Obama: Set Aside Belief That Government Can't Fix Inequality

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PRESIDENT OBAMA: Third, we need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing inequality. It’s true that government cannot prevent all the downsides of the technological change and global competition that are out there right now -- and some of those forces are also some of the things that are helping us grow. And it’s also true that some programs in the past, like welfare before it was reformed, were sometimes poorly designed, created disincentives to work, but we’ve also seen how government action time and again can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class. Investments in education, laws establishing collective bargaining and a minimum wage -- (applause) -- these all contributed to rising standards of living for massive numbers of Americans.

We know from our history that our economy grows best from the middle out when growth is more widely shared. And we know that beyond a certain level of inequality growth actually slows altogether.

Likewise, when previous generations declared that every citizen of this country deserved a basic measure of security, a floor through which they could not fall, we helped millions of Americans live in dignity and gave millions more the confidence to aspire to something better by taking a risk on a great idea. Without Social Security nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty -- half. Today fewer than 1 in 10 do. Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance. Today virtually all do. And because we’ve strengthened that safety net and expanded pro-work and pro- family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s.

And these endeavors didn’t just make us a better country; they reaffirmed that we are a great country.

So we can make a difference on this. In fact, that’s our generation’s task, to rebuild America’s economic and civic foundation to continue the expansion of opportunity for this generation and the next generation. And like -- (applause) -- and like Neera, I take this personally. I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the GI Bill. When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry. When Michelle, the daughter of a shift worker at a water plant and a secretary, wanted to go to college, just like me this country helped us afford it until we could pay it back.

So what drives me, as a grandson, a son, a father, as an American, is to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me. (Applause.) It has been the driving force between everything we’ve done these past five years. And over the course of the next year and for the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts.

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