Earlier this week I was at Georgetown Univeristy to listen to a panel discussion that featured E.J. Dionne (Washington Post columnist), President Obama, Robert Putnam (author and sociologist), and Arthur Brooks (President of the American Enterprise Institute). The event was co-hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals and the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life as part of their three day Poverty Summit for faith leaders.
It was unusual to watch a sitting President sit on a panel and participate in a discussion of substance.
All three of the panelists were able to accurately diagnose the dynamics for the poor. Arthur Brooks talked about the need to humanize those we are talking about and how free markets have done the most to lift people out of poverty. President Obama talked about the importance of education (college versus high school) in expanding or limiting the opportunities of the poor and how our increasingly globalized world’s lack of connection with the poor and poorer communities means we don’t have the same social obligations and constraints of other eras in American history. Robert Putnam talked about the collapse of social structure, especially church life and marriage for the poor; noting that 2/3rds of kids coming from working class families are coming from a single parent household.
There was a lot of consensus on what was happening, but when it came time for solutions each of the panelists was less than inspiring. President Obama framed the solutions discussion in the following terms: I) we know what works and that’s public investments II) the barriers to public investments are wealthy individuals feeling no obligation to pay higher taxes and lack of political demand from the church among other places III) unless you have a government oriented solution you aren’t terribly serious about poverty. Arthur Brooks didn’t really even venture into the solutions discussion beyond saying that we need to reduce middle class entitlements, limit overspending to avoid insolvency and austerity (which truly harms the poor) and that poverty programs should focus on the truly needy. Robert Putnam was time limited, but seemed to say that programs have their role, the faith community plays an important role, and that structural problems for the working poor may not be fixed by government.
The panel ventured into some interesting territory. The President spoke about his faith, collapse of family structures, and race. So it was a rare opprtunity to watch a sitting President publicly explain his thought process in a dynamic setting.
My main take away from the panel was the need for the church to practice a transformational politics, one that more clearly articulates what people of faith have seen works best to address structural and spiritual/relational harms to the poor in our midst.