President Obama said today that the incidents with police in Baltimore and Ferguson, along with “a growing awareness of inequality in our society,” can turn attention back to poverty in America and bridge “ideological divides that have prevented us from making progress.”
At the Georgetown University panel on poverty, Obama name-dropped Ayn Rand and acknowledged he may speak differently to a black audience.
Panelists joining the president were American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, Harvard professor Robert Putnam, and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.
“The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that’s one stereotype. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated,” Obama said.
“I think that there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor; exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do. And then there are those on the left who I think are in the trenches every day and see how important parenting is and how important family structures are, and the connective tissue that holds communities together and recognize that that contributes to poverty when those structures fray, but also believe that government and resources can make a difference in creating an environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds.”
Brooks quipped that when Obama was railing on cold-hearted capitalists, “what was going through my head was, please don’t look at me, please don’t look at me.”
“I’m more outnumbered than my Thanksgiving table in Seattle, let me tell you,” the head of the free-enterprise think tank added.
“So how are we on the center right talking about poverty in the most effective way? Number one is with a conceptual matter. We have a grave tendency on both the left and the right to talk about poor people as ‘the other.’ Remember in Matthew 25, these are our brothers and sisters,” Brooks continued.
“…When you talk about people as your brothers and sisters you don’t talk about them as liabilities to manage. They’re not liabilities to manage. They’re assets to develop because every one of us made in God’s image is an asset to develop. That’s a completely different approach to poverty alleviation. That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation. That’s what we can do to stimulate that conversation on the political right, just as it can be on the political left.”
Obama maintained that a free market is “perfectly compatible” with government “investment” programs.
“People don’t like being poor. It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful. It’s hard. And so over time, families frayed. Men who could not get jobs left. Mothers who are single are not able to read as much to their kids. So all that was happening 40 years ago to African-Americans,” the president said. “And now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community.”
He added that over the past few decades “the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leaches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.”
“And, look, it’s still being propagated,” Obama continued. “I mean, I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu — they will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. They’re like, I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone — or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative — right? — that gets worked up. And very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress — which is much more typical — who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills.”
Obama also commented on “this whole family-character values-structure issue.”
“It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off,” he said.
“…When I’m sitting there talking to these kids, and I’ve got a boy who says, you know what, how did you get over being mad at your dad, because I’ve got a father who beat my mom and now has left, and has left the state, and I’ve never seen him because he’s trying to avoid $83,000 in child support payments, and I want to love my dad, but I don’t know how to do that — I’m not going to have a conversation with him about macroeconomics.”
The president said he’s “all for” values and character — things stressed by Brooks — “but I also know that that character and the values that our kids have that allow them to succeed, and delayed gratification and discipline and hard work — that all those things in part are shaped by what they see, what they see really early on.”
“And some of those kids right now, because of no fault of those kids, and because of history and some tough going, generationally, some of those kids, they’re not going to get help at home,” Obama added. “They’re not going to get enough help at home. And the question then becomes, are we committed to helping them instead?”