- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

While the government must still push for public investments in areas such as education and infrastructure, President Obama said Tuesday that family structure, community and faith organizations also have an important role to play in combating poverty in the United States.

Speaking at an unusual gathering of Catholic and evangelical figures from across the political spectrum at Georgetown University, Mr. Obama said the country can’t fully solve the problems of the poor without dealing with the struggles faced by the middle class.

“We can all agree that the best anti-poverty program is a job,” Mr. Obama said. “But we can’t have a conversation about poverty unless we talk about what’s happened to the middle class.”

Religious faith and churches can play a key role in providing motivation and grass-roots energy for the fight, the president argued.

“When I think about my own Christian faith and my own obligations it is important for me to do what I can myself individually. But I also think it’s important to have a voice in the larger debate and I think it would be powerful for our faith-based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion,” Mr. Obama said.

The president lamented what he said was the partisan state of the poverty debate, caricaturing the stances of those both on the left and right.

“We have been stuck, for a long time in a debate that creates a couple of straw men. … The truth is more complicated,” he said. “There are many conservatives who care deeply about the poor, and you can see that in their churches,” just as there are many on the left “who are in the trenches every day who know the importance of family structure.”

Mr. Obama focused on economic opportunities available to urban and low-income families and “isolated” communities, pushing for policies that “[make] sure that economic opportunity is available in communities that are isolated, and that somebody can get a job, and that there’s actually a train that takes folks to where the jobs are,” because “those things are not going to happen through market forces alone.”

The panel also featured Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam and American Enterprise president Arthur Brooks.

Mr. Brooks agreed that the debate over poverty had been hurt by too much partisanship.

“We blow up policy differences until they become a holy war,” he said. “That’s got to stop because it’s completely unnecessary.”

Mr. Brooks said conservatives ought to embrace two key principles in the fight against poverty: Stop talking about the poor as “the other;” and realize that “just because people are on public assistance doesn’t mean they want to be.”

Mr. Putnam said one contributing factor to stubbornly high poverty rates was the decrease in “soft skills” in American public schools, such as those learned in sports and music programs.

“The whole country was benefiting from the fact that we had a very broad-based set of skills that people had,” he said, adding, “These are all our kids and, therefore, we’ve got to invest in all of them.”

“We just don’t make [public goods] investments like we used to,” said Mr. Obama. “What we should say is, we are going to argue hard for those public investments.”

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