Bipartisan Summit Aims to Make Poverty a Pressing Moral Issue

President Obama joined a liberal professor and a conservative economist this week at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, held at Georgetown University, to discuss the issue of poverty in America.

The panel discussion included Obama; Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor; Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative, pro-business think tank American Enterprise Institute. The panel addressed a roomful of faith leaders with the purpose of prioritizing poverty, an issue that is often overlooked in the shadow of polarizing, hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

Alleviating poverty and the plight of the poor has often been seen as a religious responsibility. However, the issue has been gaining urgency in the national sphere following the fatal shootings of a number of poor, young African American men within the last year.

In the wake of events following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in Baltimore, Obama said, “If you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, [it is more likely they will] end up in jail or dead, than go to college.”

During the discussion, Obama and Putnam argued that disengagement from public life by wealthier Americans has exasperated the growing divide between poor and wealthy Americans. Brooks said government assistance should be for the “truly indigent” and “should come with the dignifying power of work.”

The main consensus of the discussion, though, was that poverty in the U.S. is too urgent a problem to leave to religious organizations to solve and that the only chance for making improvements is through bipartisanship.

“This is not an ‘either-or’ conversation,” Obama said. “It’s ‘both-and.’”