At Georgetown poverty summit, Obama describes a 'great sorting' by class

From left, E.J. Dionne, Robert Putnam and Arthur Brooks listen to President Barack Obama speak Tuesday during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
From left, E.J. Dionne, Robert Putnam and Arthur Brooks listen to President Barack Obama speak Tuesday during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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President Barack Obama, joining a panel discussion Tuesday at Georgetown University, gave a far-reaching explanation of the state of U.S. poverty, including a description of a new segregation by class that mirrors the historical segregation by race. It was both an unusual setting for a sitting president and an unusual topic, one that rarely gets headlines or passes the lips of U.S. politicians.

Speaking at the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty, the president addressed the issues of the widening income gap as well as strains on family life, calling for a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" approach.

"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," he said. "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."

Other participants in the event, which was moderated by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, were Robert Putnam, a renowned social scientist and author of the book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a well-known conservative think tank.

The discussion was one element of a three-day summit that brought together Catholic, evangelical and other religious leaders to discuss breaking the cycle of poverty. It was organized by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown.

In his opening remarks, Putnam spoke of "evidence of growing gaps between rich kids and poor kids."

Brooks, who has written that conservatives "have to declare peace on the [social] safety net," called the safety net "one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise" and outlined three "key principles" he believed necessary to break through current political partisanship regarding the question of poverty:

  • Thinking of the poor as "brothers and sisters" rather than "others";
  • Limiting the safety net to "people who are truly indigent";
  • Stipulating that government help "should always come with the dignifying power of work."

But for the better part of the discussion, the president led the way.

He distinguished between then and now, teasing out the resonance and significance of the new catchall term "inequality," which is increasingly used as a stand-in for the word "poverty."

"We can't have a conversation about poverty without talking about what's happened to the middle class and the ladders of opportunity into the middle class," he said, noting that over the past 40 years, "the share of income going to the bottom 90 percent has shrunk from about 65 percent down to about 53 percent."

The president painted a picture of an American not-too-distant past of greater social cohesion, "where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school" and "the janitor's daughter may be going out with the banker's son."

There used to exist "a set of common institutions," he said, all of which contributed "to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community."

But what's happened in our economy, he said, "is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages -- are withdrawing from ... the commons -- kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks," leading to "an anti-government ideology" that "disinvests" in public goods and creates inequality.

The president clarified further, saying that this restrictive dynamic, which used to only affect blacks Americans and other minority populations, increasingly affects Americans of all ethnicities.

"People don't like being poor," he said. "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."

And government has not been there for the people in their descent, the president said: "You look at state budgets, you look at city budgets, and you look at federal budgets, and we don't make those same common investments that we used to ... and there's been a very specific ideological push not to make those investments."

The president went on to say, "What used to be racial segregation now mirrors itself in class segregation and this great sorting that's taking place." He spoke of middle-class anger and "the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches," that they "don't want to work, are lazy, are undeserving," an effort that "got traction" and is "still being propagated."

Asked to respond, Brooks addressed the issue of "public goods" and how the government should approach providing them, focusing on the need for "cost-benefit calculations."

"Because, in point of fact," he said, "when we don't make cost-benefit calculations, at least at the macro level about public goods, the poor pay."

Brooks then spoke of the need to "get away from this notion that the rich are stealing from the poor. ... Why? Because the rich are our neighbors and the poor are our neighbors, and everybody else should be our neighbors, and they're all our kids."

Taking a big-picture view, he said that "capitalism is nothing more than a system, and it must be predicated on right morals."

Putnam picked up on the president's point about public disinvestment to discuss disinvestment in "soft skills ... not just reading, writing, arithmetic, but cooperation and teamwork."

For instance, he said, society has stopped investing in traditional extracurricular activities at the high school level, in things like music, band and football. Instead, fees are applied to such activities and often, "poor people can't pay for it."

"The whole country was benefiting from the fact that we had a very broad-based set of skills that people had," he said.

Meanwhile, the president said, "broad economic trends turbocharged by technology and globalization" created a "winner-take-all economy," and CEO salaries skyrocketed, dwarfing the salaries of average workers to an unprecedented degree.

It's not that CEOs are "bad people," the president said. "It's just that they have been freed from a certain set of social constraints."

From there, the conversation moved to the thorny question of family and race.

The president responded to past criticisms that he singles out young black men while giving a pass to "the women of Barnard." Barnard College is the all-women's school affiliated with New York's Columbia University.

"It's true that if I'm giving a commencement at Morehouse [the all-male, historically black college in Atlanta], that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard," the president said. "And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off."

The comment drew a round of applause.

Family and economics are part of a "both/and," not "either/or," equation when it comes to discussing poverty, the president said.

"I am all for values; I am all for character," he said. "But I also know that that character and the values that our kids have that allow them to succeed, and delayed gratification and discipline and hard work -- that all those things in part are shaped by what they see, what they see really early on. And some of those kids right now, because of no fault of those kids, and because of history and some tough going, generationally, some of those kids, they're not going to get help at home. They're not going to get enough help at home. And the question then becomes, are we committed to helping them instead?"

As always, "the devil is in the details," Obama said. "If you talk to any of my Republican friends, they will say, No. 1, they care about the poor -- and I believe them. No. 2, they'll say that there are some public goods that have to be made -- and I'll believe them. But when it comes to actually establishing budgets, making choices, prioritizing, that's when it starts breaking down."

"The top 25 hedge fund managers made more than all the kindergarten teachers in the country," he said. This is where the "question of compassion and 'I'm my brother's keeper' comes into play," he said. "And if we can't ask from society's lottery winners to just make that modest investment, then, really, this conversation is for show."

To that, Brooks responded by saying that "we have to be really careful not to impugn [conservatives'] motives."

He said "impugning motives on the other side is the No. 1 barrier against making progress," and eye-to-eye understanding between progressives and conservatives will never be possible so long as "politicians on the left and the right are conspiring to not touch middle-class entitlements," which represent an "unsustainable path."

Toward the end of the discussion, Dionne asked the president to speak to the role of the religious community in calling attention to poverty.

The president said his first job was funded through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and said that "faith-based groups across the country and around the world understand the centrality and the importance of this issue in an intimate way -- in part because these faith-based organizations are interacting with folks who are struggling and know how good these people are, and know their stories, and it's not just theological, but it's very concrete."

But the president, who has tangled with the U.S. bishops in the past over such issues as same-sex marriage and abortion, offered a criticism to faith groups, questioning their willingness to "go to the mat" for poverty.

Poverty, he said, is "oftentimes viewed [by religious groups] as a 'nice to have' relative to an issue like abortion."

"I think that there's more power to be had there," the president said, "a more transformative voice that's available around these issues that can move and touch people."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is] 

A version of this story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: Obama describes a 'great sorting' by class.

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