President Obama answered critics who have long been calling for him to speak out more on poverty by delivering an impassioned and sometimes personal speech yesterday, calling America’s “dangerous and growing” income equality the “defining challenge of our time.”
The president indicated that he intends to put social mobility at the center of his remaining second-term agenda, an announcement that should please progressives who have criticized him for not paying enough attention to this festering issue.
Obama said the issue of inequality “drives everything I do in this office”—a line that will surely be seized on by his conservative critics who have passed around conspiracy theories for years that the president’s true goal is to take money from whites and redistribute it to people of color.
“The combined trends of increasing inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream,” Obama said during an impassioned speech at an event organized by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
The president took the opportunity to link the issue to the need to raise the minimum wage, something he has been calling for but which Congress has ignored.
Obama said increasing income inequality is more pronounced in the United States than in other countries. He said it should “offend” Americans that a child born into poverty has such a hard time escaping it.
“It should compel us to action. We’re a better country than this,” he said.
Connecting his points to issues like health care and reforming the housing and financial systems, Obama said, “I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.”
He said the country needed to “dispel the myth that the goals of growing the economy and reducing inequality are necessarily in conflict, when they should actually work in concert.”
Obama related the poverty issue to his own life, and that of First Lady Michelle Obama.
“I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the G.I. bill,” Obama said. “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.”
After the speech, Dedrick Muhammad, senior director of the economic department at the NACCP, told Al Jazeera that as the president stated, a “relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.”
“There needs to be a shift from concerns of (fiscal) deficit and the austerity budgets to recognizing the deficit of opportunity for working class, middle class people,” Muhammad said, adding that there needed to be a recognition of the “austerity that Americans are going through because they don’t have money to provide for their families.”