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President Obama: Inequality Has Put "America's Basic Bargain" in Jeopardy

  Photo for Obama economic mobility post

A father and son return from the farmer's market in the Anacostia area of the District of Columbia. Photo by Eugene Mebane, Jr.

In his speech today on economic mobility, President Obama mirrored many of the main themes of Bread for the World Institute's 2014 Hunger Report, Ending Hunger in America, released just last week. Among these are recommendations to end hunger and extreme poverty by creating good jobs, investing in people, strengthening the safety net, and building community partnerships.

The president focused on the alarming rise in inequality in the United States, the dramatic decrease in economic mobility -- and the harm these are doing to our economy, our families, and our democracy. While he spoke more in terms of a vision than of a concrete goal to reduce poverty and hunger, Obama mentioned a number of the Hunger Report's more specific recommendations, such as making high-quality preschool accessible to every child, strengthening the role of collective bargaining, and increasing the minimum wage so that workers no longer live in poverty.

The president said that America's basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead -- has been jeopardized.  "Since 1979, when I graduated from high school," Obama said, "our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent. ... Meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country."

The opportunity gap in the United States is now based as much on class as on race, Obama said. A child born into a family in the top 20 percent of income earners is likely to stay near the top -- about two-thirds of such children do. A child born into the bottom 20 percent, on the other hand, has less than a 5 percent chance of making it to the top 20 percent. Also, the president noted, the gap in test scores between wealthy children and poor children is almost twice as large as that between white and black children.

The president's speech fell short in failing to call for no further cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Significant cuts took effect at the beginning of November. Bread for the World President David Beckmann points out that these cuts alone eliminate 10 million meals from SNAP every day, which is more than all U.S. churches and charities combined provide. Even larger cuts -- on top of this most recent one -- have been proposed, but the administration should firmly oppose them, Beckmann said. 
 
President Obama said that government cannot solve every problem and that "ultimately our strength is grounded in our people -- individuals out there, striving, working, making things happen. It depends on community. But government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts. Because government is us. It can and should reflect our deepest values and commitments."
 
 Michele Learner
 

 

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