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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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 ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Franco Folini via Flickr

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.