F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Of course, that might also be an indication of utter confusion, or, coming from a politician, simple mendacity. So it is with President Obama and his recent address on “inequality,” which was rife with contradictions. We “don’t promise equal outcomes, [but] have strived to deliver equal opportunity,” he said — before attacking the rich and decrying sky-high salaries for CEOs. We must “relentlessly push a growth agenda,” he argued — before laying out a policy agenda inimical to growth.
Still, his speech is packed with many wise insights and sound ideas. In the service of seeking common ground — and a set of policy proposals that might actually help the poorest Americans — I present here a revised version of his speech, by keeping the good parts and leaving the bad. Every word here is President Obama’s.
Over the last two months, Washington has been dominated by some pretty contentious debates — I think that’s fair to say. And between a reckless shutdown by congressional Republicans in an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and admittedly poor execution on my administration’s part in implementing the latest stage of the new law, nobody has acquitted themselves very well these past few months. So it’s not surprising that the American people’s frustrations with Washington are at an all-time high.
But we know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles. Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.
I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.
Now, the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story. And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. And with every chapter we’ve added to that story, we’ve worked hard to put those words into practice.
America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for the three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.
Now, we can’t look at the past through rose-colored glasses. The economy didn’t always work for everyone. Racial discrimination locked millions . . . out of opportunity. Women were too often confined to a handful of often poorly paid professions. And it was only through painstaking struggle that more women, and minorities, and Americans with disabilities began to win the right to more fairly and fully participate in the economy.
Nevertheless, during the post–World War II years, the economic ground felt stable and secure for most Americans, and the future looked brighter than the past. And for some, that meant following in your old man’s footsteps at the local plant, and you knew that a blue-collar job would let you buy a home, and a car, maybe a vacation once in a while, health care, a reliable pension. For others, it meant going to college — in some cases, maybe the first in your family to go to college. And it meant graduating without taking on loads of debt, and being able to count on advancement through a vibrant job market. And because of upward mobility, the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company some day.
But starting in the late ’70s, this social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations. A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage.
This trend is not unique to America’s market economy. Some of you may have seen just last week, the Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. “How can it be,” he wrote, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Understand we’ve never begrudged success in America. We aspire to it. We admire folks who start new businesses, create jobs, and invent the products that enrich our lives. And we expect them to be rewarded handsomely for it. In fact, America is a place where even if you’re born with nothing, with a little hard work you can improve your own situation over time and build something better to leave your kids. As Lincoln once said, “While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”
The problem is that we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. It is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies — countries like Canada or Germany or France. They have greater mobility than we do, not less.
The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own — that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this.