With the holiday season nearing, President Barack Obama delivered the less than cheery news that the gap between wealthy and poor is growing, and emphasized that this is not an issue confined to racial and ethnic minorities.
Obama on Wednesday shifted the national focus to what Latinos and others often rank as a top concern, jobs and the economy, after weeks of national focus on the malfunctioning health care website and the immobility of the House on immigration reform.
His speech comes after news that Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House budget committee chairman, plans to roll out an anti-poverty plan next year, according to the Washington Post.
Americans’ frustrations are running at an all-time high because they are experiencing “a dangerous and growing inequality and 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,” Obama said.
While productivity is up more than 90 percent, the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent, Obama said. Since 1979, the economy has more than doubled in size, but most of the growth has gone to a “fortunate few,” he said.
“The basic bargain at the heart off our economy has frayed,” Obama said.
Obama said expanding economic opportunity has been the driving force of his time in office and will continue to be until its end.
Grabbing hold of the income inequality problem, he said, requires moving beyond the myth that the gap is exclusively a black, Hispanic or Native American problem, Obama said.
The gap in America today is as much about class, as it is about race, he said in his speech given in the Anacostia region of Washington, D.C., which is predominantly black and lower income.
Certainly minority populations are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity, he said. For that reason there is need for strong application of anti-discrimination laws and immigration reform, Obama said, eliciting applause.
But the decades-long shift in economic wealth has hurt all groups, Obama said.
“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 any meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle-class against an underserving poor in search of handouts,” he said.
Obama defended the involvement of government and its services in society, which get heavy support among Latinos. A Pew Research Center survey found 75 percent of Hispanics favor a bigger role in government.
Other presidents have taken bold steps to build equality, even though those opportunities were not always open to everyone: Abraham Lincoln started a system of land grant colleges and Lyndon Baines Johnson helped usher in Medicaid and Medicare. Franklin D. Roosevelt fought for minimum wage.
Obama said he’s offered his own ideas, including expanding preschool opportunities for children and pushing for an increase in minimum wage.
Raising the minimum wage and expanding pre-school education opportunities “go to the core of what Latinos need to access the ladder of opportunity and to live the American Dream,” said Vanessa Cardenas, vice president of Progress 2050 project at the Center for American Progress. The Center sponsored the speech.
Although Obama emphasized that economic inequality is not a problem of race, the reality is that 80 percent to 90 percent of the growth in the future workforce will come from people of color, and mostly from the Latino community, Cardenas said.
However, 51 percent of Latinos earned below $38,520 a year in 2011, compared to 36 percent of whites with incomes below that level, said Leticia Miranda, senior policy advisor on economic policy at the National Council of La Raza.
Conversely, Latinos are less likely to earn high incomes. Twelve percent of Latinos earned more than $101,582 in 2011 compared to 23 percent of whites, Miranda said.
Last year, the median family income for whites was $57,009, compared to $39,005 for Latinos, she said.
“Many Latino workers are working in low-wage jobs so that leads to a high level of poverty in our community and it holds back our children from fully developing so they can grow into higher educated workers who can get high-paying jobs,” Miranda said.