"A growing deficit of opportunity is a greater threat to the country's future than its rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit." -President Barack Obama.
President Obama calling economic inequality the premier challenge of our time is notable for two reasons: first, he is acknowledging the weakening of the America middle class as one of the greatest threats to America's future. But perhaps more telling, he is making this declaration at THEARC - a community center in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.
The irony? Washington DC has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the country. In fact, some of DC's most affluent neighborhoods are home to our most influential policymakers. And yet, the opportunity gap, even in our nation's capital, is so stark that some of our decision makers rather cut the resources for neighborhoods in their own backyard than invest and strengthen them.
And DC is not alone. Nationwide, cities like New York, New Orleans and Atlanta have economic inequality rates so high that the thread that once tied these cities together -- the ideals of community and shared prosperity -- is now frayed.
Historically, interdependency was revered as one of our country's greatest strengths.
Investments like Social Security, GI Bill, Medicare and Medicaid, Great Society programs along with good jobs and livable wages created pathways to economic mobility that established the largest middle class in the world.
While African Americans and other disenfranchised groups, including women, still lack complete access to these opportunities, historic legislation has eliminated some racial and gender barriers in pursuit of one day achieving full equality.
But efforts to reach economic parity stalled beginning in the 1970's. Government investments were replaced by trickle down economic policies favoring the rich. And while the wealthiest Americans continue to gain larger shares of our country's income, middle and lower income Americans face stagnate wages, fewer jobs, harsher working conditions and bleaker economic futures.
For the first time, in a long time, the American middle class is on its own.
Facing a weakened social safety net, more Americans have turned to other means -- including credit cards and other forms of debt -- to make ends meet. Particularly African Americans, who according to a new study authored by Demos and the NAACP, not only rely on credit cards to cover basic necessities; but also suffer worse economic consequences for shouldering the debt.
And though these economic realities may disproportionately affect people of color, they are not exclusive to any one community. Most middle class Americans -- whether white, black, Latino or Asian -- are struggling to stay afloat.
President Obama's recommendations for universal pre-k, fully implementing the Affordable Care Act and raising the minimum wage are all necessary steps to closing the opportunity deficit, growing the middle class and creating pathways to building economic security for more Americans.
But do we have the will?
Some say no. Some argue that addressing economic inequality is either politically infeasible or that now is not the right time.
But, everyday Americans say differently.
Whether it is the fast-food workers protesting across the country for fairer working conditions; residents in Sea Tac, Washington voting to raise the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour; or the recent call to boycott shopping on Thanksgiving to send the message to companies that family is more important than profit:
Americans are ready for change.
It's not too late to reverse the decline of the middle class and fulfill America's promise to be inclusive for all. The momentum is growing at the local and state levels and it is time to break the stalemate in Washington, move beyond partisan politics and put the interest of the many, not of the few, first. The time to act is now. The future of our country, our communities and our families depend on it.