There are a lot of people suffering right now. Poverty in the U.S. is at a 20-year high, with 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line (earning less than $11,170 for an individual, or below $23,050 for a family of four). Conditions are even worse among African-American and Latino children, of whom one in three lives in poverty. Along with this economic hardship comes hunger, homelessness, instability, illness and day-to-day challenges that most of us cannot imagine. Nevertheless, we hear very little about the struggles of America's poor in campaign speeches and policy debates -- or, most notably, from our president.
Like those before him, President Obama enjoys one of the perennial perks of the office: a bully pulpit from which to focus the nation's attention on the most pressing problems of his people. Many thought that alleviating poverty would be an explicit priority for our 44th president, a former community organizer, our nation's first black president and a self-declared "lifelong advocate for the poor," but it was not. Now, with a second term, President Obama has another opportunity to advance the issue of poverty on the political agenda. Many are calling on him to do so. But he should not.
Now is not the time to undertake a second "war on poverty," despite the depth of need and suffering. Focusing on the 15 percent of Americans living in poverty could simply fuel conflict and resentment between those on each side of the poverty line. In fact, the potential for backlash is particularly high at a time like this, when the nation is focused on scarcity, debt and uncertainty and polarized by conflicting notions of the role of government.
Most importantly, there is absolutely no need to incite an "us vs. them" dynamic between poor and middle-class Americans. Instead, these two groups must join together in shared outrage at the limited opportunities for social mobility in this country. There are simply not enough ways to move up and far too many ways to fall down. More can be accomplished -- for the poor and for everyone -- by focusing instead on how our broken ladder of opportunity and shredded safety net make it so hard to rise out of poverty and beyond the middle class.
This is the cross-cutting problem that President Obama should (and seems likely to) tackle in his second term. It does not require a national discourse on poverty but a shift in attention away from disadvantage toward an examination of the concentrated advantages provided to those already flourishing in our society. It then becomes clear that it is not only poverty but inequality -- of income, economic growth and political influence -- that plagues the poor.
In a country so unequal, the distance to travel from poor to rich is very far, and the road is hard. Making this road easier requires repairing each rung of the ladder of opportunity that spans this vast distance. This requires -- as the president often states -- allowing "all Americans to grab the first rung on the ladder to the middle class." But that is not enough. We must also bring each subsequent rung closer to the last.
When we frame the problem as one of concentrated advantage at the top rather than as one of disadvantage at the bottom, we can identify a broader set of policy solutions. It is here, in debates over the fiscal cliff, monetary policy, health reform, hidden tax expenditures, union protections and campaign finance reform, that the ladder of opportunity will get repaired -- or further dismantled.
It is on these "non-poverty" issues that President Obama has spent much of his first term -- and is likely to devote his second term. As a result, his legacy will not be as a president who waged a second "war on poverty" but as one who made the ladder of opportunity a little sturdier and more structurally sound.
Of course, the problem is that slowing the cycle of concentrated advantage is a messy business. Many of the policies fueling the concentration of advantage are hidden from view -- part of the "submerged state" -- fiercely defended by those who benefit from them and poorly understood by everyone else. Even small changes are hard-fought, leaving the president's political capital depleted and his powerful opponents further mobilized to defend their advantage in the next round of the policy fight. Politically, there is very little for the president to gain by choosing to fight on this battlefield, but there is so much that could be lost if he surrenders.