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Obama Addresses Decline of Opportunity in America

President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address highlighted the growing imbalances throughout the world.  In recent decades, the U.S. has depended on its military strength as a substitute for diplomacy, but the President specified the need to shift the focus to fighting extreme poverty within Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific.

The President’s agenda is taking on the issue of poverty head-on.

He recognizes that to address the large inequalities we must reverse the decline of social and economic mobility.  Currently, 65 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth of incomes stay in the bottom two-fifths income class while 65 percent of top fifth stay in the top two-fifths.

A major factor that maintains this mobility gap is poverty.

Families from poor backgrounds and low economic status are at a disadvantage right from the start.  Just 36 percent of kids born in the poorest households get a strong start in life compared to 70 percent for middle-income kids and 87 percent for the upper class.

With federal programs like Head Start and Race to the Top are putting an emphasis on early child development, it is critical that we create social policy that supports individuals throughout all stages of life.  The Brookings Institute has identified five major life stages that we can consciously cultivate in order to increase mobility and opportunity in America.

  • Strong Start in life: Being born to a mother with at least a high school degree increases the likelihood of leading a successful life. Only 48 percent of children in the bottom fifth are born to mothers with a high school level education.  Increased cognitive ability starts in the home and these same children will hear fewer words, read fewer books and are overall less stimulated than their counterparts.
  • Strong Start in School: Starting school with a disadvantage is a factor that only compounds as a child grows.  By the age of five, less than half of low-income children are deemed school-ready.  To get a head start, children must develop social and academic skills before they enter school.  This is the rationale behind the President’s early learning initiative.
  • A Strong Start in Postsecondary Education:  Postsecondary education must begin with a high school diploma.  The dropout rate among low-income students is six times higher than the rate of high-income students.  Students must not only graduate but graduate with sufficient skills to succeed in higher education.
  • A Strong Start in Labor Market: In today’s economy, the value of a postsecondary degree is tremendous.  On average, each additional year of school accounts for an extra 10 percent return in annual income.  This makes four-year degrees more desirable than one from a community college.  Over 50 percent of low-income students enrolled in community college fail to graduate or transfer to a four-year college.  A support system to encourage students to remain focused and finish their degrees will transform their chances in a sluggish labor market.
  • A Strong Start for a Family: This brings the cycle full circle.  Before getting married and having children, individuals need to consider their personal financial security as a prerequisite.  Marriage plays a critical role in determining the fate of a child. Proper parenting skills are often developed through the shared experience of marriage.  Crafting social policy that encourages marriage can offer more incentives for couples to stay together and create a strong family.

Sunny Bhatt

Sources: Brookings Institute, New York Times
Photo: Prague Post