By Steve Holland
CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama acknowledged on Friday that he wished his father had been a bigger part of his life as he argued that stronger families are just as important as gun control in reducing crime and violence in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
Obama returned to his old home neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago with a different take on his gun control message - that it will require an improved home environment for children to reduce the possibility that they will one day resort to violence.
To do that, he said, will require better economic conditions for low- and middle-class Americans, one reason he wants to raise the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, a proposal he offered in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, was raised largely by his mother and grandparents in Hawaii. His father, Barack Obama Sr., divorced Obama's mother when the president was two years old, and he was the central figure in Obama's memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
Pointing to a group of teenage boys with whom he had met privately before delivering a speech, Obama said he had not been much different than them.
"Don't get me wrong," he said in the address to high school students at Hyde Park Academy. "As the son of a single mom, who gave everything she had to raise me with the help of my grandparents, I turned out okay."
"But at the same time, I wish I'd have had a father who was around and involved," he told the mainly black audience of about 700.
Obama worked as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago but had a more privileged background than many of the children he addressed on Friday.
Chicago has suffered a surge in gang-related violence and is one of the most violent cities in America. Obama's visit comes a week after his wife, Michelle, attended the funeral in the city of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot dead a week after participating in the presidential inauguration.
At the start of his second term in office, Obama wants Congress to approve a series of tighter gun controls like requiring background checks for all firearms purchasers and banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
But as he made clear in Chicago it will take improvements in the home environment for children to keep them off the streets and that this will require help from parents, teachers and clergy.
"When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill," Obama said.
In too many areas, "it can feel like the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town...There are entire neighborhoods where they don't see an example of somebody succeeding," he said.
Corey Stevens, 17, a high school senior, was one of the students who got to meet with Obama before his speech.
"I think that he needed to come back here and get the message to the people up close and personal and let them know that this needs to stop," said Stevens, who wants to go into law enforcement.
Hadiya Pendleton's father, Nathaniel Pendleton, who was in the audience, had a message for those who have been following his family's tragedy in the news -- get involved.
"You never expect this tragedy to knock on your door... But there are preventative measures," Pendleton told Reuters. "So let's try to prevent it instead of waiting for it to happen."
Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest known for his activism against gun violence, agreed with Obama that gun laws alone won't solve the problem.
"We have to look in our urban communities and realize that we have a lack of good schools, lack of employment, abundance of poverty, abundance of folks coming back out of penal institutions with records," Pfleger said. "Until we deal with all those issues, you create the perfect storm for violence."
(Writing by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Renita D. Young; Editing by Alistair Ball, Mary Wisniewski, David Brunnstrom and Carol Bishopric)
(This story was corrected to read, "...or the outskirts of town..." instead of "...of the outskirts of town...")