Toward the end of his inspiring State of the Union address to the nation, President Obama said we must "build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class." Most pundits did not pick up on this reference to the nation's poor, but these words were more than an eloquent turn of phrase. Indeed, they should challenge America to draw upon the nation's values and traditions to address today’s most pressing issue—the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.
What comes to mind when you imagine ladders of opportunity? Perhaps you flash on the image of a grandfather or great-grandfather in his youth, leaving the old country for a better life on these shores.
Maybe you think of the dad who went through college on the G.I. Bill and bought a house with federally backed home loans—earning a degree and building up the equity that boosted the family into the middle class.
Or maybe it's a mother whose union job brought the family financial security, not to mention coverage for all the doctor’s bills a houseful of kids run up and a modest pension for retirement.
The President's words should serve as a reminder that these principles have always helped to unite Americans, and they have guided our actions. As a beacon of hope for the world, these principles have attracted waves of immigrants in the quest for the American dream—to work, to prosper, to raise children with bright hopes for the future, and to help make our country strong.
The President was also reminding us of the scaffolding that has enabled America to build a middle class large and potent enough to fuel a decades-long economic expansion. It was an acknowledgement that the middle class did not arise by accident.
Rather, it blossomed due to policies that emphasized education, infrastructure investment, science and innovation, the social safety net, and laws and regulations to level the playing field between workers and their employers.
The middle class grew in no small part because workers stood up and demanded a voice on the job. They demanded to be treated with respect and to share in the fruits of their labor. They took enormous risks to gain the right to join together and bargain collectively for better wages, working conditions and a better life for themselves and their families. As a result, wages and living standards for most workers grew along with economy.
Of course, this is only part of the story. Too many people had limited access to these opportunities, or none at all. People of color were often left off, kept off, or pushed off the ladder to success.
While some managed to gain toeholds to climb high, the American dream was, and remains, out of reach for millions of people of color who are disproportionately saddled with failing schools, unemployment, and underinvested communities.
But people of color are not the only ones facing challenges to entering the middle class. While people of color are at much higher risk of living in poverty, more than 19 million white Americans lived in poverty last year and make up 42 percent of the country’s poor.
Eliminating these inequities has always been the right thing to do. Now it is also an economic imperative. The groups that have long been excluded from participation in economic and civic life will become the majority of the population within a generation. Today, most babies born in America will be children of color.
As the nation heads toward a multicultural, multiracial future, sustained growth hinges on our ability to apply everyone’s talents and creativity to building the next economy.
We won’t accomplish this by squeezing education budgets, cutting the social safety net, allowing our infrastructure to crumble, eroding worker protections or letting jobs move offshore. Yet rather than building strong, accessible ladders to opportunity, a powerful, if ever-shrinking, group of Americans is intent on pulling up the opportunity ladder.
The 2012 presidential election proved that most Americans believe that a strong, accessible ladder to a prosperous future is absolutely necessary. Further, the President has presented a policy agenda that translates this vision into reality.
First, we must grow good jobs, not just any jobs, but those that pay family-supporting wages—with a higher minimum wage—offer benefits, and that provide opportunities for advancement. We must maximize federal investments in transportation and other infrastructure to connect underrepresented workers to employment. We must also protect the right of workers to organize for a voice on the job and bargain collectively.
Second, we must invest in our people. American workers have always been this nation’s greatest asset, and they will be even more important in an interconnected global economy. We can provide a clear and timely pathway to citizenship and upgrade the skills of our diverse workforce through investments in education and job training for underrepresented workers and build strong community college systems. And we can guarantee that every child has a fair shot at success by making sure that all children have access to high-quality education, from pre-K through college.
Finally, as the President said, we must invest in communities, the building blocks of regional economies. We can build on the successes of strategies initiated during President Obama’s first term—Sustainable Communities, Promise Neighborhoods, Healthy Food Financing Initiative, Choice Neighborhoods, and more—to transform distressed neighborhoods into vibrant communities that offer all residents access to good jobs, top-notch schools, transportation and all the vital services that lead to opportunity.