Print Post
  • Debating how culture and economics shape poverty can distract us from helping the poor people right in front of us. Tweet This
  • Want to alleviate poverty where you live? Focus on poor people, not poverty in the abstract. Tweet This

Last week I attended the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty. As I waited for President Obama to arrive at Georgetown University, I struck up a conversation with Brian Kahn, a Montana conservationist, lawyer, and radio host of “Home Ground,” broadcast throughout Montana on public radio. An agnostic, he was at the event because Pope Francis’s denunciation in Joy of the Gospel of “an economy of exclusion” inspired him to found an organization, Friends of Francis. Their mission is “to unite people across the globe—believers and non-believers—in implementing the central moral vision of Pope Francis by working together for a better world.” A gentle man with a moral mission, Kahn has a plan (to be revealed to the public soon) for addressing youth unemployment, and he is talking to anyone who will listen.

President Obama eventually arrived, and in a remarkable act for any sitting president, he was there not to deliver a speech, but to sit on a panel alongside a conservative think tank leader, Arthur Brooks, and a liberal social scientist, Robert Putnam. On the agenda was poverty, and more specifically, Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, in which he delivers a powerful moral call: Will we as an American people—as religious congregations responsible for neighborhoods, as politicians responsible for budgets and policies—rally around poor children as “our kids,” or dismiss them on the grounds that their parents made poor choices?

The summit’s subtitle, “the moral, policy, and strategic imperative of and,” invited participants to think in terms of “both-and,” instead of “either-or”: for instance, “both economic and family factors,” “both personal and societal responsibility.” Naturally, then, the panel with President Obama included discussion of how both family structures and economic structures affect poverty. E.J. Dionne, the moderator, asked President Obama about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s criticism 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.” Would the president, Coates had asked, address an audience of Barnard women the way that he has sometimes addressed audiences of black men, namely, exhorting them to “stop making excuses”?

“It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse,” President Obama responded, “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.”

Yes, the president said, macroeconomic forces matter. But, he added, when a young black man tells him about his father who has fled to another state, and he wonders how he could love his dad, “I’m not going to have a conversation with him about macroeconomics. I’m going to have a conversation with him about how I tried to understand what it is that my father had gone through, and how issues that were very specific to him created his difficulties in his relationships and his children so that I might be able to forgive him, and that I might then be able to come to terms with that.”

We can talk about “character” and “family structures,” as well as macroeconomic forces, the president concluded, because “this is not an either/or conversation. It is a both-and.” It was a courageous and compassionate response, and perhaps the most eloquent appeal during the three-day conference about the imperative of addressing the legacy of both family fragmentation and deindustrialization.

The conference brought together over one-hundred religious and policy leaders, many of whom are on the front lines with poor people. One remarkable man I met, Alan Andrews, an Evangelical in his early seventies, moved with his wife—after a lifetime of leading a missionary organization—into a poor, urban neighborhood, because he explained, they wanted to be closer to poor people. Alan and his wife do the best they can, but, he cautioned, if you want to help poor people, you have to abandon the “results” attitude. What matters most is faithfulness, not success, he emphasizes, because “success” is elusive. The people he knows have been sexually abused, and struggle with mental illness and addiction. Distrust runs deep, he said, and the only way to break through that distrust is through “being there.”

It struck me that, for him, the debate between whether culture or economics matters more is less important than the fact that his friend struggles with drug addiction, and Alan is focused on doing what he can to help him. As one summit participant stated, sometimes the debate about culture versus economics keeps us from doing what matters most: keeping our hearts wide open to the poor person right in front of us.

Yes, there are very serious disagreements that demand more dialogue. Contra President Obama’s suggestion that religious congregations would do well to focus less on abortion, and more on poverty, religious people rightly respond, “How is talking about the least of the least of these—the unborn—separate from talking about the least of these?” (Moreover, religious congregations do, in fact, spend a lot of resources in other ways to alleviate poverty.) And contra some conservatives’ suggestion that we do well to focus more on rebuilding opportunity, and less on the rich, President Obama rightly noted: it’s not just macroeconomic forces like globalization that have been very good for the fabulously rich, but also “values and decisions that have aided and abetted that process.” For too long, conservatives have mostly ignored the moral drama underlying shifting economic structures (even as liberals have mostly ignored the moral drama underlying shifting family structures).

But asking what we can do—as religious congregations, neighbors, politicians—to come alongside the poor is a promising way to break through the polarization and get us talking to each other and rebuilding trust. And as one summit participant reminded us, our focus should be on poor people, not poverty in the abstract. If we keep our eyes and hearts wide open to the stories of the poor, there solidarity can work its miracles.