WASHINGTON (AP) — Black members of Congress pressed President Barack Obama Thursday for a greater focus on creating jobs in urban areas where unemployment is often highest. Obama said he was trying to fix the economy as a whole, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The exchange happened at the first meeting between Obama and the full Black Caucus since Obama became president. It follows longstanding complaints from some in the African-American community that the nation's first black president hasn't done more to help minority communities on jobs and other issues.
Cleaver told reporters at the White House that lawmakers in the group — which has about 40 members, all but one of them Democrats — highlighted to the president the difficulties of communities beset by high unemployment and stressed the need to address it, especially with summer approaching and teens looking for jobs. The overall unemployment rate is 9 percent but it's 16.1 percent among blacks.
"He understands clearly what we spoke to him about, and that is the pain that is taking place in the urban core and many of the districts we represent," Cleaver said.
"The president did speak to us about things that the administration is already doing and he said to us twice that he's working on trying to heal the economy, and that if he heals the economy it will also take care of the issues that we raised," Cleaver said.
Obama's consistent response to questions about whether he should be doing more for blacks or other individual groups is that the best way to help any community is by growing the overall economy.
Cleaver said that lawmakers offered ideas including targeting census tracts where poverty is persistent and seeing whether federal emergency declarations for flood-hit areas or elsewhere can be used to generate jobs in those areas.
People who are unemployed "are begging for help and I think that the Congressional Black Caucus and the president are both interested in trying to come up with some means of addressing that and doing it rather quickly," said Emanuel.
Emanuel said Obama didn't promise anything specific, and it wasn't clear whether anything new would be forthcoming from the White House.
A senior administration official said in an interview later that the president has various proposals that address Black Caucus concerns, including proposals in Obama's 2012 budget blueprint that would send $40 million in grants and $2.5 billion in employment and investment tax credits to economically distressed areas; and a Department of Labor program meant to publicize job opportunities for low-income youths. The official spoke anonymously to discuss issues raised in the private meeting.
Asked whether the group was unsatisfied with what Obama's been doing to address their concerns Cleaver said: "We're not satisfied that the poor and the vulnerable are hurting. We are satisfied that the attention of the president is on that."