President Barack Obama, a late addition to a Catholic-evangelical summit at Georgetown University on overcoming poverty, said events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Baltimore demonstrate a need to "refocus attention on poverty."
Obama, speaking May 12, said, "We have been stuck, I think for a long time, in a debate that creates a couple of straw men." The stereotype of people on the left is of people who want to "pour money" to alleviate social problems, he added, while the stereotype of people on the right is that of "coldhearted free-market capitalist types who read Ayn Rand and think everybody's mooching."
Government resources "can create a difference," Obama asserted. "We can do something about these issues. It would be a mistake to say every effort we've made has failed."
The War on Poverty that began 50 years ago cut U.S. poverty rates by 40 percent, Obama said; the biggest beneficiaries were senior citizens, and the number of U.S. poor seems stuck in the 45 million range.
"We have bested poverty when we've decided to do something about it," Obama said, although the open question is "do we have the political will, the common will, to do something about it?"
Obama noted that he grew up without his father in the household, often a telling indicator as to whether young men -- and young black men in particular -- will succeed in life. "I know I had the capacity to break that cycle, and I think because of that my daughters are better off," he said.
The president touted the My Brother's Keeper initiative he unveiled last year, which seeks to expand opportunities for young black and Hispanic men.
Obama said when he gives a commencement speech at historically black Spelman College, he is more likely to deliver a message of responsibility to the male graduates in the audience than he would to the female graduates of Barnard College because of the importance of stressing responsibility to young black men whenever possible.
By the same token, if a black high schooler asks for advice on how to love his absentee father who's moved to another state to avoid having to pay court-ordered child support, "I'm not going to have a conversation with him about macroeconomics," Obama said to applause.
Obama's participation in the poverty summit was only made public May 8, four days before his appearance, which set off a scramble to accommodate the president's schedule.
"The best anti-poverty program is a job," Obama said, but noted also that the share of income earned by the lowest 90 percent of American workers has declined over the past 40 years. The "elites," he added, have segregated themselves from the rest of society by sending their children to private schools -- more than half of all public school students in the country today are from low-income families -- and going to private clubs.
By isolating themselves, America's rich can get an "anti-government" mentality that includes cutting aid to the poor with whom they no longer come in contact, the president said: "'We're spending all this money and we're getting these poor outcomes.' We're using this logic as an excuse."
Government spending reflects a nation's priorities. "We can have a reinforcement of the values and character we want, but it will cost us some money," Obama said, listing such items as education, rural broadband and infrastructure, as examples of spending that invests in skills that lead to jobs that can sustain families.
Where that money will come from is often under dispute. Obama said he wanted to place a 15 percent tax on hedge fund carryovers, adding that the nation's top 25 hedge fund managers make more money than all of the nation's kindergarten teachers combined. But when he suggested the tax, "I was called Hitler -- like Hitler invading Poland. That's what one hedge fund manager said," the president recalled.
"If we can't ask for society's lottery winners for that modest contribution, then really this conversation is all for show," Obama said to further applause.
He acknowledged disagreement with Catholic and evangelical leaders on "reproductive issues and same-sex marriage," but that should not serve as a barrier, he said, to working together to reduce poverty.
Attention must be paid to the plight of the poor, Obama added. "Nobody has said that better than Pope Francis, who has been transformative through his sincerity and insistence that this is vital to who we are," he said. "I look forward to hosting him" when the pope comes to Washington as part of a larger U.S. visit in September.
It was Obama's fourth visit to Georgetown as president. The previous visits took place in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
Obama spoke at Healy Hall, the oldest building on campus. On the same steps where the first president, George Washington, addressed two of his nephews who were among Georgetown's first students, current Georgetown students waited in line for student tickets more than three hours before the 44th president spoke.