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Are the Winds Changing on Poverty in the US?

It is hard to count how many summits on poverty I have attended in my 40 years of working in the field of Christian relief, development, and social justice. It is even harder to judge whether or not they have been worthwhile – whether those living in poverty and oppression have ultimately benefitted. It depends on the day you ask me.

But the summit I attended in Washington last week was different, and the first clue was its title: Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty: The Moral, Policy and Strategic Imperative of ‘and’. The second clue was the security questionnaire all 150 of us had to fill out—the president of the United States was going to be there as a member of a three person panel discussing Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

I can count the number of summits I’ve attended where a sitting US president was part of a three-person panel, arguing social policy with a Harvard social scientist (Robert Putnam) and an ideological opposite (Arthur Brooks) from the American Enterprise Institute. The number is ONE.

What is going on?

A – was the summit just a huge coup for some marketer in a phenomenally successful promotional tour for Robert Putnam’s new book?

B - was it a “legacy summit” for aging Catholic and Evangelical Washington DC staffers, a sort of “capstone” summit from which to retire in style?

Or C - does it signify a major change in US religious and political winds such that we may expect to see significant progress on fixing some of the broken systems that have given the US the most skewed distribution of wealth since the heyday of savage capitalism in the 1890’s?

I believe the answer – a cautious answer – is “C”.

The summit had a curious name. It was the summit of “and” – which hints at the first change in the direction of the wind.

This was a summit that consciously invited experts and participants from the ideological left and right with the purpose of finding common ground rather than defending disputed territory. Every presenter and panelist  – whether Fuller Seminary’s Rich Mouw, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, experts from the progressive Center for American Progress, or the right leaning American Enterprise Institute – agreed on the moral and ethical wrongness of our present situation and then went on to struggle with what common policy ground might be found to combat the wrong.

This is new and hopeful on three levels: first, rarely do we get out of our left/right echo chambers here in the US when talking about these things – so this was a real conversation not just an exercise in embellishing each other’s views. Second, the conversations started with broadly accepted evidence – we had common data to work with, much of it summarized in and illustrated with stories from Putnam’s book. Third, although there were real differences in the diagnosis of the problem the evidence presented, the differences were discovered to be largely ones of emphasis rather than content.

For example, there was broad affirmation of the overwhelming evidence that two-parent, intact families correlate strongly with thriving children and the healthy adults they become. There is different emphasis on what matters more – the external social and economic forces that tear families apart or the internal decisions of individuals as they strive to resist these forces. In terms of policy then, do Christian citizens advocate for living wage legislation or for educational and social marketing efforts (as governments and churches) to urge marriage as the norm and empower struggling couples to find the will and skills to stay together? 

The challenge to the summit participants was this: what if we did both? Why not accept the broader diagnosis that says there are multiple causes for the break-down of families, drop the need to be ideologically pure, and become advocates for social policies that arise from multiple emphases?

So am I looking for sudden progress on solutions to our worsening distribution of opportunity and consequent increasing disparity in wealth and income? Maybe.

First the bad news: ideology is not dead yet – and it will take a long struggle to cut the ideological bonds that hold the poor among us hostage. For example, we can all agree – and did –that universal prenatal care, postnatal care, and early childhood education for all children is a critical piece of breaking through the poverty prison, and reducing abortions as well. But we cannot agree to fund it through increased taxes or reallocation of existing resources.

On the other side, those who see minimum wage legislation as a way to force corporations to pay the real cost of labor are extremely reluctant to support those who see subsidized wages as a better way to go. Objectively, the benefits to the working poor are likely identical but it offends many on the Left to subsidize “unethical” business models of large corporations such as Walmart.

It boils down to this: most of us are not yet willing to take ideological “losses” in order to achieve a better deal for those who are now being impoverished – and for children who, to borrow a Putnam line, “made a really bad choice of parents”.

I end with the good news: First, there is growing awareness at the leadership level on both the left and the right that we are on an unsustainable path. We need to do something. The intersection of poverty, race, class, and opportunity is now a national conversation in the US – and, I think, in a modified form, in Canada also.

Second, there are at least two specific policy areas of broad agreement within the left-right spectrum of the US Christian community as represented at the summit. We can expect the Earned Income-tax Credit (EITC) to grow in size and to expand to include individuals without dependent children. This is huge progress across ideological lines. It constitutes, in effect, a (deserved) societal subsidy for those who do not make a living wage or cannot find a full-time job.

There is also broad agreement that our criminal justice system is badly broken and that we must quickly fix those things contributing to immoral and immensely costly mass incarceration at the federal and state levels.

I’m a little tired of talks and of summits. I wish we had specific pieces of legislation ready to table and to advocate for. But the truth is that every bit of collective action begins with talk – with conversation, disagreements, and differences. When you get to the stage of looking for common ground, well, that is progress.

Let’s celebrate the talk as the progress it is. Let’s pray and work for the real outcomes it may portend. And most of all, let’s not value ideological “wins” over real improvement in the lives and opportunities of those who struggle to survive.

(By the way, Robert Putnam’s book – Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis – is well worth a read. For a thoughtful review see Robert Gerson’s recent CPJ essay.)

[Image: Flickr user Michael Rosenquest]

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