“We have been stuck, I think, for a long time in a debate that creates a couple of straw men,” said President Obama.
Obama, along with Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, and Robert Putnam, renowned public policy professor at Harvard, participated in the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University on Tuesday.
The President addressed the false stereotypes that both sides often levy on each other in an attempt to discredit their policies. The truth is, the president said, there are policies around the country that provide “ladders of opportunity” and we just need to scale them.
Robert Putnam primarily discussed the class gap between children who have college-educated parents and those who don’t. Without high-income, educated parents, children are much more likely to be in poverty.
“Churches are an important source of social support for kids outside their own family,” said Putnam. With the decline of church attendance and other civic institutions, Putnam is worried about how a child’s future can be determined by his or her parents. He also expressed concern about the decline of extracurricular involvement among poor people.
Arthur Brooks was tasked by E.J. Dionne, the panel’s moderator, to explain how Republicans could speak to the issue of poverty. “The reason I came into the free enterprise movement many years ago is because poverty is the thing I care about the most,” said Brooks.
Brooks went on to explain how globalization and free trade have lifted billions of people out of poverty around the world. “We pretend that moral consensus is impossible and we blow up policy differences until they become a whole new war,” Brooks said to applause.
Quoting from Matthew 25, Brooks said it is important to remember that the poor are our “brothers and sisters.” We must humanize the poor and remember that “just because people are on public assistance doesn’t mean they want to be on public assistance.” Brooks is a supporter of the social safety net, claiming that it is one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise.
So how should conservatives distinguish their ideas? Brooks said that the safety net should be limited to the people who really need it and coupled with the dignifying power of work whenever possible.
President Obama echoed Brooks’s sentiments about the dignifying power of work. “I think we can all agree that the best anti-poverty program is a job,” he said. He also agreed that the free market was the greatest producer of wealth in history. But he pushed back against Brooks too, claiming that “concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.”
Obama acknowledged distressing trends we have been seeing with poor families but argued that the government had a central role in remedying the problem. “If in fact we are going to find common ground,” said the president, “then we also have to acknowledge that there are certain investments we should be willing to make” – including more spending on public schools and universities, early childhood education, and other government initiatives. “What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest?”
The president and Dionne both urged Brooks to weigh in on this question of public investment. But Brooks cautioned that as attractive as it may seem to pledge more government money, it is still important to maintain sound financial policy. If government spends irresponsibly, the nation will face austerity. And under austerity, “the poor always pay,” said Brooks.
Obama repeatedly blamed conservatives for “underinvesting” in public goods. “There will be a greater demand for public goods, and we’ll have to find a way to pay for them,” said Obama. He advocated for new tax increases on hedge fund managers and other policies that would increase revenue.
“These are show issues,” responded Brooks, arguing that the real money was in middle-class entitlements. Brooks also pushed back at Obama’s criticism of Republican leaders. “We have to be really careful not to impugn their motives. Impugning motives on the other side is the number one barrier against making progress.”