Most important, Obama laid out the challenge of “helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”The answer is implied by the fact that, decades into asking ourselves "what, how, when"" and experimenting in various fashions to try to end poverty and fully integrate our society, we are still asking, "what, how, when?" Even a "grand, new federal program" isn't an answer unless we know what the program will offer and how it will differ from the programs that came before it.
This is the crucial, daunting challenge. Millions of at-risk boys and men need education, mentoring, employment. If this won’t come through “some grand, new federal program,” then how? And when?
Putting Friday’s words into action could be Obama’s greatest legacy. I eagerly await his next speech on the unfinished business of race.
Our society struggles with the interaction of personal responsibility with issues of physical and mental illness, drug addiction, and apathy. We want people to hold jobs, but don't much care whether that's a realistic prospect for residents of economically depressed areas. We want people to become financially independent, but struggle with admitting that there are many people in our society who, on the best day of their lives, lack the ability to support themselves. We know that when marginal parents raise children, perhaps with one parent absent, or one or both floating in and out of jail or prison, we pay a huge economic price, but for a variety of reasons (including our own sordid history) we not only maintain that procreation is a right, we provide significant subsidies to those families that enable, perhaps encourage, them to have children and to expand their families. If you want to talk about eliminating poverty, you have to tackle some difficult issues head-on, and we as a society do not appear prepared to do that.
Meanwhile, the biggest lesson history has shared with us on the subject of poverty is that the best way to fight poverty and the cultural artifacts of poverty is through economic opportunity. Give people the opportunity to make a decent wage and support a family, and they are likely to do so and to adopt the values of the working class. Take away that opportunity, and you tend to see the same sort of deterioration of family and community, domestically and internationally, without regard to race, color or creed. Yes, you will have to find a way to address the population that is simply incapable of helping itself, but that task is made much easier when you are doing so within the framework of a healthy community.