The State of the Union: Poverty and Growing Inequality

During his 2014 State of the Union Address, one of the issues President Obama focused on was income inequality, and he previously called it the defining issue of our time. But a new Pew Research article shows that perhaps he should frame the discussion as “reducing poverty.”

Pew asked respondents how much the government should do to reduce poverty, and then how much the government should do to reduce income inequality.

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Overall, 82% support at least some government action to reduce poverty, but just 69% say the government should at least do something to fight income inequality. Both questions show a large public majority support both efforts, but there were noticeable differences among Republicans. 61% support reducing poverty compared to 45% who support reducing income inequality.

The poll also uncovered that the majority of Americans believe that people become poor due to circumstances beyond their control, and that those who are rich had more advantages than others. It’s not that Americans no longer value hard work, it’s just that more of us feel that hard work alone no longer determines success.

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So what’s changing? The Economic Research Institute found that today’s low-wage earners are more educated than in 1968, but the minimum wage is 23% less than what it was. Comparatively, in 1968, just 48% of low-wage workers had a high-school degree. Today, 79% do, and 45.7% of low-wage earners even have some college education. In 1968, just 16.8% of low-wage earners had some college education. Raising the minimum wage, making higher education more affordable, and improving the equality of opportunity for quality public education for all students are some policy solutions.

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Whether we refer to it as fighting income inequality or as reducing poverty, it’s clear that the majority of Americans favor support the government’s role in reducing poverty, and with good reason. After the latest round of SNAP cuts in November, food pantries in New York City and across the country reported running out of food due to the increased demand. Government assistance programs are large; but so too is the number of people who need them.

Since 1968, productivity has doubled, but those who’ve seen the gains have not done their share to support the poor and low-wage earners. It’s time to re-focus our efforts on reducing poverty for children and families.



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