unemployment, public school closings, boarded-up buildings and local government corruption.
Whether or not it’s too little too late has yet to be seen.
His was a tall order for America’s first black commander-in-chief, who was once affectionately known as America’s “urban president.” But since Obama took office in 2009, black Americans have become financially strapped and frustrated, and many black families are struggling to make ends meet. Layoffs from companies that are still not hiring have placed many African-Americans into desperate financial straits.
In Detroit, for example, in an effort to help reduce the city of Detroit’s $327 million budget deficit, half of its public schools closed earlier this year, sending hundreds of teachers to join growing unemployment lines. Detroit school officials said that 70 schools will eventually close, leaving 72 others to accommodate displaced students.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan recently announced a pilot plan designed to spur economic growth in urban America by partnering with federal officials and local leaders in six cities. The program, “Strong Cities, Strong Communities,” was unveiled during a news conference this week in Detroit.
As part of the initiative, community solutions teams made up of employees of several different federal agencies will work directly with local officials in Detroit, Chester, Pennsylvania; Fresno, Califronia; Memphis, Tennessee; Cleveland, Ohio and New Orleans, Louisiana.
In a conference call with reporters this week, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett said that Obama believes cities are centers for innovation and economic growth. “Revitalization of cities will help revitalize the overall economy,” she said.
This not a new grant funding program, Jarrett explained, but rather a new way to work together to revitalize cities and leverage resources.
“We recognize every community is unique,” she said. “The Obama administration will partner with them to identify, strengthen and leverage assets.”
Critics of Obama, however, are skeptical. They’ve heard ambitious initiatives – and great speeches – from Obama, before but have not seen the results to back up the rhetoric. Some say Obama’s recovery plan for devastated cities may be too little too late, as the black unemployment rate is a staggering 16.2 percent.
In 2009, Obama created the White House Office on Urban Policy to address an unprecedented range of poverty, jobs and housing initiatives for disenfranchised black and Latino communities across the country.
The White House web site says Obama and Vice President Joe Biden created the White House Office on Urban Affairs to develop a strategy for metropolitan America and to ensure that all federal dollars targeted to urban areas are effectively spent on the highest-impact programs.
Obama planned to invest $1 billion over five years for job training programs to help low-income black and Latino Americans find gainful employment. But the ambitious initiatives appeared to have been frozen as a result of the sluggish economic climate.
Until now, so says the administration.
Obama knows that urban areas are the financial engines that drive America’s economy. He is also aware that no U.S. president in history has ever been re-elected when the unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent. Today, the jobless rate is 9.2 percent, and economists are not predicting a drop in the rate anytime soon.
Obama’s re-election bid is inexplicably linked to the nation’s unemployment rate. It’s simple political math: The higher the unemployment rate, the less chance Obama has of recapturing the White House.
The president has work to do to – and fast – as the 2012 presidential campaign is already in full gear, and Republicans are using the high unemployment rate to harass Obama at every opportunity.
A good friend, an African-American professional who has been out of work for two years after getting laid off of a job for more than 20 years of service, said flatly he’s not voting for Obama because “Republicans understand business and success.” Sadly, his opinion reflects the views of other black Americans who are unemployed and experiencing the same frustrations.
Take Detroit, for example: Here’s a city with a 20 percent unemployment rate, and more than 80,000 boarded-up buildings. Black men are out of work, and the auto industry, once the cornerstone of Detroit’s vibrant economy, is in tatters.
So, how is this new government programs going to bring better jobs to the city?
“We found Detroit was having problems spending the resources it already had,” Donvan said, “so it will help accelerate use of federal resources.”
But Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU correctly insists that black people are facing disproportionate hardships as a result of the economic slump, and Obama critics, like Princeton University professor Cornel West, argue that the president needs a special plan to address blacks with special financial needs.
“African-Americans who work as nurses, corrections officers, teachers and who provide other critical public services at the state and local levels are an important part of the nation’s middle class and carry the burden of unshared sacrifice,” Henry said. “And, while the rich get richer, too many families in black communities are losing hope for getting out of debt, owning a home, retiring with dignity and giving their children a better life than they had.”
Obama campaigned on a message of hope and the high-energy slogan “Yes, We Can.” Unfortunately, the hope from Obama’s mantra has turned into hopelessness for many blacks, and Obama is going to have a tough time re-energizing his African-American base if the black unemployment rate remains so high.