“When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago,” President Obama told an audience of about 300 in the auditorium at the THEARC arts schoolhouse in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood on Wednesday. “A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” This year’s federal deficit was less than half what it was in 2009, the first year of the Obama’s tenure.
The breakdown of the old American system that gave hard-working people access to better economic circumstances than those they were born into demands action from Congress, Obama said in the speech in D.C.’s hard-pressed southeastern quadrant.
While deficit spending has fallen fast, the deficit of opportunity has been growing for decades. Children born into the top fifth of the income distribution have “about a two-in-three chance of staying at or near the top,” Obama said, while a kid born into the poorest fifth of the country is “10 times likelier to stay where he is” than make it to the top of the ladder. This is an American problem, he noted, not a first-world one: “It is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies, countries like Canada or Germany or France,” Obama said. Elsewhere in the speech he noted the importance of strong unions and effective collective bargaining laws to preserving economic mobility.
Declining economic mobility renders today’s extreme income inequality not just unpleasant but un-American, Obama argued. “We are a better country than this,” he said, after citing statistics about the divergence between the very wealthiest and everyone else that began in the late 1970s and contrasting them with the previous status quo in which the top 10 percent of earners took home a third of all income but almost anyone who worked hard had a shot to join the ranks of the wealthy. Instead, today’s economy features a steadily disappearing middle class. He called on Congress to help restore that old social contract in which a child’s economic fate would “not be determined by the ZIP code he’s born in but by the strength of his work ethic and the scope of his dreams.” Indeed, economic mobility is highly dependent on where someone grows up in this country. The Anacostia ZIP code where he was speaking has a median household income just over $31,000 per year, according to city-data.com — and more than half of all Americans are getting by on even less than that, according to recent Social Security Administration data.
Obama proceeded to rattle off legislative actions that could help reverse the evaporation of economic opportunity, including universal preschool, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and a minimum wage hike. The remarks linked growing income inequality and shrinking economic mobility to the political gridlock that has marred much of his time in office and challenged conservative members of Congress who oppose those policies to put forth their own ideas for addressing the fact that poorer Americans are increasingly unable to lift themselves and their children up the economic ladder. Republicans’ past efforts to present their policies in the language of inequality and economic mobility have generally remained focused on cutting services and shrinking the social safety net.