Obama calls income inequality ‘defining challenge of our time’

President says rising disparity between wealthy and poor should ‘compel’ Americans to action

President Barack Obama speaks Wednesday in Washington about the need to address income disparity.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he believes America’s "dangerous and growing" income inequality represents the "defining challenge of our time," indicating that he intends to put social mobility at the center of his remaining second-term agenda.

The remarks by the president, who said the issue of inequality "drives everything I do in this office," came during an impassioned speech at an event organized by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C., with close ties to the White House.

"The combined trends of increasing inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream," Obama said. 

The president also emphasized what he said was the need to raise the minimum wage, "making sure our economy works for every working American," and drove home the point that income inequality had jeopardized the nation's middle class.

Obama said increasing income inequality is more pronounced in the United States than in other countries and that it should "offend" Americans that a child born into poverty has such a hard time escaping it. 

"It should compel us to action. We're a better country than this," he said.

He went on to say that the debate surrounding issues like health care and reforming the housing and financial systems in the country "will have real, practical implications for every American." 

"I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real," Obama said. 

And in a likely nod to his critics, the president said the country needed to "dispel the myth that the goals of growing the economy and reducing inequality are necessarily in conflict, when they should actually work in concert." 

Dedrick Muhammad, senior director of the economic department at the NACCP, echoed Obama's remarks that a "relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit."

"There needs to be a shift from concerns of [fiscal] deficit and the austerity budgets to recognizing the deficit of opportunity for working class, middle class people," Muhammad said, adding that there needed to be a recognition of the "austerity that Americans are going through because they don't have money to provide for their families." 

The president got personal during the address, speaking about his own story and that of first lady Michelle Obama. 

"I'm only here because this country educated my grandfather on the G.I. Bill," Obama said. "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."

Obama's speech comes amid growing national and international attention to economic disparities — from the writings of Pope Francis to the protests of fast-food workers in the U.S.

The president even cited the pope's question "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"

In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, ROC United, an advocacy group for low-wage restaurant workers, said that the organization applauds Obama's comments, but change must come quickly. 

"One of the largest and fastest growing industries continues to create the lowest paying jobs in the U.S., subjects their workforce to poverty wages, and are further subsidized by taxpayers because servers depend on food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce just to get by," the statement read.

"Passing the Fair Minimum Wage Act would increase both the tipped and full minimum wage, and immediately lift millions out of poverty."

Wednesday's speech also comes at a time when the president looks to move past the health care woes that have consumed his presidency in recent months. He acknowledged his administration's "poor execution" in rolling out the flawed website that was supposed to be an easy portal for purchasing insurance under the Affordable Care Act. 

Al Jazeera and wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.

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