Last week, the U.K. publication The Guardian used an interesting anecdote to describe the key finding of an Oxfam report on global inequality: The world's 85 richest people now own more wealth than the planet's poorest 3.5 billion people. All of the world's wealthiest individuals, Guardian writer Graeme Wearden noted, "could squeeze onto a single double-decker" bus.
The ironic image of the super-rich riding a humble public bus is an apt metaphor for the socioeconomic quandary facing America before President Obama makes his 2014 State of the Union address tonight. Underinvestment in job creation, training, education and public services like transportation put middle-class success out of reach for many Americans, while at the other end of the spectrum, wealth has been concentrated in very few hands.
President Obama's speech ought to address the central problems of economic inequality and deficit of opportunities and services for many Americans.
In the President's address last year, he made a commitment to investing in industries that provide high-paying jobs like manufacturing, to training our workforce and to bringing outsourced jobs back to the U.S. While we have seen some promising administration initiatives towards these ends, there remain many opportunities to harness our federal resources in a smarter way, to make them go further to create good jobs for American working families.
One opportunity is to ensure that the transportation equipment we buy with public dollars maximizes the value of our money for good equipment, made in America, that creates jobs and economic development in our most struggling communities. Currently, public transit agencies across the country spend, on average, $5.4 billion each year just to purchase rail cars and buses. (This does not include the billions spent on the construction of transit lines, highways and bridges.) This huge investment could help revive America's struggling manufacturing sector and solve our unemployment problem.
One federal law, called "Buy America," currently attempts to achieve this end by requiring that 60 percent of component parts for bus and rail car purchases be made in the U.S. But the Buy America law alone is not enough to encourage the creation of good transportation manufacturing jobs for American workers on a large scale -- primarily because loopholes and lax enforcement by transit agencies mean that large global companies still manufacture much of American taxpayer-funded equipment in other nations.
The President ought to lend his support to bolder solutions, including directing transit agencies that receive federal transportation funds to explicitly ask bus and rail car manufacturers bidding on contracts to make all of our buses and trains in the U.S. and to offer job opportunities to disadvantaged Americans -- such as unemployed veterans -- through education and job-training. The recent incorporation of a strong U.S. Employment Plan and small business program requirements into Amtrak's Request for Proposals for the purchase of new high-speed rail cars, is an example of how the federal government can invest in a deliberate good job-creation and small business development policy.
On a broader scale, the President must put forth strong remedies for our economic inequality crisis, encouraging global companies to build factories here, create high-quality jobs and breathe new life into struggling communities.
This type of revitalization couldn't come soon enough. As President Obama himself has noted, America's middle class -- historically the largest driver of the U.S. economy -- has been steadily shrinking since the 2008 financial collapse. Over this same period, however, the top one percent of the wealthiest Americans has seen its wealth increase by more than 90 percent. Income inequality has grown so severe that education, a good job and even a ride on a decent American-made public bus are now out of reach for many millions of Americans.
Tonight President Obama must put forth solutions to this wealth disparity.