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The Unequal, Impoverished State of Our Union
Just three weeks in, the domestic priorities of President Obama’s second term are already firming up. Prodded by a still less than assuring economic recovery, energized by a sudden political opening for immigration reform, and compelled by the staggering mass murder in Newtown, CT, the president’s agenda appears to have almost been decided for him. Yet tomorrow’s State of the Union Address (or SOTU, as acronym-loving political Washingtons call it) offers a prime opportunity for the president to look beyond recent headlines and re-widen our national field of vision.
The problems still being overlooked may sound less urgent, because they are longstanding and systemic. But they are slowly destroying our country’s prospects for growth and our people’s ability to cope with whatever the future may hold.
I’m talking about the embarrassing fact that United States still has the highest poverty rates and the widest income disparities in the entire developed world.
Wake Forest University political science professor David Coates recently published an article expressing his hopes for this SOTU—in particular, a clear leadership response on U.S. poverty, which he calls “the greatest domestic failure of this would-be progressive president.” Coates correctly points out that the scandal of growing poverty in 21st-century America was absent from all four of Obama’s previous SOTUs.
Despite the fact that it has yet to be featured as a presidential topic, poverty in America has reached its highest levels in over 50 years. In fact, nearly one in three U.S. children now participates in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps). One in seven Americans lives in poverty – and that’s using federal poverty guidelines that, economists agree, significantly understate the cost of basic necessities. The prospect of the president discussing the true state of our union without mentioning the ever-expanding elephant in the room is more astonishing every year.
In his second inaugural address last month, the president gave encouraging nods to key causes and effects – such as growing income inequality, the need for stronger social safety nets, and the value of living wage jobs. His rhetoric was encouraging, too, leaving us with inspiring quotes such as, “We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”
If Obama’s second inaugural address was any precursor to the 2013 SOTU, it’s reasonable to expect that the president will at least mention U.S. poverty and hunger. But real solutions will take far more than lip-service—they will require an absolute presidential commitment to policies that alleviate poverty by eliminating its root causes.
Bread for the World Institute’s 2013 Hunger Report gives the evidence to back up our contention that persistent poverty and food insecurity in the United States are simply unnecessary. The country came close to eliminating them as long ago as the 1960s, when a presidential administration made it a priority and set specific goals. President Obama has a second chance to accomplish this. He can start by publicly acknowledging the problem and committing to tackle it head on.
For more on national policy to end U.S. hunger, read Chapter four of the 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach: Global Development Goals.
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