Obama talks poverty, bipartisanship at Georgetown

President Barack Obama participated in a discussion Tuesday morning at the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty with Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute and Robert Putnam of Harvard University. McCourt School of Public Policy professor E.J. Dionne moderated the panel in Gaston Hall.

Georgetown President John DeGioia noted in his introductory speech that Obama has worked to combat poverty through programs such as My Brother’s Keeper. The initiative provides mentors for young men living in poverty to help them reach high school and college graduation as well as obtain a job and support their families.

“I think it’s important when it comes to dealing with issues of poverty for us to guard against cynicism, and not buy the idea that the poor will always be with us and there’s nothing we can do, because there’s a lot we can do,” Obama said. “The question is do we have the political will, the communal will to do something about it.”

Much of the discussion focused on the divide between Democrats and Republicans when addressing economic and class issues. Putnam, though, called poverty a “purple issue” and said that, on the left, many see economic factors as a cause of poverty, while on the right, many see a lack of moral and family values as a cause. Both he and Obama referred to poverty as a “both/and” not “either/or” problem as it relates to these causes.

Brooks spoke in terms of human capital, saying that the poor are not “liabilities to manage” but rather “assets to develop,” and he praised the “social safety net” when only the most indigent used its resources.

“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,” Brooks said. “It’s ahistoric; it’s never happened before. We should be proud of that.”

All three panelists noted the increasing income gap as one of the biggest issues to solve related to poverty. Obama and Putnam both agreed, though, that the real issue between Republicans and Democrats has to do with how much to allocate in public spending for the poor, especially for programs such as extracurricular activities in public schools.

Obama recalled his own childhood when addressing the issue of partisan debate on poverty.

“On this whole family-character values-structure issue: It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse 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,” Obama said. “And I make no apologies for that. And the reason 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.”

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