Obama: Economic Inequality ‘Defining Challenge of Our Time’

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A homeless man on a park bench in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Updated at 10:51 am EST

A deep problem persists nationally, the president says.

That is “a dangerous and growing lack of equality and lack of upward mobility,” President Barack Obama said today. “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time, making sure our economy works for every American.”

“The premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story,” he said at a community center in Washington.

America “built the largest middle class the world has ever known,” he said, noting that “the economy did not always work for everyone.” Minorities and women faced discrimination in the pursuit of jobs, he noted. Nevertheless, “the future looked brighter than the past” in the era following World War II. For some, this meant “the first in your family to go to college.”

Yet, starting in the 1970s, he said, “the social compact began to unravel.” A more competitive world has enabled companies to ship jobs anywhere. As values of community have broken down, businesses have lobbied Congress to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage.

“The result is an economy that’s profoundly unequal,” he said, noting that the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent since the time he graduated from high school. The top 1 percent of income earners account for half the nation’s income.

The president delivered his remarks at “The Arc,” a center in a struggling neighborhood of Washington’s Ward 8. The appearance was sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned research group in Washington celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Obama thanked the group for not only providing his administration with a lot of ideas — but “also a lot of staff.”  That includes his current chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who served a stint at CAP.

“Between a reckless shutdown by congressional Republicans… and admittedly poor execution on my administration’s part” in the roll-out of the health-care program, he said, “no one has acquitted themselves well in these past few months.”

Yet why, he asked, has Washington failed to act on the problem of inequality. It will require immigration reform “that takes people out of the shadows” and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Still, he said, the problem confronts all Americans, not simply “the urban poor” or single-parent households. “It turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere,” he said.

Whether it’s a disparity in education or obesity, he said, “These gaps are now as much about growing up rich and poor as anything else…. The opportunity gap in America is now about class as much as it is about race.”

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