Georgetown University recently hosted a panel discussion on poverty whose participants included Harvard University professor and author Robert Putnam, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, and President Barak Obama. The panel was moderated by Professor Eugene J. Dionne of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. This panel was part of a larger Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals. Robert Putnam had spoken the previous evening and participated in a discussion panel with Harvard’s Mary Jo Bane, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, Bishop Jaime Soto of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and Jim Carr of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. The discussion, unfortunately, was heavy with platitudes and finger-pointing but absent of any constructive practical policy discussion on the differences between the left and right’s approach to reducing poverty.
Professor Dionne opened the discussion by asking President Obama why he was attending the panel. President Obama opined that much of contemporary political debate surrounding solutions to poverty relies on straw men – that the left only wants to pour money into programs and doesn’t care about culture, families, or communities, or that the right are merely cold-hearted, capitalist Ayn Rand readers who think everyone else is a moocher. He recognized the people on the right, while often distrustful of government programs, often work hard through churches and community organizations to alleviate poverty. He argued that the answer to poverty was a solution that embraced both government programs and spending and community and religious efforts. His tone was optimistic as he noted that the poverty rate has been reduced by 40 percent since the 1960s; he argued that we can reduce poverty when we want to. He argued that there are successful programs in nearly every community; the problem is that we haven’t figured out how to scale them up enough.
Robert Putnam focused his remarks on what he claims is the growing opportunity gap between children in rich and poor families. Until relatively recently, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, Americans of all classes lived and mingled together. Putnam argued that this mixing has decreased and that, consequently, the rich do not see the opportunity gaps of those less fortunately. This is especially the case as elites cluster in “super zips” filled with similar people. His measures included family stability, family investments, school quality, the character of social and community support, and church attendance. Because kids don’t get to choose their parents, Putnam argued that these opportunity gaps are fundamentally unfair. Obama joined him on this point and alleged that the macro-economic problem du jour is concentration of wealth and the consequent income disparity. He alleged that this led the wealthy to disinvest in society and pull out of the public school system (odd coming from a man who attended a private high school and sends his daughters to private school).
Rather than softening the edges of the free market, President Obama argued that we have “turbo-charged” it leading to restriction of access to things that help people climb out of poverty – public infrastructure, schools, healthcare, and universities. He argued that there will have to be investments we make in society as a whole in public schools and universities, in early childhood education, in providing access to jobs, broadband to rural areas. He stated that these things are not going to happen through the free market alone. As an example, he pointed out that CEOs were often part of the local community and that restrained them. He argued that we’ve moved from CEOs making fifty times the salary of his workers to a thousand or two thousand times as much. He pointed out that the top 25 hedge fund managers in the US make more than all the kindergarten teachers. He said, “If we can’t ask society’s lottery makers to make that investment, then this conversation is just for show.” Arthur Brooks argued that issues like capital gains tax, carried interest tax, and private jets were just show issues. The real issue is middle class entitlements which currently eat up 70 percent of the budget and are unsustainable.
Arthur Brooks pointed out that poverty was the issue he cared the most about; he argued that conservatives needed to “declare peace” on the safety net. He pointed out that free enterprise and free markets have pulled two billion people out of poverty. He talked about the importance of treating the poor as brothers and sisters, not as problems to be solved. He and President Obama both agreed that the best “end of poverty program” is a job. He pointed out, however, that poorly planned and executed government efforts often hurt the poor – and disproportionately the poor. He argued that an unbalanced policy that ignores the macro-economy leads to insolvency which leads to austerity – which only hurts the poor. He argued that what we are seeing today is not a transfer of money from the poor to the rich – the rich are not stealing from the poor – rather what we see is a shift in earning potential. He added that economic systems are just systems and that they must be under-girded with strong morals.
Obama also spoke about faith based groups. “Faith based groups understand centrality and importance of this issue in an intimate way, in part because they are interacting with people who are struggling and know how good they are, it’s not just theological, it’s concrete, they’re embedded in communities and are making a difference.” He addressed one elephant in the room – the ease of talking with Christians about poverty rather than about abortion and same-sex marriage – but ignored the larger one – his administration’s insistence that religious charities engage in activities that violate deeply held beliefs. Similarly, his discussions about poverty and the problem of income disparity did not address the problem of Christian business owners being forced to choose to violate their conscience or lose their livelihoods. Writing for The Catholic Thing, Robert Royal pointed out several more inconsistencies in President Obama’s arguments, noting “You can’t be any poorer than dead” in regard to his strong support for abortion.
Despite efforts by Arthur Brooks who argued that conservatives too see the problem of poverty and are motivated to solve it, the discussion centered primarily on vague platitudes. The “moderator” Professor Dionne took sever jabs at conservatives, at Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell, and at Arthur Brooks (he invited him to an “altar call”), and Fox News; President Obama justly distanced himself from that mudslinging and acknowledged the conservatives’ good intentions, though he too attacked Fox News. Not discussed were questions regarding which programs worked, which actually had a negative effect on the poor, and which should be funded. Arthur Brooks alluded to this evasion multiple times, hinting that conservatives are interested in finding programs and solutions that work, rather than simply throwing ever-increasing amounts of money at existing programs.Google+