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Obama: We Must 'Guard Against Cynicism' When It Comes To Poverty

President Obama spoke at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University Tuesday.
Andrew Harnik
President Obama spoke at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University Tuesday.

President Obama says overcoming poverty requires both strong families and a strong economy.

Speaking at Georgetown University Tuesday, Obama said that political debates over poverty often get hung up over the role of government, families and religious institutions.

"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," Obama said. "Because there's a lot we can do."

Obama made no apology for the tough-love message he sometimes delivers to African-American audiences, in which he stresses personal responsibility as one road out of poverty.

"I am a black man who grew up without a father, and I know the cost that I paid for that," Obama said. "And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle. And as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off."

But the president quickly added that family dysfunction and social ills are no excuse for withholding public investment by the government.

"What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest in those things that allow a poor kid — whether in a rural town, or in Appalachia, or in the inner city — to access what they need both in terms of mentors and social networks, as well as decent books and computers and so forth, in order for them to succeed?" Obama asked. "We don't make those same common investments that we used to, and it's had an impact."

"And we shouldn't pretend that somehow we have been making those same investments," he added. "We haven't been, and there's been a very specific ideological push not to make those investments."

Obama was joined on the panel by Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, whose most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, chronicles the growing opportunity gap between economic classes in the United States. The president suggested wealthy Americans today are more isolated from the poor and middle class, and therefore less willing to invest in programs that boost opportunity.

"If we can't ask from society's lottery winners to just make that modest investment, then really this conversation is for show," Obama said.

Arthur Brooks, who heads the conservative American Enterprise Institute, rounded out the panel. He defended the role of government safety net programs but said they should be limited to the truly indigent and accompanied by work.

"The poor are not having their money taken away and given to the rich," Brooks said. "To the extent that we can get away from the notion that the rich are stealing from the poor, then we can look at this in a way that I think is instructive."

Just across town, at a session organized by the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, progressive economists and politicians argued there has been a deliberate transfer of wealth upward. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren noted that since 1980, virtually all of the proceeds of economic growth have flowed to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, while everyone else was either treading water or losing ground.

"The rich and powerful rigged the game, and now they want the game to stay rigged," Warren said. "If we want a strong middle class, it is time for new rules."

The Roosevelt Institute's chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, offered a menu of new rules designed to re-balance economic power. The proposals include stronger unions, more public works investment and a higher minimum wage.

Some of the proposals have also been championed by President Obama, so far without much success.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.