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Monday, October 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — Will we regard poverty as a haunting national problem, or will the focus groups continue to tell politicians of all stripes to talk only about the middle class because mentioning the poor is politically toxic?

Might the condition of low-income Americans galvanize religious people to see alleviating poverty and righting social injustice as moral issues? The habit in political writing when discussing “moral issues” is to refer only to abortion or gay marriage. But what implicates morality more than the way we, as a society and as individuals, treat those who are cut off from the ladders of advancement and the treasures of prosperity?

And can we find a way of thinking constructively about the role of family breakup in setting back the life chances of poor kids while still recognizing that family life itself is being battered by rising economic inequality, the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs, racism, and mass incarceration?

These are some of the questions I am left with after moderating a discussion about poverty at Georgetown University this week. For all the obvious journalistic reasons, it’s not my habit to write about events in which I participate. But this particular panel was a bit different from the usual policy talkfest.

It included Robert Putnam, the author of Our Kids — a book that should focus our energies on the growing opportunity gap between lower-income and better-off children — and Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been urging his fellow conservatives to “declare peace on the safety net.” It also happened to include the President of the United States.

Others can judge more objectively how the discussion went. What’s obvious is that presidents don’t usually do panels and that the spirit of this one broke from so much of what we’ve grown accustomed to, in its civility and even good humor. Yet I was also reminded how far we have to go before we achieve anything close to consensus about what is to be done to liberate the least among us.

The fact that it took place at all is a tribute to religious leaders (particularly the Catholics and evangelicals involved in organizing the Poverty Summit, as the event sponsoring the panel was called) who are trying to push the alleviation of poverty to the top of the faithful’s agenda. Something is stirring in the religious world. Pope Francis certainly has something to do with this, but there’s also the tug of history. Religious groups were long at the forefront of our nation’s movements for civil rights and economic justice. People of faith are reassuming their rightful place in these struggles.

President Obama clearly wants to push that trend along. He acknowledged that he might be “self-interested” in this: He is closest to religious Christians on social justice questions and furthest away on abortion and same-sex marriage. But he insisted that religious Americans have a “transformative voice” that could alter the nation’s trajectory on poverty.

He also mentioned that social justice concerns have “incredible appeal, including to young people.” The panel took place on a day when the Pew Research Center issued a report showing a remarkable decline of religious affiliation. Among the youngest millennials (those 25 and under), 36 percent are now religiously unaffiliated. A broader religious agenda might bring some of them back.

Yet the session also highlighted the political and intellectual barriers to action. Brooks offered moving words urging his fellow conservatives to treat the poor as “brothers and sisters,” not as “liabilities to manage.” Obama welcomed Brooks’ witness, but noted the reluctance of so many conservatives to spend new public money to open up opportunity for the needy. “There’s been a very specific ideological push not to make those investments,” he said.

The family issue remains neuralgic. Obama spoke powerfully about being “a black man who grew up without a father” and “the cost that I paid for that.” But his words can’t settle the ongoing and often divisive argument over whether family difficulties should be seen primarily as a cause of poverty or as the effect of poverty itself. That the right answer is complicated doesn’t make things any easier.

Still, this doesn’t take away from the small miracle that the concerns of the poor briefly slipped into a political discussion usually focused far more on the doings of billionaire donors. Americans with low incomes can’t get much nourishment from words, and sentiments don’t create jobs. But for a moment, they weren’t invisible.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Franco Folini via Flickr

  • itsfun

    The so-called war on poverty has not worked for over 50 years now. Maybe just throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve anything.

    • Grannysmovin

      Perhaps if they would have passed the 2011 jobs act, we would have more people working, being trained for new fields, infrastructure (creating more jobs) which would have reduced the need for assistance and people loosing their homes.

      • itsfun

        You may be right. We need to change what we are doing now. How about a program in State and local governments that give welfare recipients a temporary job making minimum wage and being able to keep all their welfare benefits for a period of 6 months to 1 year. Also give single mothers free day care. During this year the person would learn job skills, learn what is required to keep a job (like showing up to work). After the training period of time, then help them find a permanent job. If the person refuses a position, then reduce their welfare or cut them off completely. People could learn a trade and be proud of their accomplishments. Just 1 thought.

        • Carolyn1520

          Now you sound like a democrat. 🙂
          If only we could make this happen. The states would need to be subsidized (as they would be screaming, no money for it) so federal programs would need to be instituted.
          Job creation for fixing our crumbling infrastructures is also a win win. There use to be a similar program called the CCC, I’ve read about back when political parties worked together for the good of the country.
          It’s the old hand up and not a hand out.

        • Grannysmovin

          That is a good starting point.

          • hicusdicus

            The way to reduce poverty is to print more money and give it to the poor.

        • dpaano

          Finally, you’ve said something that I can honestly agree with. I had a friend of mine who was working part-time, trying to go back to college at night to learn a skill, but the Welfare Dept. would not help her with child care, etc. My thought is that if the Welfare Dept would give people (especially those who WANT to get off welfare…and there are many out there), money to go to college, pay for child care so they can go, and then once they graduate, give them 6 months of find a job (with some help on their part), and once the person gets a job and gets through the usual 90-day probation period, stop their welfare entirely. My friend did not want to stay on welfare, she wanted to learn a skill and be able to support her children (her husband, by the way, left her and paid no child support despite being ordered by the court to do so). She finally did it with help from friends and family, and she is no longer on welfare and is doing well (through no help from the Welfare Dept, which is a self-serving organization that does NOTHNG to help people get a leg up so they can better themselves and get off the dole!

          • itsfun

            If we help people get off welfare, then we don’t need welfare workers, job security gone. Just like we can’t have disease curing drugs, just disease controlling drugs. How much money would drug companies lose if we cured disease?

  • Whatmeworry

    Having you moderating any serious conversation is like having Clinton talk about a war on women

    • Daniel Max Ketter

      Can’t wait for another Clinton to occupy the white house, although Mr Obama will be widely missed by the Ketter family.

  • hicusdicus

    That article was total nonsense.

  • Having you moderating any serious conversation is like having Reagan talk about a war on

  • 13observer

    Who is worried about “poverty” other than democrats trying to justify their existence? When you ENCOURAGE illegal immigration to secure a dependent class of people whom are mostly doomed to failure, you are ensuring that poverty will grow to outrageous numbers. What democrats are selling to the country is that we can “import” all the poverty you desire and that some day by numbers, the “dependent” class will greatly outnumber the “rich” or “middle class” and therefore by legislation forcibly “REDISTRIBUTE” their wealth by TAXATION!

    • charleo1

      Kick out all 12 million undocumented, and that solves the poverty problem? Cut the scapegoating! It’s stupid. The fact is, the last great ENCOURAGEMENT was signed into law by Republican Mega Star, Ronald Reagan. Accompanied by an intentionally unenforceable hiring ban on non documented workers. But hardly accounts for the more than 30 million Americans now living below the poverty line. Or the 60 million other, so called working poor. That account for over 1/3 of the labor force in the Country. Stagnant wages for the last 40 years is one culprit. 10 million manufacturing jobs lost to $60 dollar a month foreign labor is another. Now, 90% of the private property in the U.S. is now owned by the top 20%. And 95% of the economic gains realized since the end of the recession have gone to the top 5%. The average net worth of the top .005% have tripled since the recession began in 2007. While average Middle Class wages have actually lost ground. Now, the total tax bill for this top 5% group, on the other hand, hasn’t been at lower aggregate levels since 1929. While the average person on public assistance today is female, White, has 2.5 children, and works a 40 hour week. This, as the Walton Family, the Country’s top employer, personally adds 8 million dollars per minute to their family fortune. That’s every minute, 24/7 all year, every year. While the cost to taxpayers of every Super Center, in every community in which they are located, totals more than a million dollars per year in wage subsidies for workers, security, waved property taxes, and infrastructure costs. And you’re worried sick about the rich’s wealth being taxed away from them in a giant Lefty organized plot to redistribute wealth? Sure.

      • 13observer

        Sorry but some say 12 million when others say 25 to 20 million are here “setting” low wage standards (poverty) while at the same time displacing legal residents, living on the dole, but to my second point and whom will pay the tab for overpopulating or should I say “quantity” rather than “quality”? Really I’m not too worried about the “rich” regarding “redistribution” it’s the “middle class” which I am a part of. We are left to pay the bills for poor people that want to raise huge families with no means to do so. I personally believe that if you don’t pay taxes, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote! What purpose does that person serve as far as “contributing” to society whereas their “vote” is used to determine political outcomes which they are ONLY a dependent factor of. Nonetheless, Taxing citizens so welfare dependents can breed like flies and cancel out our votes is BS!

        • paulyz

          Exactly 13, good facts. Charleo wants to use this topic to blame Reagan, the wealthy, & misleading information to serve his anti-White biases. Again he fails to mention the so-called Reagan Amnesty was the bi-partisan, Simpson-Mazolli Act of 1986, which was a (one-time) Amnesty. The problem would had been easily solved back then when there were 2.7 Million Illegals, had the enforcement requirements not been ignored by mostly Democrats. Also, he conveniently uses BS statistics instead of percentages of ethnic groups on welfare. And EVERYONE knows, minorities, especially Illegal Latinos, have very high birth rates with no means to support their own children, leaving that function to the American taxpayer & Legal Immigrant taxpayer. He also fails to mention that poverty & food-stamp usage has greatly increased under the Great Obama & the Democrat/Socialist Party.

          • dpaano

            Gee, maybe those “high birth rates” have something to do with not being allowed medical care and birth control information….all of which has been restricted by the wonderful Republicans. And, I have never heard that “latinos” have a high birth rate….where in heck did you get that piece of BS? As for poverty and food stamp usage increasing…..could it have anything to do with the GOP crushing all job-creating bills that have been sent through and voted down???

        • dpaano

          But, we can thank the GOP for cutting back on Planned Parenthood, abortion clinics, etc. They’re the ones that have caused this big “population growth” problem; i.e., the “huge families” you speak of and the so-called “welare dependents” who “breed like flies.” Plus, there are a lot of people who don’t pay taxes; i.e., children, disabled, seniors, etc. (the latter two have the right to vote per the Constitution). Just because a person doesn’t work or pay taxes doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the right to vote.