Obama at Georgetown: 'It's Hard Being Poor'

President Barack Obama at Georgetown University May 12.
Georgetown University
President Barack Obama at Georgetown University May 12.

A unique panel met May 12 at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall to discuss the difficult topic of poverty in America. One of the panelists happened to be the President of the United States.

President Barack Obama sat next to discussion moderator E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and Georgetown faculty member, along with Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.

The four men looked for solutions and advanced perspectives that went beyond the everyday left-right rigidity in addressing the plight of poor Americans, a widening economic gap and how to advance opportunity for all.

If the dialogue was not quite a clarion call for concerted national action, it almost did become that, as the president showed a more personal side to issues about national policy.

The president first answered the question of why this panel and this discussion: "I think that we are at a moment -- in part because of what’s happened in Baltimore and Ferguson and other places, but in part because a growing awareness of inequality in our society -- where it may be possible not only to refocus attention on the issue of poverty, but also maybe to bridge some of the gaps that have existed and the ideological divides that have prevented us from making progress."

"And there are a lot of folks here who I have worked with -- they disagree with me on some issues, but they have great sincerity when it comes to wanting to deal with helping the least of these.  And so this is a wonderful occasion for us to join together," Obama continued.

"Part of the reason I thought this venue would be useful and I wanted to have a dialogue with Bob and Arthur is that we have been stuck, I think for a long time, in a debate that creates a couple of straw men.  The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don't care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that's one stereotype.  And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers.  And I think the truth is more complicated."

Putnam, author of the recently published "Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis," spoke of the slowing of social and economic mobility -- a given for Americans for decades.

"I think in this domain there’s good news and bad news, and it’s important to begin with the bad news because we have to understand where we are," Putnam said. "The president is absolutely right that the War on Poverty did make a real difference, but it made a difference more for poverty among people of my age than it did for poverty among kids." 

"And with respect to kids, I completely agree with the president that we know about some things that would work and things that would make a real difference in the lives of poor kids, but what the book that you’ve referred to, “Our Kids,” what it presents is a lot of evidence of growing gaps between rich kids and poor kids; that over the last 30 or 40 years, things have gotten better and better for kids coming from well-off homes, and worse and worse for kids coming from less well-off homes." 

"And I don’t mean Bill Gates and some homeless person," Putnam continued. "I mean people coming from college-educated homes -- their kids are doing better and better, and people coming from high school-educated homes, they’re kids aren’t.  And it’s not just that there’s this class gap, but a class gap on our watch -- I don’t mean just the president’s watch, but I mean on my generation’s watch -- that gap has grown."

"You can see it in measures of family stability. You can see it in measures of the investments that parents are able to make in their kids, the investments of money and the investments of time.  You can see it in the quality of schools kids go to.  You can see it in the character of the social and community support that kids -- rich kids and poor kids are getting from their communities.  Church attendance is a good example of that, actually.  Churches are an important source of social support for kids outside their own family, but church attendance is down much more rapidly among kids coming from impoverished backgrounds than among kids coming from wealthy backgrounds."

Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute answered the question on expanding the socio-economic safety net in a non-partisan way: "One concept that rides along with that is to point out -- and this is what I do to many of my friends on Capitol Hill -- I remind them that just because people are on public assistance doesn’t mean they want to be on public assistance.  And that’s the difference between people who factually are making a living and who are accepting public assistance.  It's an important matter to remember about the motivations of people and humanizing them.  And then the question is, how can we come together?  How can we come together?"

"I have, indeed, written that it's time to declare peace on the safety net.  And I say that as a political conservative.  Why?  Because Ronald Reagan said that; because Friedrich Hayek said that.  This is not a radical position.  In fact, the social safety net is one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise -- that we could have the wealth and largesse as a society, that we can help take care of people who are poor that we've never even met.  It's historic; it's never happened before.  We should be proud of that."

In response, Obama said: "We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history. It has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages -- are withdrawing from sort of the commons -- kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.

"Now, that’s not inevitable.  A free market is perfectly compatible with also us making investment in good public schools, public universities; investments in public parks; investments in a whole bunch -- public infrastructure that grows our economy and spreads it around.  But that’s, in part, what’s been under attack for the last 30 years.  And so, in some ways, rather than soften the edges of the market, we’ve turbocharged it.  And we have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity."

"Now, one other thing I’ve got to say about this is that even back in Bob’s day that was also happening.  It’s just it was happening to black people.  And so, in some ways, part of what’s changed is that those biases or those restrictions on who had access to resources that allowed them to climb out of poverty -- who had access to the firefighters job, who had access to the assembly line job, the blue-collar job that paid well enough to be in the middle class and then got you to the suburbs, and then the next generation was suddenly office workers -- all those things were foreclosed to a big chunk of the minority population in this country for decades."

"And that accumulated and built up," Obama continued. "And over time, people with less and less resources, more and more strains -- because it’s hard being poor.  People don’t like being poor.  It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful.  It’s hard.  And so over time, families frayed.  Men who could not get jobs left.  Mothers who are single are not able to read as much to their kids.  So, all that was happening 40 years ago to African Americans. And now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated, and they’re spreading to the broader community. "

The meeting was part of a three-day Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown. At the summit, put together by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals, attendees included leaders from various religious communities, policy makers, researchers and community organizers.

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Wed, 28 Jun 2017 20:28:18 -0400

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