Obama Gets Personal on Poverty: 'It's Hard Being Poor'

President Obama had a message for the economists with whom he shared the stage.

ByAli Weinberg
May 12, 2015, 4:21 PM

— -- President Obama had a message for the economists with whom he shared the stage at a summit on poverty today: Don’t forget the role race has played in economic and social inequality for generations.

“It’s hard being poor. People don’t like being poor. It’s time-consuming, it’s stressful… it’s hard,” the president said, seated next to Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor and prolific writer on inequality, and Arthur Brooks, the president of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, at a Georgetown University summit on poverty.

“All that was happening 40 years ago to African-Americans and now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community,” he continued.

The president was responding to a point Putnam made that inequality has grown since communities started getting more fragmented within the past 30 or 40 years, because of factors like local governments cutting funding for after-school programs like sports and music.

“Even back in Bob’s day, that was also happening, it’s just, it was happening to black people,” Obama said.

The president also responded to some of his critics, both at the round table and elsewhere. First, it was FOX News, which he brought up as he lamented conservatives’ tendency to brand those reliant on public assistance as lazy.

“If you watch FOX News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu. They will find folks who make me mad! I don’t know where they find them. Right? They’re all like, ‘I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obamaphone, or whatever.’ And that becomes an entire narrative, right, that gets worked up.”

Obama also noted that many in the financial sector had criticized his wanting to do things that people in both parties support, like closing tax loopholes, referencing some of the more outlandish claims his critics have made.

“When I, for example, make an argument about closing the carried interest loophole that exists, whereby hedge fund managers are paying 15 percent on the fees and income they collect, I’ve been called Hitler for doing this. Or at least this is like Hitler going into Poland. That’s an actual quote from a hedge fund manager when I made that recommendation,” he said.

He said everyone has a stake in reversing the downward trend of income inequality, including the upper echelons. “If we can't ask from society’s lottery winners to just make that modest contribution, than really this conversation is for show.”

He also pushed back on critics who say he delivers one message to minority students and a different one to students at, say, Barnard College for women.

“I’ve got a boy who says, ‘You know what, how did you get over being mad at your dad, because I’ve got a father who beat my mom, and now has left, and has left the state and I’ve never seen him because he’s trying to avoid $83,000 in child support payments. And I want to love my dad but I don’t know how to do that.’ I’m not going to have a conversation with him about macroeconomics,” he said.

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