President Obama laid out his vision for alleviating the scourge of generational poverty - a view that he says was shaped by his experience growing up in a single-parent home. His remarks provided rare insight into an often-guarded president, now in his second term.
"It's hard being poor. People don't like being poor. And it's time consuming. It's stressful. It's hard," he said during a panel discussion Tuesday morning at Georgetown University.
Mr. Obama said partisans across the ideological spectrum should set aside assumptions and reframe the debate around the realities and roots of poverty. "The stereotype is you have folks on the left who want to pour money into social programs and don't care anything about culture or parenting or family structures. That's one stereotype. Then you've got cold-hearted, free-market capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody's moochers, and I think the truth is more complicated," Mr. Obama said.
Addressing the issue of parenting, Mr. Obama invoked his own experience growing up without a father. He told the audience that he'd have a different conversation with students at a historically black university than at an all-women's college. "I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard and I make no apologies for that. And the reason is - is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I had the capacity to break that cycle and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off," he said.
President Obama argued the most effective anti-poverty program is a job. He described the consequences of widespread unemployment which he said has disproportionally affected African American communities for decades and persists today. "Men who could not get jobs left [their families]. Mothers who are single are not able to read as much to their kids," he said.
Washington Post opinion writer E.J. Dionne moderated the discussion. Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University and Arthur Brooks, president of American Enterprise Institute, participated on the panel.
Since the 1970s, the president said, communities have self-segregated along class lines, which has led to disinvestment in "common goods" like parks, schools and infrastructure in some of the neediest places. "Part of what's happened is elites in a very mobile globalized world are able to live together away from folks who are not as wealthy and so they feel less of a commitment to making those investments," Mr. Obama said.
The president admitted he was part of that elite set. "I don't know - not only do I not know poor people. I don't know people who have trouble paying the bills at the end of the month. I just don't know those people. So there's less sense of investment in those children," the president said.
Mr. Obama reiterated his calls for infrastructure investments, the expansion of broadband internet to rural communities, keeping art and music classes in schools and expanding early childhood education funding. "Those things are not going to happen through market forces alone," he added.