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When President Barack Obama talks about the roots of poverty with young black graduates he frames the conversation differently than discussions with Washington economic policy wonks.
And, Obama told an audience gathered for a conference on poverty hosted by Georgetown University on Tuesday, he makes no apologies for that type of code switch — a way of framing the same message differently for different audiences.
“When I have a boy who says ‘how do you get over being mad at your dad’…I’m not going to have a conversation about macroeconomics,” the president said. “ I’m going to have a conversation with him about how I tried to understand what my father had gone through… so I might be able to forgive him.”
That need to address poverty from both a personal responsibility and public policy perspective were center stage during the panel which also included Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Brookings Institution and Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard professor.
The president’s comments come in the wake of unrest in Baltimore— tension that was rooted, in part, in socioeconomic disenfranchisement and racial inequity that came to the fore during riots that roiled the city last month. In the days following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black man who died in Baltimore while in police custody, the president urged the nation to do some “soul searching” on the impact of poverty.
“If you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty,” the president said following the unrest in Baltimore, “it is more likely that those children “end up in jail or dead, than they go to college.”
The president, who during his time in office has stressed the need to support the middle class, also has an agenda designed to combat poverty in cities like Baltimore, from expanding access to preschool and community college to his specific "My Brother's Keeper" program designed to help young black males achieve success.
However, liberal intellectuals — including several black intellectuals — have long criticized the president for his focus on personal and parental responsibility and argue that such an approach ignores the deep and systemic racial disenfranchisement that is often at the root of poverty. Critics on the right say the president offers government solutions for all socioeconomic problems at the expense of taxpayers.
The president’s views on the matter are complex, say those who have followed the president’s career.
“The president has been in this place from the beginning,” Dionne of the Brookings Institution told MSNBC. He added that the president in his early years in politics was someone, “who did work his way up, and yet all throughout that period he was basically a progressive in saying there is racism, there is economic injustice.”
The factors that contribute to poverty aren’t new, the president has stressed in several public comments. However, all too often, those who oppose additional government investment in programs designed to be a social safety net for the poorest Americans, argue that increased personal responsibility would do more than money to cure economic woes.
“This is not an either or conversation it’s both and,” the president told the gathering. “Those who have argued against a safety net have used the rationale that character matters… (to justify) disinvestment in public good that took place over the past 40 years.”
The president also connected the message of personal responsibility and public accountability to the issue of how the faith community can help address poverty. He highlighted Pope Francis' efforts as an example of the faith community's work on poverty matters.
"When I think about my own Christian faith and my own obligations it is important for me to do what I can myself individually," Obama said. "But I also think it's important to have a voice in the larger debate and I think it would be powerful for our faith based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion."