One Year’s Progress on President Obama’s ‘Defining Challenge of our Time’

A year ago the President declared that America’s lack of social mobility, along with income inequality, was the ‘defining challenge of our time’. He also set out some concrete steps towards promoting greater opportunity.

So: one year on, what progress has been made? 

College Costs and Access

“We’ve got to lower costs so that young people are not burdened by enormous debt when they make the right decision to get higher education.”   

In August 2013, President Obama called on Congress to tie higher education dollars to student outcomes. That hasn’t happened yet. His college-rating plan, which aims to help students shop smarter, is still in the works. The administration has tried to improve quality with a new rule: for-profit colleges with low alumni earnings and high debt will no longer receive federal student grants and loans. The Department of Education also has a raft of new grants to help colleges expand access through new delivery models.

Universal Pre-k

“And I’ve also embraced… making high-quality preschool available to every child in America. We know that kids in these programs grow up likelier to get more education, earn higher wages, form more stable families of their own.”  

Although places like Chicago and New York City have introduced universal pre-kindergarten, Congress has yet to follow their lead. A proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller hasn’t gained traction, although the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill increased head start and early head start funding by $1 billion.  


“It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women will have more tools to fight pay discrimination. It’s time to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so workers can’t be fired for who they are or who they love.”

That didn’t happen. The first has been repeatedly blocked by Senate Republicans. The second passed the Senate, but is stuck in the House; the President signed an executive order banning discrimination against federal contractors based on their sexual-orientation.

The Minimum Wage

 “It’s well past the time to raise a minimum wage, that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.”

Senate Republicans blocked an increase in the minimum wage. The President raised the minimum wage among federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, meanwhile, voted to increase their minimum wages.

Strong Communities

“We’ll announce the first of these Promise Zones, urban and rural communities where we’re going to support local efforts focused on a national goal — and that is a child’s course in life should not be determined by the zip code he’s born in.”

His “Promise Zones” initiative is off the ground in five areas: Southern Kentucky, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia, and the Choctaw Nation. Patrick Sharkey, an urban sociologist at NYU, has argued for place-based initiatives of this sort, although the evaluation requirements are modest and Congress hasn’t funded the program.

And that’s the story so far: Congress hasn’t done much about our lack of social mobility, so there’s a lot left to do.