President Barack Obama today said that “a relentless, decades-long trend”—“a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility…has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain: that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”
The president declared that “making sure the economy works for every working American” is the “defining challenge of our time” and drives everything he does as president. His proposals to reduce inequality include an increase in the minimum wage and “ensuring that our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to, so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.”
In the speech at a community center in a low-income area of Washington, D.C., which was hosted by the Center for American Progress, Obama said, “[T]he premise that we are created equal is the opening line in the American story.” He highlighted a series of efforts throughout American history to put those words into practice—from Abraham Lincoln starting a system of land grant colleges; to Theodore Roosevelt fighting for an eight-hour day and worker protections; to Franklin D. Roosevelt fighting for Social Security, unemployment benefits and a minimum wage; to Lyndon B. Johnson fighting for Medicare and Medicaid.
“We built a ladder of opportunity to climb and stretched out a safety net so that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too far, and we could bounce back. As a result, America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.”
However, Obama said, “starting in the late 70s, the social compact began to unravel.”
A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits. As values of community broke down and competitive pressures increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage.
As trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.
The result is “an economy that’s become profoundly unequal.” Income inequality has grown to record levels, with the top 1% having 288 time the net worth of the typical family, with CEO pay soaring from 20 to 30 times that of the average worker to more than 273 times and with the top 10% taking half of all income, up from a third since 1979. In addition, Obama outlined how upward mobility has been squashed at the same time.
The president said that growing inequality and lessened upward mobility “should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this.” He highlighted that these trends are bad for our economy, pointing to studies that show that economic growth is more fragile in countries with greater inequality.
Obama then presented a “road map” of proposals to reduce inequality and restore economic opportunity:
- Relentlessly push a growth agenda, making America a magnet for good, middle-class jobs in manufacturing and energy and infrastructure and technology, and ending incentives to ship jobs overseas;
- Empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy;
- Empower our workers. “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class. It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women will have more tools to fight pay discrimination. It’s time to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so workers can’t be fired for who they are or who they love;
- Target programs for the communities and workers who have been hardest hit by the economic change and the Great Recession; and
- Revamp retirement to protect Americans in their Golden Years.
He said that “it was well past time” to raise the minimum wage for a growing service sector that includes “airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.”
Obama also called for renewing the extended unemployment insurance program for the long-term unemployed and protection of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Republicans have targeted for cuts.
It makes a difference for a mother who’s working but is just having a hard time putting food on the table for her kids, [and] it makes a difference for a father who lost his job and is out there looking for a new one that he can keep a roof over his kids’ heads.
He also told congressional Republicans, who have blocked and continue to block action on the economy—from creating jobs to raising the minimum wage to ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas:
You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against….If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, or provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on December 4, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.