President Obama gave a provocative speech about race, class and inequality in Southeast Washington today. Here’s a closer look:
1. “There is the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor — that this isn’t a broad-based problem, this is a black problem or a Hispanic problem or a Native American problem ….. The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races.
“The problem” Obama was referring to is income inequality, something he has spoken of often since winning reelection. He proposed familiar Democratic ideas, such as raising the minimum wage and ensuring more children have access to pre-kindergarten education.
But his rhetoric in explaining the challenge of income inequality broke new ground for the president at times. For example, the president acknowledged a persistent stereotype about those struggling in America: they are largely low-income blacks and Hispanics in inner-cities. He argued this stereotype is outdated and that American poverty today reaches across races and extends from cities to more rural areas.
His goal in that rhetoric is to turn talking about poverty and inequality from an issue that divides people by party and race (most minority voters are Democrats, most white voters lean Republican) to a challenge that all Americans acknowledge and join together in solving. In effect, Obama was arguing plenty of white, rural Republicans are struggling and would like to hear their Republican congressmen also offer ideas on reducing income inequality.
2. “Some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility that were once attributed to the urban poor — that’s a particular problem for the inner city: single-parent households or drug abuse — it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere … A new study shows that disparities in education, mental health, obesity, absent fathers, isolation from church, isolation from community groups — these gaps are now as much about growing up rich or poor as they are about anything else.”
Here, again Obama argues that problems most closely associated with minorities, such as black children growing up without fathers at home, are now more universal challenges. He’s not saying these are not problems in black communities, but that they extend to others as well and should be addressed as such.
3. The gap in test scores between poor kids and wealthy kids is now nearly twice what it is between white kids and black kids. Kids with working-class parents are 10 times likelier than kids with middle- or upper-class parents to go through a time when their parents have no income. So the fact is this: The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race, and that gap is growing.
As an increasing number of scholars now argue, disparities in America are growing as much based on class as race. Obama is joining in this chorus.
On this issue, the president may be wrong, not about the data itself but what it means. As he and his advisers know, the jobless rate of blacks remains double that for whites. (It’s currently 13 percent for blacks, 6 percent for whites.) The average SAT reading score (on a scale that goes from 200-800) in 2011 was 528 for white students, 428 for blacks, and 451 for Mexican-Americans.
“Black households earn about 59% of what white households earn, a small increase from 55% in 1967. But when expressed as dollars, the black-white income gap widened, from about $19,000 in the late 1960s to roughly $27,000 today. The race gap on household wealth has increased from $75,224 in 1984 to $84,960 in 2011,” said the Pew Research Center in a report released earlier this year.
America has some disparities that are illustrated by looking at race, others by class. America has a race problem and a class problem, and the two are intertwined. Class is a less politically volatile issue to be sure, and that is one reason the president speaks about it instead of race.
But most of Obama’s policy solutions on inequality, for reasons of both substance and politics, are colorblind, with a focus on class. And it’s not clear that’s the right approach in the face of some persistent racial gaps. A more race-based approach might include greater efforts to make sure schools remain integrated or making specific moves that target black men, who are disproportionately jobless.
“The theory is that the legacy of racist policy can be met with colorblind policy that helps the poor. There’s not much evidence that that theory is working,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein this week.
4. 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.
This was a direct rebuke of Republican rhetoric that argues Americans are divided between “makers” and “takers.”
5. One study shows that more than half of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lives. Think about that. This is not an isolated situation. More than half of Americans at some point in their lives will experience poverty.
Poverty is not simply the plight of a small group of Americans, the president argued. In effect, you too could be poor, and you should therefore consider America’s poverty policies in that context.