Tuesday, February 4, 2014

President Obama's State of the Union address - "At least they're thinking about it..."

By Charles Brooks
(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
In the days leading up to President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union (SOTU) address, income inequality emerged as a highly anticipated topic to be discussed. This was quite understandable and actually made sense considering the recent events - the president’s speech on income inequality (though billed as a speech on economic mobility), his announcement of the Promise Zones as part of his administration’s anti-poverty strategy, and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. As the president delivered his address and spoke about working hard and getting ahead in America, he said, “Now, let's face it: That belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.” The President continues, “Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends.”

The president says he offers “concrete, practical proposals” to help the middle class. These proposals will focus on job creation, immigration reform, tax policy reform, job training, and unemployment insurance reform. To address poverty, President Obama said he would; sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers; work with Republicans to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to include mothers with no children; direct the Treasury Department to create a new retirement plan called - My RA. Although the president’s proposals were met with enthusiastic cheers and applause – there are critical questions that need to be asked. First, bearing in mind the promises left unfulfilled from the 2013 SOTU , (i.e. gun control, immigration reform, and minimum wage quickly comes to mind) due to Republican obstructionism – how will the president get tangible results this time around? The second question is whether these proposals can effectively address poverty, income inequality and economic mobility? For example, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr., states, “President Obama’s decision to increase the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $10.10 an hour is a good one. But if the president is to have any credibility in talking about living wages, he needs to get his own house in order first and make sure legislation is passed that establishes $10.10 as the minimum wage for all federal hourly workers,” Cox said. “It would be far better policy for the government to bring this work in house, take contractor profits out of the equation, and provide the workforce with decent pay and benefits,” Cox said. “Keeping this work contracted out keeps in place a system of low wages and no benefits that has become the rule for so many private-sector employers.” William R. Dougan, National President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, also stated: “NFFE supports the President’s move to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10. While the raise is noteworthy, federal hourly workers are not included. The President needs to stand with all federal workers, not just federal contractors.”

But what was equally troubling about the President’s speech is not so much what he said – but what wasn’t said. For example, a speech with themes of poverty, income inequality and economic mobility and nothing about high school dropouts, or taming the screaming costs of a quality college education? Just barely three weeks before the SOTU, the President announced the Promise Zones as part of his anti-poverty strategy – but he made no mention of the program during the SOTU. Also troubling was the president use of key words during the speech; he mentioned “poor” - one time, “poverty” was mentioned three times although one was in reference to Africa, and inequality was mentioned a grand total of three times. The president said, “…and over half of big manufacturers say they're thinking of insourcing jobs from abroad.”

But how can the president set out to address these issues if over half of the big manufacturers are THINKING about insourcing – I guess it’s a start…they’re thinking about it.

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