Will we regard poverty as a haunting national problem, or will the focus groups continue to tell politicians of all stripes to talk only about the middle class because mentioning the poor is politically toxic?

Might the condition of low-income Americans galvanize religious people to see alleviating poverty and righting social injustice as moral issues? The habit in political writing when discussing “moral issues” is to refer only to abortion or gay marriage. But what implicates morality more than the way we, as a society and as individuals, treat those who are cut off from the ladders of advancement and the treasures of prosperity?

And can we find a way of thinking constructively about the role of family breakup in setting back the life chances of poor kids while still recognizing that family life itself is being battered by rising economic inequality, the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs, racism and mass incarceration?

These are some of the questions I am left with after moderating a discussion about poverty at Georgetown University this week. For all the obvious journalistic reasons, it’s not my habit to write about events in which I participate. But this particular panel was a bit different from the usual policy talkfest.

It included Robert Putnam, the author of Our Kids -- a book that should focus our energies on the growing opportunity gap between lower-income and better-off children -- and Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been urging his fellow conservatives to “declare peace on the safety net.” It also happened to include the president of the United States.

Others can judge more objectively how the discussion went. What’s obvious is that presidents don’t usually do panels and that the spirit of this one broke from so much of what we’ve grown accustomed to, in its civility and even good humor. Yet I was also reminded how far we have to go before we achieve anything close to consensus about what is to be done to liberate the least among us.

The fact that it took place at all is a tribute to religious leaders (particularly the Catholics and evangelicals involved in organizing the Poverty Summit, as the event sponsoring the panel was called) who are trying to push the alleviation of poverty to the top of the faithful’s agenda. Something is stirring in the religious world. Pope Francis certainly has something to do with this, but there’s also the tug of history. Religious groups were long at the forefront of our nation’s movements for civil rights and economic justice. People of faith are reassuming their rightful place in these struggles.

President Obama clearly wants to push that trend along. He acknowledged that he might be “self-interested” in this: He is closest to religious Christians on social justice questions and furthest away on abortion and same-sex marriage. But he insisted that religious Americans have a “transformative voice” that could alter the nation’s trajectory on poverty.

He also mentioned that social justice concerns have “incredible appeal, including to young people.” The panel took place on a day when the Pew Research Center issued a report showing a remarkable decline of religious affiliation. Among the youngest millennials (those twenty-five and under), 36 percent are now religiously unaffiliated. A broader religious agenda might bring some of them back.

Yet the session also highlighted the political and intellectual barriers to action. Brooks offered moving words urging his fellow conservatives to treat the poor as “brothers and sisters,” not as “liabilities to manage.” Obama welcomed Brooks’s witness, but noted the reluctance of so many conservatives to spend new public money to open up opportunity for the needy. “There’s been a very specific ideological push not to make those investments,” he said.

The family issue remains neuralgic. Obama spoke powerfully about being “a black man who grew up without a father” and “the cost that I paid for that.” But his words can’t settle the ongoing and often divisive argument over whether family difficulties should be seen primarily as a cause of poverty or as the effect of poverty itself. That the right answer is complicated doesn’t make things any easier.

Still, this doesn’t take away from the small miracle that the concerns of the poor briefly slipped into a political discussion usually focused far more on the doings of billionaire donors. Americans with low incomes can’t get much nourishment from words, and sentiments don’t create jobs. But for a moment, they weren’t invisible.


E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected]. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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