After decades of near silence in the public square on the plight of the American poor, it was a surreal experience bolting early from one well-covered event on income inequality in Washington on Tuesday so as not to be late for the other one, at which the president of the United States was busy agreeing with the head of a conservative think tank. At least, some of the time.
In fact, the moment was so pleasantly disorienting for those who’ve been following these intractable and long-ignored issues that Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who was moderating the panel the president joined at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University, began by asking the president why he had come. “A friend of mine said yesterday, ‘When do presidents do panels?’” Dionne said. "This is a very unusual venue for a president to put himself in.”
This is certainly an unusual moment, with presidential aspirants in both parties suddenly talking about income inequality, even if they don’t agree on solutions. And the president’s response to Dionne’s question was unfamiliar in tone, perhaps because the public so rarely gets to hear leaders speak other than in soundbites or speeches. “Part of the reason I thought this venue would be useful,” Obama answered, “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.”
The less cartoonish reality, Obama said, is that “there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor; exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do. And then there are those on the left who I think are in the trenches every day and see how important parenting is and how important family structures are, and the connective tissue that holds communities together and recognize that that contributes to poverty when those structures fray, but also believe that government and resources can make a difference in creating an environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds.”
At the earlier event across town at the National Press Club, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz had set out what they called an agenda for growth and shared prosperity—and spelled out what it would take in terms of reining in the financial sector and boosting wages to stop almost all of the economic gains from going to those who already have most of the pie. (“Why are we all so focused on inequality all of a sudden?” Stiglitz asked rhetorically. “Part of the answer is it's gotten so much worse,” with more than 90 percent of all gains in the three years after 2009 going to the richest Americans and minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, falling about where it was 45 years ago.)
The Georgetown event was part of three days of in-the-weeds discussion between Catholics and evangelicals on the left and right, at a moment when all of the above are reading the new book of one of the conference’s main speakers, Robert Putnam, whose Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis follows the children and grandchildren of his classmates in the Class of 1959 in the public high school in Port Clinton, Ohio. Eighty percent of those in Putnam’s class did better than their parents had, he found, and that was as true for those on the “wrong side of the tracks” as for life’s lottery winners.
Then, though, manufacturing jobs moved abroad, factories were shuttered, and the life of the granddaughter of his classmate “Joe,” who didn’t go to college, is nothing like his own granddaughter’s.
Like poor kids in all of the towns he studied, Joe’s granddaughter, whom he calls Mary Sue, is isolated and hopeless. Putnam has been talking about Mary Sue for a couple of years now, as he was working on Our Kids, and the latest, he said, is that she’s hoping to have a baby on her own so that there will be someone in this world who loves her.
The income and opportunity gap that Mary Sue is up against is what Putnam calls a purple problem—one that certainly does involve the dissolution of families, as it has so often fallen to Republicans to point out. But it’s also a result of our disinvestment in the public good in recent decades, even down to the “pay to play” policies that mean that taxpayers no longer subsidize the high school extracurriculars like band and football that an earlier generation knew were an important part of learning to be part of a community.
Putnam’s push is that we should stop wasting our time debating whether the poor, who are increasingly segregated by class, need stronger families or more support, and agree that both are imperative. The president, who said he’s read the book, repeated the language in it verbatim, saying that “if coming out of this conversation we can have a ‘both/and’ conversation rather than ‘either/or’ conversation, then we’ll be making some progress.”
The author, a Harvard social scientist, has often said that he wants the income and opportunity gap to be the central issue of the presidential campaign. But the surprise is that this no longer seems at all unlikely. The convergence of rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of poverty is striking. And the conversation has become so streamlined that Putnam even told the same joke at Georgetown that Stiglitz told at the Press Club. (Mary Sue, whose only friend growing up was a yellow mouse, “made only one bad decision,” Putnam said. “She chose the wrong parents.” Or as Stiglitz put it, “The most important decision you can make in life is choosing the right parents.”)
Obama got his biggest applause when he spoke about the way he talks to young black men about accepting responsibility, and about “the joys of fatherhood,” but, he said, that in no way obviates the need for early childhood education and access to health care.
The back-and-forth was honest enough that both Obama and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks were unwilling to simply exchange handshakes and platitudes. The president said that though he doesn’t doubt the motives of conservatives on these issues, he has yet to see the proof in actual agreements to policies that would alleviate poverty. Brooks shot back that as long as the default is to question motives in that way, even while saying that that’s not what’s happening, then no conversation is going to get very far.
Unfortunately, in the end, despite the singularity and the promise of the moment, the president couldn’t resist answering Dionne’s final question, about the role of faith-based groups, by lecturing those who had come to the summit that they might want to pay more attention to poverty and less to, say, fighting abortion rights, an issue which until that moment had not been mentioned at the summit. “Despite great caring and concern,” he said, “when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what's the defining issue, when you're talking in your congregations, what's the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this”—fighting poverty—“is oftentimes viewed as a 'nice to have' relative to an issue like abortion.”
Given that Georgetown's Gaston Hall was at that moment packed with people who have made fighting poverty their life’s work, this was not unlike suggesting that Mother Teresa should stop being so shallow.
As the crowd filed out afterwards, there were some grumbles about that, and other complaints, too, including that there were no women on the panel with the president, despite the predominantly female face of poverty. “Can’t have everything, I guess,” one woman said as she walked away.
An African-American student who had heard the discussion told some friends who hadn’t been there that it had focused on “all the stuff we talk about all the time.” So it wasn’t, a friend who had not attended wondered, “just more of the usual, ‘We have to do better as a people?’” To her, in other words, the president is an old scold, always preaching personal responsibility. People don’t come to events like this one as clean slates, of course. And real discussions aren’t all happy talk, so maybe the fact that some feelings seemed to have been bruised along the way is not as lamentable as all that.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Joseph E. Stiglitz's comments on the minimum wage in the fifth paragraph.