Poverty summit: Is conversation shifting from whether to help poor to how?

President Obama and prominent conservatives shared the stage on Tuesday at a poverty summit at Georgetown University.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday. From left are, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy; the president; Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government; and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.

A poverty summit on Tuesday offered a hint at how currents of thought may be shifting since the era of welfare reform and a tough-on-crime crackdown in the 1990s.

The summit by itself doesn’t signal that liberals and conservatives are poised to converge imminently around a 21st century answer to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

But at least some prominent conservatives – including presidential candidate and Sen. Rand Paul – are talking about how to get fewer people in prisons and embracing the phrase “safety net.” And some prominent liberals are pairing their ideas for government assistance with assertions that poverty is about culture as well as money.

“We are at a moment ... where it may be possible not only to refocus attention on the issue of poverty but also maybe to bridge some of the gaps that have existed and the ideological divides that have prevented us from making progress,” President Obama said in his opening remarks at Georgetown University.

The event brought Mr. Obama to share a stage with the head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, days after Baltimore protests that have focused national attention to challenges faced by minorities in poor urban neighborhoods.

The president said the issue of poverty is coming into sharper public focus partly because of protests in places like Ferguson, Mo.; New York; and Baltimore, where concerns about racial bias in criminal justice overlap with a wider sense of disenfranchisement. But he said it’s also surfacing because of a broader trend of widening inequality. 

“We know that this issue is a bipartisan issue,” said Robert Putnam, a professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government who was also participating in the event. He said that, with an election coming in 2016, he expects voters will add pressure to “focus on what we can do to reduce this opportunity gap in America.”

In fact, even as black poverty remains higher than the national average, challenges like the rise of single-parent households have spread throughout working-class America. 

“All of that was happening 40 years ago to African-Americans,” Obama said, and now has been “spreading to the broader community.”

As Obama spoke about the virtues of the two-parent household, conservative Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute used his chair on Tuesday’s panel discussion to support government intervention on poverty.

OK, he didn’t actually say the era of big government should begin again. And he worried out loud that middle-class entitlements are an unsustainable burden – an opinion many Democratic lawmakers don’t want to hear. But Mr. Brooks distanced himself from the view of program beneficiaries as moochers.

“There’s a role for the state,” Brooks said. He praised the “safety net.” He said the debate should be not about whether to do something about poverty and economic mobility, but about which ideas will work best.

He and Obama agreed that economic growth fueled by free markets is the best antipoverty program. And Brooks said capitalism “is just a system” and “must be predicated on right morals” to work well.

If that served as a kind of nudge to fellow conservatives, the discussion Tuesday also included cautionary language aimed at liberals.

“Those of us on the more progressive side have to think, how did we get into a state in which two-thirds of American kids coming from what we used to call the working class have only a single parent?” asked Mr. Putnam, author of a new book, “Our Kids.”

Putnam said he’s not sure if it’s government’s job to fix that problem. But addressing poverty means not just investments in schools and the like, he said, but also “to think about this family side of the problem.”

At a time when 1 in 5 US children is living in poverty, the common ground that emerged from the summit might be summed up as a call to address both economic and cultural factors, not just one or the other.

And the two sides emphasized the need for civility. Obama said that too often, people in his party stereotype Republicans unfairly as “cold-hearted.” Sen. Tim Scott, (R) of South Carolina, who spoke after Obama’s panel event, lamented, “What we often do is demonize the other side before the conversation starts.”

Senator Scott pointed to his work with Democrats on criminal justice reform and apprenticeship legislation as hopeful signs in a Congress often criticized for gridlock.

All this, again, doesn’t mean the two sides are in lockstep on this issue. Big differences exist on funding and strategies.

And, where many Democrats insist on solutions that ask the rich to pay their fair share for public investments, Republicans say social challenges must be addressed without runaway taxes or public debt. The line between “demonizing” and those strongly held policy positions can be blurry.

Still, remember why Obama says he attended Tuesday summit, officially titled the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty. He sees the opportunity to bridge some divides. It may take time. But in the world of policymaking, such dialogue can carry seeds of progress.

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