“The gap is growing”: The President on economic inequality

I was critical of President Obama the other day about remarks he delivered to movie execs during his trip to Hollywood last week. So today I’m more than happy to draw attention to an important speech that he offered yesterday that is full of important ideas that deserve the major attention he gave them. At the headquarters of the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, the President addressed at length (the speech lasted an hour) the economic inequalities within the United States. “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy,” he said, “has frayed.”

He called this “the defining challenge of our time” and said he intends to devote “all our efforts” during “the rest of my presidency” to addressing this issue. The President cited plenty of relevant statistics and studies to demonstrate that economic inequality remains a pressing issue: staggeringly huge (and growing) gaps in income and net worth between a few and the many; the decreasing possibility of upward mobility from the lower income ranges; workers without pensions or retirement savings; and more. He said:

The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing. So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, 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 a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.

One of yesterday’s most significant proposals was a raise in the national minimum wage, which is now, he noted, “below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.” He helpfully cited Adam Smith to explain why the raise is a good idea:

This shouldn’t be an ideological question. You know, it was Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics, who once said, “They who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well-fed, clothed and lodged.” And for those of you who don’t speak old English — (laughter) — let me translate. (Laughter.) It means if you work hard, you should make a decent living. (Applause.) If you work hard, you should be able to support a family.

Of course, the issues the President raises here are not only political or economic; they are moral. He did not use the phrase social justice, but that’s what he was talking about.

Indeed, it was interesting to see that he even quoted Pope Francis’s brand new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:

Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. How could it be, he wrote, that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

In fact, there’s plenty in common between what Francis has to say in his recent document about economic morality and what the President was saying yesterday. The similarity of the message and the timing of the speech are close enough that if Obama were Catholic, he’d be running the risk of accusations of taking his cues from the Pope. (But he’s not, so I suppose some will see this as yet another instance of Francis “making all the wrong people happy.”)

One need not agree, of course, with all of the particular policy proposals the President advocates in this speech in order to “be a good Catholic.” But taking one’s Catholic faith seriously certainly does demand that we take seriously the concerns he raises, that we refuse to take part in the political game of rejecting or ignoring his concerns just because of the party membership he holds, and that we work to make them an urgent part of our national agenda.

The full text of the President’s speech is here.

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