Obama to attend Georgetown University poverty summit next week

by Michael Sean Winters

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President Barack Obama will head to Georgetown University on Tuesday to participate in a Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty organized by John Carr, the longtime USCCB point man on social justice issues, and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The president's appearance will be part of a three-day meeting of 120 civic, religious and political leaders hosted by Carr's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at the Jesuit-run university.

The idea for a summit on poverty began in a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., two years ago. Carr and his wife, Linda, had dinner with NAE President Leith Anderson and Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam and their wives. Carr was on a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School -- "Fellows get to talk and eat, and I am good at both," Carr likes to joke -- and the dinner conversation turned to the subject of poverty and how to bring greater political focus to the issue. "We need to make the issue purplish," one of the diners commented.

Upon his return to Washington, Carr set up the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown and made focusing on poverty a top priority, with a special emphasis on making the issue "purplish." In the meantime, the Catholic Church had a new pope, Francis, and it became clear from the first moment that the poor would be a central focus of his pontificate. Carr continued the conversation with Putnam and Anderson, roped in others, and, building on the contacts made during his many years at the USCCB, has worked to engage any and all in a public discourse about the need to confront poverty.

Carr will up the ante in the conversation next week. Monday, the initiative will convoke the three-day summit at Georgetown with Putnam giving the opening keynote after a welcome and remarks from university president John DeGioia. If that was not enough to get everyone's attention, the next day, President Obama will join a panel discussion on poverty with Putnam, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution's E.J. Dionne Jr. Additionally, Republican Sen. Tim Scott from South Carolina will follow the panel discussion. In a city in which partisanship rules the day, Carr's event is consciously bipartisan.

There is a joke to be had here. (A president, a capitalist, and two political scientists walk into a bar...) But poverty is no joke. In the richest country in the history of the world, one-fifth of our fellow citizens live in poverty. If that is not a scandal, nothing is a scandal. And the political class does not like to even discuss the issue. As the 2016 campaign kicks off, you can bet the words "middle class" will be oft-repeated, but references to the poor will be few and far between. Carr and his colleagues are hoping to change those odds.

The poor in the United States live differently from those who live in extreme poverty in other parts of the world. But if we truly are an exceptional nation, surely, here is an area for all actors in civil society -- our politicians, our business leaders, our community leaders, our religious leaders, our labor leaders -- and not just the leaders but the rank-and-file -- to come together and try and find solutions.

As a society, we all pay a price for poverty -- not as great a price as the poor themselves pay, to be sure, but a price nonetheless. Failing schools in the inner cities of America not only fail their students, they fail our future. Declining social capital in the suburbs makes a mockery of the American dream for millions of poor and working poor families. And a society that addresses poverty at home is more likely to help alleviate poverty throughout the world.

Everyone got scarred by the Great Recession of 2008, but the wounds inflicted on the poor were deepest and took the longest to heal. Superstorm Sandy uprooted tens of thousands of people, but the poor suffered the most. Environmental degradation today, much of it having nothing to do with climate change, harms the poor in ways we Americans would not tolerate: In Ghana, women are made barren because Western companies buried nuclear waste there, and in Somalia, fishermen became pirates when their traditional fishing waters were polluted with toxic waste from multinational corporations based in Europe. Subsistence farmers who tilled the lands of Central America for centuries were uprooted by trade deals, their land confiscated, and they are now the victims of violence and crime in overcrowded cities. The next time someone suggests that the poor just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it is good to remind them that in our spread-eagle capitalist global economy, many of the poor have had their bootstraps stolen from them already.

Carr's summit will focus on the moral, political and strategic significance of the word "and," what Pope Benedict XVI called "the great et, et":

Economic AND Family Factors

Personal AND Social Responsibility

Solidarity AND Subsidiary

Human Life AND Dignity

Rights AND Responsibilities

Race AND Class

Immigration AND Incarceration

Families AND Individuals

Churches, Faith-based Groups AND Civil Society

Business AND Labor

Local, State AND Federal Governments

Democrats AND Republicans

Conservatives AND Progressives

There is no more important hermeneutical key in Catholic social teaching than the intellectual disposition to examine reality seeking a "both/and" rather than an "either/or." And in the face of the human suffering that poverty occasions, an "all hands on deck" approach is the only moral approach worthy of a great nation.

Now, I will venture a prediction that some of our fellow Catholics will be appalled that a Catholic university is hosting the president of the United States. Our friends at the inappropriately named Cardinal Newman Society can be counted on to throw a hissy fit. But let me pose this question: What could be more appropriate for a Catholic university in Washington than to bring together the president of the United States, a pre-eminent academic like Putnam, and other leaders with diverse political and religious views for a dialogue on what Pope Francis has placed at the center of ecclesial and public life, concern for the poor? And who but the Church will work to always remind our culture that we are never discussing poverty in the abstract, although as a matter of conversation and writing we use the word, but we are discussing the poor, real flesh-and-blood people who live in poverty, our brothers and sisters? Who but the Church will remind us that the measure of our faith as a Church is if we recognize the Savior of the world in them, and that the measure of the justice of our society in how we treat the poor? Kudos to Carr, Georgetown and the National Association of Evangelicals for convoking this summit.

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