One of Barack Obama's closest advisers says the president-elect will form a new position in the White House — a chief of urban policy.
It's a role that should resonate here in Connecticut.
Home to the widest academic achievement gap in the country and one of the nation's poorest cities, our state would be a primary beneficiary of such an office.
I'm in Washington, D.C., at an annual gathering of African American columnists from around the country, The Trotter Group. Among the people we've met with are Valerie Jarrett, the Chicago-based lawyer and businesswoman who is a co-chairwoman of the Obama transition team.I was surprised when Jarrett highlighted this new office of urban policy because I never heard Obama mention it during the campaign. Frankly, I thought such an office already existed.
With all the dysfunction in urban communities — poor schools, poverty, high crime, inadequate housing, an inordinate number of single-parent homes — a national office reporting directly to the president on these matters creates a sense of urgency.
"To have one person whose job it is to pull all that together is a critical position," Jarrett said, adding that such an office would strengthen grass-roots community groups, which know firsthand the disruptions and dysfunctions in their neighborhoods.
One thing this new office should do is document best practices from around the country and form a board of directors made up of the leaders of these successful programs.
James Willingham, president of the Urban League of Greater Hartford, was thrilled when I called him Tuesday about the Obama plan.
"That's the best news I've heard all day," he said. "Outstanding. This is a long time coming."
Willingham said there are many examples of successful federally funded education and empowerment programs that are shut down because the money dries up. For example, Willingham said, the national Urban League had received a $15 million grant for programs that worked with young people on the verge of dropping out of high school.
Over the past two years, the Hartford chapter helped 60 young men attain their GED and participate in job-training programs. Then, Willingham said, the money ran out and the process of seeking funding had to begin all over again.
Hartford is a small city with big problems. One of the poorest cities in America, it has struggled with failing schools, deteriorating neighborhoods, violent crime, uneven leadership and allegations of corruption.
It could use more accountability, in addition to resources. With a population of about 120,000, the capital city is small enough to serve as a test case for this new White House urban policy office. Hey, why not focus on a city that has revamped its public housing and is in the early stages of reforming its school system, but still struggles with adult illiteracy, a 70 percent high school dropout rate and violent crime?
Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said urban policy has not always been a high White House priority. From 1980 to 1990, he said, the government cut $600 billion earmarked for urban programs.
Money without accountability, though, means nothing.
It's a message President-elect Obama is sure to tell his new urban policy czar.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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