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Trends of Increasing Inequality and Decreasing Mobility Pose a Threat to the American Dream


President Obama greets a girl during a Thanksgiving service project at the Capital Area Food Bank. (Official White House Photo bPresident Barack Obama greets a young girl during a Thanksgiving service project at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Mark Greenberg, Acting Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families

On December 4, President Obama gave an important speech about inequality and economic mobility in the United States. The speech included some striking data and references to key studies, and makes a set of arguments for the need to address inequality and mobility:

  • Since 1979, the nation’s productivity has gone up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than eight percent. Our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few.
  • The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income -- it now takes half.
  • The gap in test scores between poor children and wealthy children is now nearly twice what it is between white children and black children.
  • A child born into a low-income home will hear 30 million fewer words than a child from a well-off family by the times he or she turns 3 years old, which means by the time he or she starts school they are already behind, and that deficit can compound itself over time.

The President drew on moral arguments, the connection to economic growth, and the relationship to social cohesion and democracy.  And, the President said:.

"The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough.  But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.  We are a better country than this." 

The President also made clear that addressing these issues would be given significant attention in the rest of this Administration: 

"So what drives me as a grandson, a son, a father -- as an American -- is to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me. It has been the driving force between everything we’ve done these past five years.  And over the course of the next year, and for the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts."

In discussing the policy responses to inequality and limited mobility, the speech notes the importance of the Administration's agenda for early childhood education, and the key role played by the Affordable Care Act and the extension of health care coverage to millions of Americans.  And, there are multiple other ways in which the work of ACF contributes to efforts to reduce poverty and promote economic mobility and opportunity.  We are proud of that work, and in the months to come, we'll welcome the opportunity to explore additional ways in which our programs and initiatives can contribute to these efforts.  

The full text of the President’s speech can be found here and the video here.

Mark Greenberg is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Mr. Greenberg serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and as Acting Commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families.

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