The flaw in President Barack Obama’s new My Brother’s Keeper initiative can be summed up in one startling finding from our 2013 study: a staggering 73% of violent crime arrests of California youths occur in areas where more than 20% of young people live in poverty—as do most other ills.
Yet, the president’s initiative contains no government measures—the kind Democrats champion for oppressed adults—to reduce America’s rampant youth poverty and redress crushing inequality and discrimination. Obama’s attitude toward helping America’s 30+ million poorer children and youth—including 7 million in utter destitution, another 9 million in serious poverty, and another 16 million in low-income households struggling just above poverty level—was dismissive: “It doesn’t take all that much.”
Obama’s youth initiative relies on private foundations, volunteers, mentors, churches, programs, contemptuous anecdotes of rags-to-riches success, and lecturing young men to behave better—an approach that doesn’t begin to compensate for decades of government inaction. Obama’s indifference toward impoverished youth recapitulates presidents like Reagan and Clinton, who declared two decades ago that poorer young people needed curfews, school uniforms, mentors, and “personal responsibility” sermons that “don’t cost much.”
Presidential rhetoric of “caring” for the young masks callous politics. Leaders who tell a disadvantaged group to rely on private beneficence and their own bootstraps instead of bold government advocacy and action are really saying: You’re not important. You’re on your own.
“It’s an old-time message,” declared MSNBC commentator Joy Reid of Obama’s demand that young black and Latino men “overcome” racism and inequality by making “good decisions.”
Contrast the president’s don’t-do-much attitude toward poorer youth with his vigorous, go-to-the-mat, politics-be-damned crusade for senior citizens (80% of whom are white). No behavior lectures, reliance on churches and charity, and fables of aging achievers when it comes to the well-being of the old.
No, indeed, taxpayers spend big bucks—$650 billion on Social Security income assistance for the nation’s 43 million elderly in 2012. Government works! Poverty levels among senior citizens fell to a record-low 9%, the best of any age.
Meanwhile, taxpayers spent just $31 billion on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for the nation’s 74 million children and youths in 2012, leaving 22% in poverty, the worst of any age. The president invoked morals (as always), but the morals of the government he heads are reflected in a budget that spends dozens more to keep grandparents out of poverty than grandkids.
Nor, when it came to women, did the president peddle churches, philanthropy, and condescending scoldings urging better behavior to overcome sexism. No; Obama directly confronted discriminatory employment practices by pushing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to provide strong legal remedies and hefty damages for shortchanging adult female, minority, and older workers. But not for the young. Lilly Ledbetter allows continued, arbitrary employment discrimination victimizing younger workers. The president also indicated his proposed minimum wage hike is intended to benefit adults, not low-paid teenaged workers, many exploited by corporations allowed to pay them an abysmal “subminimum wage.”
The president’s clichés flattering grownups and private groups to rescue kids, and his admission of mild misbehaviors in his youth (which his autobiography admits worsened in adulthood), misses many realities by many miles. This White House (like previous ones) has never acknowledged or confronted the reality of staggering middle-aged drug abuse, crime, imprisonment, and family and community violence that victimizes young people’s families and communities.
The president knows that “youth violence” and crime are powerfully connected to poverty and disadvantage, then proposes nothing to address this youth poverty. Again and again, Obama’s White House finds it more expedient to exploit fears and prejudices toward young people than to fight for genuine—yes, politically risky—government aid and action.
This president who promised so much hope and change to young people (and owes his election victories to their support, overruling conservative older voters) can be forgiven for not achieving many goals he may have wanted in the face of implacable, often furious right-wing obstruction. But when it comes to young people, Obama should remain unforgiven for not even trying to address their critical issues.
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice