Barbara Lee: Anti-Poverty Agenda Ripe

Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rep. Barbara Lee, the California Democrat whose home town of Oakland has “blocks and blocks of vacant homes,” says it’s high time to revive that “war on poverty” that Lyndon Johnson declared 50 years ago.

And in the pursuit of economic equality, the congresswoman says, there’s little point in talking about “race-neutral” policies.

“In America, you can’t be race-neutral,” Lee said at a BGov breakfast at Bloomberg’s Washington Bureau today. “This is not a post-racial era.”

In some communities, she said, unemployment may be 5 percent. In many black communities, it runs to 15 percent.

After five years of economic recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression and the winding down of two foreign wars, Lee sees the Obama administration now focusing on matters of income equality ranging from the minimum wage to unemployment insurance.

Tallying the count of Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, “it was really a very powerful agenda that he announced,” she said. “Fast-forward to today, I think the Obama administration has… helped us preserve what has worked… in playing defense against the Congress, the Tea Part.”

“Given the political realities, this administration has done quite well,” Lee said. “Can they do more? Yes.”

The administration has spent a lot of time and effort “trying to dig out” of the recession, “trying to stop the bleeding.”

“He handled the big stuff immediately, which he should have,” she said. Now, she said, people are “waking up” to the fact that there are working Americans who require food stamps to survive. “All this is just coming together now,” she said. “The understanding of those living on the edge needs to be looked at.”

Asked about the Obama White House’s liaison with members of Congress, particularly her own party’s members, Lee allowed that “it was a lot different” when she first arrived in Washington, at the end of President Bill Clinton’s terms. Democrats were over at the White House weekly, she said.

“I call them every day about something,”  Lee said with a laugh. “I’m not waiting for them to call me.”

Asked about Obama’s passion for his agenda, she said, “with or without passion, they’re pushing.”

Much remains to be done, she allows. For all the deadlock over a bill extending unemployment benefits for more than 1 million of the long-term unemployed, a number growing each week, she says: “It can’t be dead.

“In this business, you have to be optimistic,” Lee says. “Otherwise, why be here?”

What do you think about this article? Comment below!