04/11/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

Most Powerful Man in the World Grew Up on Food Stamps

I had a chance to meet the president recently, so of course I talked with him about poverty.

(This may give you some insight into why I am not invited to more parties.)

I'm not bragging. I was at a dinner with Barack Obama through a series of flukes and didn't speak with him long. But I wanted to know what the president thought about child poverty. He reminded me that his mother used Food Stamps when he was young. This has been written about before, but hearing him say it struck me.

When we talk about child poverty, we often dwell on the suffering. We talk about kids who have rashes because their parents can't afford fresh diapers. We talk about the extreme disadvantage a kid from a struggling household faces in school.

But we should also be talking about potential. We should talk about how when you meet the needs of a low-income family, you get kids who turn out ready to make contributions to our society. In not emphasizing their potential, we do a disservice to the people we serve. And we bolster stereotypes based on ignorance.

I seem to be something of an ignorance magnet. In addition to the many wonderful notes I get from people who want to help low-income families, I also hear from people who talk about creating dependency, who direct spleen at low-income parents for bringing children into the world, and who see all poor children as future welfare recipients and/or criminals.

The leader of the free world grew up on Food Stamps. Every child has potential. It is in society's best interest to make sure that potential is realized. The kid with the mind that can figure out how to produce cheap, low-emission energy is not necessarily being raised in some tony suburb and getting a first-class education. She may be living in a low-income neighborhood, raised by parents struggling to meet her basic needs and attending low performing schools. That young genius may be able to overcome all those circumstances and be able to share her gift with the world. Then again, she may not. Do we want to take that chance? Shouldn't we be creating conditions that makes her success -- and ultimately ours -- much more likely?

Mr. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps) at least once. She was a highly educated woman who worked hard as an academic and made significant contributions to the world through her work pioneering microfinance enterprises in developing countries. She didn't fit the stereotype we assign to people on public assistance.

Many people live in desperate, long-term poverty in the United States, and it is important to make the structural changes that will help them reach self-sufficiency. Others experience short-term hardship and simply need a little help so that a bump in the road does not turn into a valley too deep to climb out of.

We don't talk much about that second group. Middle-class people who have needed to ask for help tend to be embarrassed about it and so keep quiet. As a result, we get a mental picture of people who need help as somehow very different from ourselves. But often they are not. They are our neighbors and sometimes our leaders. And in helping them, we help ourselves.