White House Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes is confident that President Obama's stimulus bill will provide relief to urban areas like Washington, D.C.—beset by a host of problems from unemployment to HIV/AIDS—and urban communities nationwide. But will the plan really work?
Beyond the powerbrokers and stately buildings of Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., is a predominately African-American city with a unique culture all its own. Like many urban districts around the country, however, it also has its share of problems. D.C. has the third highest rate of poverty in the nation, for example, with 19 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. The city's rate of violent crime is among the nation's highest, and one in every 40 D.C. inhabitants is thought to be infected with HIV or AIDS.
According to Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, solutions to a wide range of problems facing the African-American community can be found in President Obama's $819 billion economic stimulus package, a combination of government spending and tax cuts that he is urgently pushing the U.S. Senate to approve. "We've all heard the old adage that when America gets a cold, African-Americans get pneumonia," Barnes said at a policy briefing last week. "Because the effects of the economic downturn have been most felt by the African-American community, then our community stands to see the benefits of the stimulus bill."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, shoppers at the U Street Flea Market in Washington's Shaw area—held in a small lot surrounded by abandoned buildings and boarded up old businesses—brimmed with ideas about which issues are most pressing in their community. "Housing and jobs," said Arthur Mitchell, 56. "Gentrification has been nice for some people, but most are suffering in terms of housing, and they're losing their jobs on top of that." Barnes maintains that the stimulus bill will create or save 3 to 4 million jobs, and will put federal dollars toward assistance for the unemployed, including health care for laid-off workers, increased food stamp benefits, as well as support for food banks and school lunch.
"The school system needs help," said Evelyn Rogers Washington, 68. "They're dilapidated, crumbling and falling apart." Under its infrastructure spending, Obama's plan puts $41 billion toward school improvements, including better buildings and modernized classrooms. "Most African-American students are in public schools," said Barnes, "And 10,000 public schools will feel the benefits of that."
D.C. native Ungieikem Ugbong, 17, has her mind on the city's health. "The AIDS epidemic in D.C. is a big problem," she said. "There are a lot of people here that have AIDS and are scared to get tested." The economic stimulus package also includes $400 million for HIV/AIDS testing and prevention programs, as part of a fund to prevent diseases and reduce future health care costs. "We're making long-term investments," said Barnes. "People say, ‘What does health care have to do with stimulus?' But if we don't make long-term investments, we don't address why we're in this mess in the beginning."
When asked what guarantees the Obama administration has that the economic stimulus plan will actually work, Barnes stayed on message. She explained that the administration's holistic approach—both investing in the economy now and stimulating long-term growth through government assistance—is sound. She also referred to measures in the bill designed to ensure transparency, including an independent advisory panel that will track how funds are spent. Conservative policymakers and Congressional Republicans, however, are far less convinced.
"It's a spending bill, not a stimulus bill," said Deneen Borelli, a fellow with Project 21, a Black conservative public policy group. "This is taxpayers' money going largely to pet projects and states that did not do appropriate budget planning. Everyone has their hand out hoping that the government can help when we have a significant deficit as it is. This will only add to it."
Borelli contends that, to be effective, the stimulus bill needs greater tax cuts for businesses and individuals. "When you cut business taxes, for example, they are able to reinvest money in the business and provide permanent jobs," she said. "The infrastructure jobs on the stimulus are temporary—once the work is done, so is the job. More tax cuts would put money in the hands of the people, not in the hands of Washington."
As the ideological butting of heads on Capitol Hill continues to delay government action, the economic crisis continues to grow more critical around the country. D.C. resident Helen Ellis, 45, is anxious for something to change soon in her city. "I hope President Obama can help to expand on some of the services for some of the lower class people in the city," she said. "We definitely need work around here."