“I am convinced that the decisions we make…over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.”
So said President Obama on Wednesday, in his wide-ranging speech on inequality. In America, tolerance for large gaps between rich and poor has been underpinned by an ethic of fairness: when wealth results from toil and talent, the urge to redistribute it diminishes. So what decisions was Obama referring to when it comes to real policies to move the needle on social mobility?
1. America is sort of meritocratic, but not meritocratic enough.
“…while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”
2. We need new models for high school.
“We’re pushing for redesigned high schools that graduate more kids with the technical training and apprenticeships, and in-demand, high-tech skills that can lead directly to a good job and a middle-class life.”
3. People who go to college are more upwardly mobile: a B.A. quadruples chances of making it from the bottom to the top of the income ladder.
“And next week, Michelle and I will bring together college presidents and non-profits to lead a campaign to help more low-income students attend and succeed in college.”
4. High quality community colleges provide vital link from school to work for those who need it most.
“So we should offer our people the best technical education in the world. That’s why we’ve worked to connect local businesses with community colleges, so that workers young and old can earn the new skills that earn them more money.”
5. Strong parenting is the foundation for upward mobility.
“You understand that turning back rising inequality and expanding opportunity requires parents taking responsibility for their kids, kids taking responsibility to work hard.”
6. Preschool’s not the only answer, but it’s a big part of the answer.
“And I’ve also embraced an idea that I know all of you at the Center for American Progress have championed — and, by the way, Republican governors in a couple of states have championed — and that’s making high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
7. Raising the minimum wage is a good way to increase incomes at the bottom, but not the only way.
“I’m going to keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage for hard-working Americans across the entire country. It will be good for our economy. It will be good for our families.”
Markers of well and ill-being, ranging from life satisfaction to stress, are more unequally shared across the rich and the poor in the U.S. than they are in Latin America, a region long known for high levels of inequality.