The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Other Than That, the Story Was Accurate
Obama’s Poverty Paradox
President Obama yesterday spoke at Georgetown University about the question of poverty, but rather than giving a speech, he participated in a panel featuring an opposing point of view – that of Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks quipped that “I’m more outnumbered than my Thanksgiving table in Seattle, let me tell you,” and he had a point: The moderator, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and the other panelist, Robert Putnam of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of government, are both liberals, who found little on which to disagree with the president.
Still, it was a useful exercise. Obama grappled, thoughtfully and respectfully if not convincingly, with some of the leading conservative criticisms of the liberal approach to poverty. He also answered a prominent liberal’s criticism of him. Considering together several of the disparate points he made, one can clarify the fundamental contradiction of the prevailing liberal approach to this vexing question.
Conservatives often argue that the persistence of poverty proves that liberal solutions have failed. Ronald Reagan put it pithily in 1987: “In the ’60s we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” According to Obama, that’s not true:
I think it is a mistake for us to suggest that somehow every effort we make has failed and we are powerless to address poverty. That’s just not true. First of all, just in absolute terms, the poverty rate when you take into account tax and transfer programs, has been reduced about 40% since 1967.
Now, that does not lessen our concern about communities where poverty remains chronic. It does suggest, though, that we have been able to lessen poverty when we decide we want to do something about it.
The president also responded to the conservative argument that chronic poverty is a problem of culture, particularly the breakdown of the family. Obama’s rejoinder is that that reverses cause and effect:
We have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity. . . .
Even back in Bob’s day [Putnam is 74] that was also happening. It’s just it was happening to black people. And so, in some ways, part of what’s changed is that those biases or those restrictions on who had access to resources that allowed them to climb out of poverty—who had access to the firefighter’s job, who had access to the assembly-line job, the blue-collar job that paid well enough to be in the middle class and then got you to the suburbs, and then the next generation was suddenly office workers—all those things were foreclosed to a big chunk of the minority population in this country for decades.
And that accumulated and built up. And over time, people with less and less resources, more and more strains—because it’s hard being poor. 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. And now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community.
The last point is certainly true. As Charles Murray notes in “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” “white nonmarital births have grown phenomenally” during the half-century he studied—from a bit over 2% to nearly 30%. The 2010 figure was around 60% for white mothers who did not finish high school and 40% for those with a high school diploma but no college.
The contradiction went unremarked in the panel, but let’s point it out here: If poverty has declined sharply in the last half-century while family breakdown has accelerated, it makes no sense to say the former is the only (or the primary) cause of the latter.
Further, if discrimination is the cause of black America’s social ills half a century ago, then advances in civil rights should have eased them considerably. Instead, as the Associated Press reported in 2010, the rate of unwed motherhood also skyrocketed among blacks, tripling from 24% in 1965 to 72%.
Dionne asked Obama to respond to a 2013 criticism from the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, to wit:
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people – and particularly black youth – and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses” – as though they were in the business of making them.
To that the president responded in compellingly personal terms:
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.
And that is not something that – for me to have that conversation does not negate my conversation about the need for early childhood education, or the need for job training, or the need for greater investment in infrastructure, or jobs in low-income communities.
So I’ll talk till you’re blue in the face about hard-nosed, economic macroeconomic policies, but in the meantime I’ve got a bunch of kids right now who are graduating, and I want to give them some sense that they can have an impact on their immediate circumstances, and the joys of fatherhood.
This discussion points to a common liberal misconception (or, less charitably, a deception): that discussions of “culture” amount to blaming poor people for poverty. “Culture” is an unfortunately vague term, but surely it does not refer merely to the aggregate of individual decisions made in a vacuum. To the contrary, it suggests a system of expectations and incentives that shape and constrain individual decisions – a recognition that chronic poverty is the product of emergent social changes, some strictly economic and some not, which policy makers have only a limited ability to influence.
The panel was part of a conference billed as a “Catholic-evangelical summit on overcoming poverty,” and the president took the opportunity to criticize religious people for having what he sees as the wrong priorities:
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, or same-sex marriage, or what have you. . . .
There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this is oftentimes viewed as a “nice to have” relative to an issue like abortion.
If some Christian conservatives make abortion or same-sex marriage “the defining issue” that they are “really going to the mat for,” is that not equally true of liberals, including the president himself?
More to the point, surely the emergence of a more libertine sexual culture has been a major contributor in the decline of the traditional family. While it may be impossible to put the toothpaste back in that tube – much less to do so by changes in policy and law alone – it seems misguided in the context of a discussion of chronic poverty to criticize religious leaders for resisting the trend.
One final observation: At various points in the discussion, Dionne and Obama subjected John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Republican congressional leaders, to gentle but gratuitous mockery based on the assumption that, as the president put it, that “they’re not watching this” – meaning they’re not especially interested in the question of poverty. That provoked this rejoinder from Brooks:
And by the way, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are watching, at least indirectly, and they’re paying attention to this – 100% sure, because they care a lot about this. And they care a lot about both culture and economics, and they care a lot about poverty. And, again, we have to be really careful not to impugn their motives, and impugning motives on the other side is the No. 1 barrier against making progress. Ad hominem is something we should declare war on and defeat because then we can take on issues on their face, I think. It’s really important morally for us to be able to do that.
Three cheers to Brooks for saying that to the president’s face, and one cheer to Obama for showing up to hear it.
For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”