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Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery at Altgeld Gardens, in her office.

For Altgeld residents, Obama’s words must come with deeds

by Robyn Murray
Jan 22, 2013

The word “poverty” never appeared in President Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address in 2009. Addressing a nation in the midst of a massive financial crisis and the turmoil of two wars, Obama spoke of the persistence of American ideals in the face of hardship. His one mention of “poor nations” was in reference to foreign countries to which he pledged America’s helping hand.

But in 2013, President Obama’s message was more direct.

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else,” Obama told the nation from the steps of the Capitol Monday. In fact, the President used the words “poverty” and “poor” more times than the politically popular “middle class,” which he only used once in his 19-minute speech.

But the president’s subtle pivot will need to sound a little louder to reverberate among residents of the poorest communities, including one in which he is perhaps more well-known than anywhere else.

“No specifics were there,” said Christian Strachan, a board member of People for Community Recovery, a community organizing group in Altgeld Gardens on Chicago’s Far South Side, where Obama polished his community organizer credentials in the 1980s, and where stark poverty is a daily reality. What this community needs, Strachan said, are “actionable, real solutions that include the whole economy.”

“We want the whole system, the tree of life of the economy to continue,” Strachan said, to ensure the “lowliest low, the roots, don’t erode away.”

Strachan said Obama has focused on the middle class in his first term for the same reason other politicians vying for votes. “They represent swaths of folks you need to get re-elected.”

But Dennis Judd, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, disagrees that the president has not focused on poverty. His policies have targeted the poor, just not explicitly, Judd said.

Judd said Obama’s policies of expanding access to healthcare, securing Medicare and Social Security and even increased funding for schools, which would expand access to school lunches, exemplify strategies that, in effect, affect the poorest Americans. “These discrete policies replace a sweeping, often vague notion of poverty itself,” Judd said.

A message of equal opportunity rather than poverty also resonates better with Americans, Judd said, who don’t like to see themselves in the category of the poor. And overall, he said, that’s a good thing. “That would be extremely troubling in society if people saw themselves as stuck [in poverty].”

At Altgeld, Strachan was willing to allow more time for the president’s policies to improve the poorest communities, and Cheryl Johnson, the organization’s executive director, agreed. “It’ll take at least another six years just to see, to learn about what he’s implemented,” she said.

Johnson, who is the daughter of the late Hazel Johnson, who worked closely with Obama during his community organizing days in Altgeld, said she’s not disappointed with the president’s record on poverty; she’s just realistic, and she added that he’s been stymied in the past four years by the economic climate and Republican opposition in Congress.

“I just knew he had many challenges and hurdles to try and address,” she said.
Real change, Johnson added, will only occur when the people start pushing for it from the ground up. “It’s all contingent on the mobilization of the people,” she said.

“We’re all living in an illusion if we think this man can do this for us.”