Blog: NETWORK Participates in Historic Conference on Poverty

Sarah Spengemen
May 15, 2015

In Washington, we hear politicians on both the left and the right talking every day about “the middle class,” but seldom do they mention the term “poverty.” Political consultants tell candidates that talking about the middle class inspires hope, while talking about poverty sounds too gloomy—people just don’t want to hear it they say.  At NETWORK, we know that the political consultants are wrong, people are hungry for change in this country and they are looking for leaders. This week we were able to participate in a conference held at Georgetown University on “Overcoming Poverty,” which aimed to change the national conversation so that we can begin to address our current reality—45 million Americans living in poverty today.

What was unique about this conference was that it intentionally brought together over one hundred Catholic and Evangelical faith leaders from around the country to talk about how to get poverty on the national agenda, and also to identify real solutions to poverty that all of us, progressives and conservatives alike, could support.  NETWORK was privileged to be invited to this unique conference and to contribute to the dialogue about how we can end the scandal of millions of Americans who remain in poverty despite living in the wealthiest nation on earth.

The conference was organized by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals and was inspired by the recent book by social scientist Robert Putnam on child poverty and social mobility in America entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam spoke to us the first night of the conference, and he described an America today that is dramatically changed from the America of his youth.

Americans, Putnam argues, used to think of all of the kids in the community as “our kids,” and our public investments showed that. We invested in after-school programs, in public parks and recreation centers, in our elementary schools and in our universities. We knew that the success of the whole community depended on the success of every child.  And in the years between World War II and the early 1970s it was entirely possible to be born into a poor family, but to grow up to find a job that would pay you enough to join the ranks of the middle class and to support your family. Children born in the 1950s and 60s were able to break out of poverty and to achieve the “American Dream.” Not so today.  In his book and at the conference, Putnam says that the statistics and the stories tell us that kids today born into poverty are likely to remain in poverty. We as a community have stopped investing in them as young people, and as wages have stagnated and unions have declined, there very few opportunities for them to escape poverty as adults.

The next morning Robert Putnam was joined by President Barack Obama and Arthur Brooks for a conversation about poverty facilitated by E.J. Dionne. First of all, it is highly unusual for a sitting president to participate in a panel discussion, but for those of us who have been watching Obama closely for the past decade, we also know that it is unusual for the President to speak out so boldly about poverty. Hearing him do so was very encouraging.

The President called out an “anti-government ideology” for disinvesting in our communities and for consistently blocking new investments. He said that our current budgets show our unwillingness to make the investments that are proven to lift people out of poverty: “You look at state budgets, you look at city budgets, and you look at federal budgets, and we don’t make those same common investments that we used to.  And it’s had an impact.  And we shouldn’t pretend that somehow we have been making those same investments.  We haven’t been.  And there’s been a very specific ideological push not to make those investments.”

He went on to say that until we are willing to talk seriously about raising revenues, about making sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share, until then, we are not serious about addressing poverty in this nation: “That’s where the question of compassion and ‘I’m my brother’s keeper’ comes into play.  And if we can’t ask from society’s lottery winners to just make that modest investment, then, really, this conversation is for show.” Also encouraging was hearing Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, who was also on the panel, call on conservatives to “declare peace on the safety net.”  But as Obama pointed out, we need to be able to pay for those programs and the only way is through a more equitable tax system.

Later that same evening we were privileged to hear from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who spoke with passion about mass incarceration in the United States. We are not the land of the free, he declared, when we have only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. He said he is making it his mission while he is a Senator to end mass incarceration as we know it in the United States. He is hopeful that we can do this and we can do this soon, but he asked for the support of the faith leaders present at the conference and for us to reach out to our networks. He challenged us by affirming that it is people of faith who should be the leaders of the movement to end a racist institution that destroys lives and breaks up families.

The following day’s sessions were an opportunity for participants to dialogue about what we, as leaders coming from the Catholic and Evangelical traditions and as progressives and conservatives, could agree on in terms of a common agenda. Everyone at the conference agreed that the visit of Pope Francis to the United States and his speech to Congress will be a watershed moment and will create more opportunity than we have had in a decade to talk about poverty at the national level. We also all agreed to use the 2016 election to get candidates to debate solutions to poverty. We as people of faith need to insist that candidates explain specifically how they plan to reduce the poverty rate by half during their term in office. We also agreed on a legislative agenda, knowing that even in this very partisan climate, we can get representatives on both side of the aisle to agree on a plan to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

Our time hearing from and being able to dialogue with faith leaders on the issue of poverty at the Georgetown conference gave us at NETWORK great hope that we will make progress and that there is a brighter future for the most vulnerable members of our nation. We know that it will not be easy, but we also know that people of faith have historically been leaders of all the great reform movements in our history from abolition, to the Progressive Era, to civil rights. We can do it again and we will.

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