So this is an issue that we have to tackle head-on. And if, in fact, the majority of Americans agree that our number-one priority is to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for all Americans, the question is: Why has Washington consistently failed to act? And I think a big reason is the myths that have developed around the issue of inequality.
First, there is the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor — that this isn’t a broad-based problem, this is a black problem or a Hispanic problem or a Native American problem. Now, it’s true that the painful legacy of discrimination means that African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity — higher unemployment, higher poverty rates.
But here’s an important point. The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class; inner-city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races. And as a consequence, some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility that were once attributed to the urban poor — that’s a particular problem for the inner city: single-parent households or drug abuse — it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere.
A new study shows that disparities in education, mental health, obesity, absent fathers, isolation from church, isolation from community groups — these gaps are now as much about growing up rich or poor as they are about anything else. The gap in test scores between poor kids and wealthy kids is now nearly twice what it is between white kids and black kids. Kids with working-class parents are ten times likelier than kids with middle- or upper-class parents to go through a time when their parents have no income. So the fact is this: The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race, and that gap is growing.
So if we’re going to try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor.
We need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing inequality. It’s true that government cannot prevent all the downsides of the technological change and global competition that are out there right now, and some of those forces are also some of the things that are helping us grow. And it’s also true that some programs in the past, like welfare before it was reformed, were sometimes poorly designed, created disincentives to work.
But we’ve also seen how government action can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class. When previous generations declared that every citizen of this country deserved a basic measure of security — a floor through which they could not fall — we helped millions of Americans live in dignity, and gave millions more the confidence to aspire to something better, by taking a risk on a great idea.
Without Social Security, nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty — half. Today, fewer than one in ten do. Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance. Today, virtually all do. And because we’ve strengthened that safety net, and expanded pro-work and pro-family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s. And these endeavors didn’t just make us a better country; they reaffirmed that we are a great country.
So we can make a difference on this. In fact, that’s our generation’s task — to rebuild America’s economic and civic foundation to continue the expansion of opportunity for this generation and the next generation. And like Neera [Tanden], I take this personally. I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the GI Bill. When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry. When Michelle, the daughter of a shift worker at a water plant and a secretary, wanted to go to college, just like me, this country helped us afford it until we could pay it back.
So what drives me as a grandson, a son, a father — as an American — is to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me. It has been the driving force [behind] everything we’ve done these past five years. And over the course of the next year, and for the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts.
Let me offer a few key principles, just a roadmap that I believe should guide us in both our legislative agenda and our administrative efforts.
To begin with, we have to continue to relentlessly push a growth agenda. It may be true that in today’s economy, growth alone does not guarantee higher wages and incomes. We’ve seen that. But what’s also true is we can’t tackle inequality if the economic pie is shrinking or stagnant. The fact is, if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private-sector investment.
We’ve got to grow the economy even faster. And we’ve got to keep working to make America a magnet for good, middle-class jobs to replace the ones that we’ve lost in recent decades — jobs in manufacturing and energy and infrastructure and technology.