Culture, Economics, and Poverty


We had an unusual experience last week, with President Obama participating in, of all things, a panel discussion on poverty with three leading public intellectuals, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Robert Putnam, and Arthur Brooks. The conversation ranged pretty widely, with a number of issues coming up, some of which didn’t get all that much attention. I know that there were some hot button moments, which received a good bit of radio and television air time, not to mention editorial and blogosphere commentary, but I’d rather take a deep breath and proceed just a bit more calmly.

Let me begin by observing that the President displayed flashes of the persona that made him at least somewhat appealing when he first appeared on the national scene. He at least said he wanted to get past the partisan divide where one side spoke only about economics and the other only about culture:

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.

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.

And it seems to me 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.

I agree: let’s talk about poverty in terms both of the economic straits in which individuals and families find themselves and of the culture (embodied in the media, schools, and government programs, as well as in churches and other community institutions) that should, but doesn’t necessarily, encourage responsibility for oneself, for one’s partner(s), and for any and all children one brings into the world.

Here are some takeaways from the conversation. There was, in the first instance, a good bit of talk about the disparity of opportunities available to those at different ends of the economic spectrum. Robert Putnam set the tone here, alluding to evidence from his recent book that our poor kids get much less support and have much less to which to look forward than do their wealthy counterparts:

[Y]ou can see it in measures of family stability.  You can see it in measures of the investments that parents are able to make in their kids, the investments of money and the investments of time.  You can see it in the quality of schools kids go to.  You can see it in the character of the social and community support that kids — rich kids and poor kids are getting from their communities.

The President responded to this opening by referring to an idealized portrait of community that Putnam draws in the book, one where, despite class differences, everyone shares in the same social and public institutions:

[W]hen I read Bob’s book, the first thing that strikes you is when he’s growing up in Ohio, he’s in a community where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school.  The janitor’s daughter may be going out with the banker’s son.  There are a set of common institutions — they may attend the same church; they may be members of the same rotary club; they may be active at the same parks — and all the things that stitch them together.  And that is all contributing to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community.

Perhaps that was true in some ethnically and religiously homogeneous small towns and urban neighborhoods—Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City is eloquent on this subject—but I have my doubts about it as a sweeping generalization. While, for example, private schools did not proliferate until the 1960s, they have long been available to Roman Catholics (as an alternative to the erstwhile weak-tea Protestantism of the public schools) and to the very wealthy (think Phillips Exeter, Andover, and Choate in the Northeast, as well as Westminster and Woodward here in Atlanta). And anyone who has lived in the South would know that there at least once was a socioeconomic pecking order among Protestant churches, with an enormous contrast between, say, the up-market Episcopalians and the down-market Primitive Baptists. (Indeed, if anything, the decline of the mainline churches and the rise of evangelicalism have served to counteract this phenomenon, so that a much broader socioeconomic spectrum is represented in the pews in many churches on any given Sunday).

Nevertheless, there are three ways community thus conceived can arguably promote social mobility. There are, first of all, the cultural norms of hard work and personal responsibility that can be shared across class boundaries. In this respect, so-called positive role models are not distant abstractions, but personal acquaintances. Peer pressure doesn’t come from (or only from) local gang members but—one hopes—from high-achieving classmates and neighbors. Second, the networks of opportunity readily available to the affluent become open to classmates and acquaintances who don’t have access to them on their own. Finally, because everyone participates in these public institutions, everyone cares about their continued vitality. Thus, for example, parents get involved in PTA’s, care about school board elections, and are active in promoting “investments” (one of the President’s favorite words) in public education. In the Georgetown conversation, we hear something about the last two considerations, but very little (and in any event not enough) about the first.

But if this talk about community isn’t simply to be a nostalgic reminiscence about or longing for something we’ve lost, it behooves us to ask what, practically, we can do to restore it (or preserve it where it still exists).

It would, for example, be impossible—not to say highly undesirable—to compel everyone to attend public schools. While I could imagine some political leaders succumbing to that temptation and trying to regulate private schools out of existence, to the degree that education remains primarily a state and local responsibility, I can’t imagine such a policy sweeping the nation.   And even if—horror of horrors—private options were taken off the table, people have historically voted with their feet, exercising “school choice” by moving into a neighborhood whose public schools are attractive. Political efforts to negate the effects of private residential choices haven’t found favor with voters or, for that matter, with the Supreme Court.

This is where, I humbly submit, school choice programs that empower especially lower income people to place their children in better schools actually show some promise of making the aforementioned benefits of community available. Children can escape an essentially homogeneous peer culture that is inimical to achievement and move into schools where parents are involved and there are positive role models. Too bad the President and his party consistently oppose school choice, preferring all too often simply to demand more funding for public schools, as if government by itself can compensate for the social ills that inevitably accompany dysfunctional communities.

A similar statism is implicit in the President’s comments about the role of religion in dealing with the problem of poverty. Here’s what he said:

[W]hen I think about my own Christian faith and my obligations, it is important for me to do what I can myself — individually mentoring young people, or making charitable donations, or in some ways impacting whatever circles and influence I have.  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.

This may sound self-interested because there have been — 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.  And so maybe it appears advantageous for me to want to focus on these issues of poverty, and not as much on these other issues….

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.  That’s not across the board, but there sometimes has been that view, and certainly that’s how it’s perceived in our political circles.

While President Obama didn’t go as far as Robert Putnam in mischaracterizing the relative weight of religious emphasis on poverty as opposed to social issues, these remarks do imply that, in his view, social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage play a distractingly large role in the outward-looking role of all too many Christian churches. He does hedge and qualify his statement a bit, but the larger point is that, so far as “our political circles” are concerned, the church’s witness on poverty takes a back seat to its positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. As many have pointed out, this is simply mistaken, but it reveals something about what sorts of actions matter to the President. Furthermore, I’ve argued elsewhere that the President’s principal interest in faith-based groups seems to be mobilizing public support for government action, rather than encouraging their activity as an alternative or supplement to government. He doesn’t see—or at least doesn’t want to highlight—what churches and other faith-based organizations can do as actors in civil society, as possible alternatives to government action. We aren’t supposed to help ourselves or help one another but through the instrumentality of the government. The national conversation on poverty should largely be devoted to what government can do.

I’d like to conclude with a reflection on perhaps President Obama’s most solid contribution to the conversation:

[W]e can all stipulate that the best antipoverty program is a job, which confers not just income, but structure and dignity and a sense of connection to community.  Which means we have to spend time thinking about the macro-economy, the broader economy as a whole.

He’s right in every facet of his statement. Having a job is not just about the income, but also about the self-discipline that comes from having to meet obligations to employers, customers, and clients and the dignity that comes from being able to take care of oneself and one’s family. And these relationships are the backbone of every community. I do not mean hereby to deprecate the institutions of civil society—churches, neighborhood associations, and so on—but they don’t prosper without the dignified contributions (both personal and financial) of more or less self-reliant individuals.

While it is clear that our economy hasn’t in recent years generated enough good jobs to lift our least fortunate brothers and sisters out of poverty, I found little in President Obama’s remarks that gave me much confidence that he held the key to success in this regard. We can’t redistribute our way to a better future, so a simple—almost demagogic—focus on inequality won’t do. As Arthur Brooks argued—frequently and effectively, in my view—there is no substitute for a dynamic and productive economy as a generator of wealth. And, as he also argued, ensuring that everyone benefits requires making hard choices that our political classes haven’t demonstrated their willingness to make.

Perhaps conversations like the one that took place last week will provide an opening for further, deeper exchanges of views and for genuinely productive policy-making. But I’m sad to say that I’m not holding my breath.