Monday, May 18, 2015

The President and the Poor

The poor may be always with us, but political attentiveness to the problems of poverty is quite another story. Last week, Georgetown University held a bipartisan, Catholic-Evangelical conference on overcoming poverty in the United States. It probably would have gotten very little media attention at all, were it not for the participation of the President of the United States. And, even then, it has received far less attention than the topic deserves.

Nor should that surprise anyone. The persistence of the problem and its complexity get in the way of easy solutions - automatically a problem in our attention-deficit society. Nor is poverty a priority for either side in our currently polarized politics. The Right, after all, is focused on further enriching the already overly rich. The Left is likewise preoccupied with elte concerns, notably the intense pursuit of identity politics and abortion. Neither party is particularly focused on the multitudes their respective elites have left behind.

The President participated in a panel discussion with Catholic political pundit and columnist E.J. dionne, political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (1995) and more recently Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis, and economist Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise institute.

Personally, I am a great fan of Robert Putnam's work - both Bowling Alone and his more recent Our kids , which I think anyone interested in the moral and cultural component of contemporary American inequality should be reading. But it is the President's remarks (which I finally found time to read over the weekend) which I want to reflect on today.

As E.J. Dionne pointed out to the President right away, Presidents don't usually do panels. Indeed, commenting on the event the next day in The New Yorker, Paul Elie wrote: "In our anti-monarchy, it was a sight beautiful to behold—the leader of the free world ambling onstage and settling into a chair just like the chairs occupied by his fellow-interlocutors, Robert Putnam, of Harvard, Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, and E. J. Dionne, of the Washington Post, and speaking about poverty and listening to the others while the bells of the university chapel chimed noonday in the background."

Of course, the reality is that the modern presidency is in fact extremely monarchical, both in substantive power and in its style, which is what made the President's participation in this panel seem so unusual! But, anyway, back to the President's comments!

Apart from the sheer impact of his presence and participation, I think the President's most important contribution was simply to highlight the need to get our of our ideological boxes a bit. Thus, he expressed his view "that we are at a moment - ... in part because of a growing awareness of inequality in our society - 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."

And what are those? In the President's words, "we have been stuck, I think for a long time, in a debate that creates a couple of straw men. 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 - (laughter) - think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated" basically, the President's not so surprising point is "that if coming out of this conversation we can have a both/and conversation rather than either/or conversation, then we'll be making some progress."

He's right, of course. He was also right to point out that some of this reflects the growing cultural and class segregation in our society. I've often used the example of my father and his boss. His boss was certainly wealthier and lived in a better neighborhood, etc., than his employees, but he likely looked at the world not all differently from his employees. They had lived through Depression and War, watched the same movies and listened to the same news, and shared more or less similar values. That's the way it was when I was growing up, and that is largely the world Putnam evokes. It is, as the President pointed out, "the first thing that strike you" when reading Our Kids. The change from then to now, the breakdown of a shared common community, is key - both economically and morally - to understanding today's crisis - both economic and moral. "Part of what's happened," the President noted, "is that elites in a very mobile, globalized world are able to live together, away from folks who are not as wealthy, and so they feel less of a commitment to making those investments." So, "what used to be racial segregation now mirrors itself in class segregation and this great sorting that's taking place." It was in this context that he made his comment about the media, which apparently hit a nerve over at Fox News, about media efforts to make people "be mad at folks at the bottom ... the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leaches, don't want to work, are lazy, are undeserving ..."

Near the end, when Putnam referenced getting "congregations and parishes all across this country" to focus on reducing "the opportunity gap," that gave Dionne an opportunity to bring up religion - recalling how the President's early-career community-organizing work "as actually paid for by a group of Catholic churches." This gave President Obama the opportunity not only to recall how his "first job was funded through the Campaign for Human Development," but also to affirm that "faith-based groups" understand these issues well - in part because "they're embedded in communities and they're making a difference in all kinds of ways."

Commendably, the President encouraged faith-based groups in their activity and encouraged them "to speak out." Here, however, he felt the need to allude to the proverbial elephant in the room: "these are areas where I agree with the evangelical community and faith-based groups, and then there are issues where we have had disagreements around reproductive issues ...."

But, of course, this Administration has pursued more than mere "disagreements."  It has pursued (with rather limited success, so far) a radical strategy of trying to coerce religious institutions to cooperate in its moral and cultural agenda, most famously in the case of the HHS contraception mandate. And it has effectively sought to exclude religious institutions from providing the social services they are so good at, if they don't get on board with anthat agenda of reinventing society along severely secular moral and cultural lines. What this reflects, of course, is what I referred to earlier - the primacy on the political and cultural left of a certain elite outlook on certain social and moral matters that apparently takes precedence over old-fashioned concerns about poverty and inequality that used to define the political and cultural left. 

The President's participation in that panel proved what a powerful advocate he can be for overcoming "the opportunity gap" in our society. But issues raised at the end also illustrate one of the major obstacles in the way of mobilizing religion to effect a more unified society.

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