At the State of the Union, It’s Time to Address Inequality

By Melissa Young, Director, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Photo via Associated Press.

Photo via AP.

As President Barack Obama addresses the nation on January 20, 2015 during the State of the Union address, we urge him to declare a commitment to and articulate a vision for reducing inequality and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to work and support themselves and their families.

Inequality in America is profound, entrenched, and cuts deeply along racial and ethnic lines. The wealth gap between America’s highest earners and everyone else is the highest on record, leaving our country at risk for reduced social cohesion, trust in government, and participation in the democratic process. What’s more, wealth inequality has widened significantly along racial and ethnic lines. In 2013, the wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010. The current white-to-Hispanic wealth ratio has reached a level not seen since 2001. Compounding this, new research is showing that as bad as it is to be poor, it’s even worse to be poor in a more unequal place—and places with high levels of income inequality and income segregation have lower rates of social mobility.  The bottom line is that inequality exacerbates the marginalization that comes with being poor—both economically and socially.

Entire swaths of Americans persistently encounter more severe and more frequent barriers to economic opportunity. From the 1960’s to today, unemployment rates for black men have been 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate. In December 2014, the unemployment rate for black men was 11 percent, nearly double the national average of 5.6 percent. This past summer, 14.3 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 were unemployed, with about one in five African-American and one in six Hispanic youth looking for but unable to find a job. Even after taking educational attainment into account, black men are overrepresented in low-wage jobs and underrepresented in high-wage jobs. Indeed, in 2008, black men earned only 71% of what white men earned. As a result, in 2013 the median household income for African-Americans was only $34,598, compared to the national average of $51,939. African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the total population, but make up nearly 25 percent of the population living poverty.

Strengthening our country and our economy requires we make certain that all people have the opportunity to work and support themselves and their families.  The path to opportunity and justice for all Americans includes restoring dignity through work that pays enough to have a roof over your head, food in your stomach, and heat in your home; robust safety nets to fall back on when times are hard; equal protection under the law and second chances for all; and expanding opportunities so that everyone can contribute to the building of a more sustainable future.  Particularly for communities of color, several hundred years of intentional and unintentional policies and practices at virtually every level of government and community created and sustained current social and economic inequities.

Bringing about the kind of change we seek will require a broad coalition of stakeholders, policy change at all levels of government, and a commitment to ensuring equity in policy reform. It starts, though, with a commitment by our leaders—including our President—to addressing and tackling inequality head on.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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