Why Obama is Worried About ‘Class Segregation’

At forum on poverty, the president laments “those who are doing better … withdrawing from the commons.”

President Obama participates in a discussion on poverty with moderator E.J. Dionne, Jr. at Georgetown University.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
May 12, 2015, 1:20 p.m.

Ex­tend­ing his in­creas­ing fo­cus on race and poverty, Pres­id­ent Obama on Tues­day lamen­ted widen­ing in­come and ra­cial se­greg­a­tion around the coun­try.

“Con­cen­tra­tions of wealth can lead to some be­ing left be­hind,” Obama said in a pan­el on poverty at Geor­getown Uni­versity for a sum­mit bring­ing to­geth­er Cath­ol­ic and evan­gel­ic­al faith lead­ers. “What’s happened in our eco­nomy is that those who are do­ing bet­ter and bet­ter—more skilled, more edu­cated, luck­i­er, hav­ing great­er ad­vant­ages—are with­draw­ing from the com­mons.”

Stud­ies have shown that in many cit­ies the num­ber of mixed-in­come neigh­bor­hoods is de­clin­ing, widen­ing the gap between af­flu­ent and poor com­munit­ies. That sep­ar­a­tion, Obama ar­gued, has both isol­ated lower-in­come chil­dren from com­munity in­sti­tu­tions that could help them get ahead, and also re­duced the polit­ic­al will to in­vest in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and ser­vices.

“Part of what’s happened is that 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,” Obama said. “In that sense, what used to be ra­cial se­greg­a­tion now mir­rors it­self in class se­greg­a­tion and this great sort­ing that’s tak­ing place.”

With this “class se­greg­a­tion” and sort­ing, Obama said, young people from dif­fer­ent rungs on the in­come lad­der are less likely to in­ter­act—and those on the low­est rungs are less likely to have ac­cess to com­munity in­sti­tu­tions that could sup­port their rise. Obama noted how Har­vard polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Robert Put­nam, who also ap­peared on the pan­el, il­lus­trated in his re­cent book, Our Kids, that young people from di­ver­gent eco­nom­ic back­grounds grew up largely to­geth­er in Port Clin­ton, Ohio, dur­ing his own youth.

“The jan­it­or’s daugh­ter may be go­ing out with the banker’s son,” Obama said. “There are a set of com­mon in­sti­tu­tions—they may at­tend the same church, they may be mem­bers of the same Rotary Club, they may be act­ive at the same parks—and all the things that stitch them to­geth­er. And that is all con­trib­ut­ing to so­cial mo­bil­ity and to a sense of pos­sib­il­ity and op­por­tun­ity for all kids in that com­munity.”

With that world largely gone, Obama said, lev­el­ing the play­ing field will re­quire in­vest­ments from “so­ci­ety as a whole” in pub­lic schools and in­sti­tu­tions, early child­hood edu­ca­tion, teach­ers, in­fra­struc­ture to con­nect people to jobs, and bet­ter broad­band ac­cess in rur­al com­munit­ies.

“Those things aren’t go­ing to hap­pen through mar­ket forces alone. If that’s the case, our gov­ern­ment and our budgets have to re­flect our will­ing­ness to make those in­vest­ments,” Obama said. “Those [in­vest­ments] will make a dif­fer­ence, but the broad­er trends in our so­ci­ety will make it harder and harder for us to deal with both in­equal­ity and poverty.”

Obama’s fel­low pan­el­ists—Put­nam and Ar­thur Brooks, pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute—both ex­pressed op­tim­ism for a polit­ic­al solu­tion on eco­nom­ic and mor­al grounds.

“It also is, by the way, bad for our eco­nomy, be­cause when we have this large num­ber of kids grow­ing up in poverty, it’s not like that’s go­ing to make things bet­ter for my grand­chil­dren,” Put­nam said. “It’s go­ing to make things worse for my grand­chil­dren. So this is, in prin­ciple, a prob­lem that we ought to find solu­tions to.”

Brooks ar­gued that, while polit­ic­al com­prom­ise may be pos­sible, many pub­lic pro­grams fail to pro­duce be­ne­fits that jus­ti­fy their costs, and that aus­ter­ity as a con­sequence of gov­ern­ment over­spend­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurts the poor.

“When are the be­ne­fits high­er than the costs of the gov­ern­ment prov­ing these things?” Brooks asked the pan­el. “Be­cause, in point of fact, when we don’t make cost-be­ne­fit cal­cu­la­tions at least at the macro level about pub­lic goods, the poor pay. This is a fact.”

The gen­er­al pub­lic’s sat­is­fac­tion with the fed­er­al re­sponse to poverty is also at an all-time low, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Gal­lup poll. Only 16 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say they are sat­is­fied with the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts on fight­ing poverty, the low­est point since sat­is­fac­tion was at 26 per­cent in 2001, when the polling firm first began sur­vey­ing Amer­ic­ans on the ques­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans are slightly less sat­is­fied (14 per­cent) than Demo­crats (18 per­cent). Gal­lup saw little dif­fer­ence in sat­is­fac­tion levels among race, edu­ca­tion, gender, and age sub­groups.

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