Obama: We Must 'Guard Against Cynicism' When It Comes To Poverty : It's All Politics "There's a lot we can do," President Obama said at a forum in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. Just across town, progressive leaders laid out plans to tackle poverty.
NPR logo

Obama: We Must 'Guard Against Cynicism' When It Comes To Poverty

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/406238248/406241898" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Obama: We Must 'Guard Against Cynicism' When It Comes To Poverty

Obama: We Must 'Guard Against Cynicism' When It Comes To Poverty

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/406238248/406241898" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama says overcoming poverty requires a strong economy and strong families. The president spoke today at a panel on poverty at Georgetown University. Organizers at the Catholic school say they were inspired by Pope Francis and his call to put the poor at the center of religious and public life. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Journalist E.J. Dionne, who moderated the panel, says poverty is not the kind of issue politicians usually like to address unless it's forced on them by events like last month's riots in Baltimore. President Obama says the discussion often gets hung up over the role of government, families and religious institutions. The complicated reality, he says, is that addressing poverty takes all three.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think it's important, when it comes to dealing with issues of poverty, for us to guard against cynicism and not buy the idea that the poor will always be with us, and there's nothing we can do 'cause there's a lot we can do.

HORSLEY: Obama sometimes draws criticism from within the black community for delivering a tough love message to African-Americans in which he stresses personal responsibility as one road out of poverty. The president said today he makes no apology for that approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: 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 had the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.

HORSLEY: But Obama says highlighting family dysfunction and other social ills is no excuse for shortchanging the kind of public investment that's needed to boost opportunity in places such as Appalachia or inner-city Baltimore. He suggested some of the wealthiest Americans have grown less willing to make such public investments as they're increasingly isolated from the poor and middle class. Obama complained, not for the first time, about the tax breaks enjoyed by some of the wealthiest, and he said the richest 25 hedge fund managers made more than all the kindergarten teachers in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: If we can't ask from society's lottery winners to just make that modest investment, then really this conversation is for show.

HORSLEY: Obama was joined on the panel by Arthur Brooks, who heads the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Brooks dismissed the president's hedge fund example as a show issue and argued the growing gap between the richest Americans and everyone else results from seismic economic shifts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR BROOKS: The poor are not having their money taken away and given to the rich. To the extent that we can get away from this notion that the rich are stealing from the poor, then we can look at this, and I think, in a way that's constructive.

HORSLEY: But across town at a session organized by the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, progressive economists and politicians argued there has been a deliberate transfer of wealth upwards. Since the 1980s, the proceeds of economic growth have flowed almost exclusively to the top of the income ladder. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren insists that's no accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: The rich and powerful rigged the game, and now they want the game to stay rigged. If we want a strong middle class, it is time for new rules.

HORSLEY: Many of the new rules Warren called for today are similar to those Obama has championed, so far without much success - stronger unions, more public works investment, a higher minimum wage. The policies raised today for addressing poverty and stagnant middle-class wages could help frame the debate for next year's presidential election. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.