President Obama’s address yesterday on inequality was a concerted effort to shift the conversation away from Obamacare, at least until the implementation is far enough along to be repeal-proof. Whether or not it succeeds, the speech is another sign that ideological arguments over the causes of social immobility are heating up. Whichever narrative wins over an increasingly attentive public is likely to influence policies ranging from tax code reform to social welfare spending, so it’s worth parsing Obama’s version carefully.In this speech and throughout his presidency, Obama has asserted that obstacles to upward mobility are a serious threat to American society, and that those obstacles are almost entirely economic. He points to fallout from the transition from manufacturing to a service economy or the erosion of the safety net in the 21st century, and urges government interventions to redress them.Obama, and those who think like him, focus so much on socio-economic causes of inequality that they tend to overlook the impact of cultural factors like the breakdown of the family and the decline of strong community institutions. In some particularly flawed parts of his speech, Obama suggests that these detrimental trends are actually caused by, rather than drivers of, poverty:
A new study shows that disparities in education, mental health, obesity, absent fathers, isolation from church, isolation from community groups — these gaps are now as much about growing up rich or poor as they are about anything else.
Actually, there’s plenty of evidence that unwed childbearing, father absence and fraying kinship and community networks exacerbate the problems of low-income people and make it incredibly hard for them to gain a foothold in the middle class. These are thorny problems that aren’t easily solved by the kinds of government measures Obama champions. So his speech says very little about the ways that strong marriages, family stability, or a robust role for churches in helping struggling Americans improve their lives can all improve economic mobility in this country. These social and cultural factors are arguably root causes of inequality, and it’s a pretty conspicuous omission to ignore that in a presidential speech on the subject. We’re glad people are talking more about about the yawning gap between rich and poor, but this troubling reality deserves a better treatment than Obama gave it.[Photo courtesy Getty Images.]