Obama's Efforts To Address Income Inequality Could Be Uphill Battle

President Obama is expected focus on middle-class job growth and the economy in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. And while the president has fought to make the tax code more progressive, broader efforts to address income inequality could be an uphill battle at a time when the government seems bent on tightening its belt.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Tomorrow night, President Obama delivers the first State of the Union address of his second term. He's expected to focus on middle-class job growth and closing the gap between rich and poor, ideas that played a key role in Obama's second inaugural address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Fighting income and equality won't be easy. While the president has pushed to make the tax code more progressive, NPR's Scott Horsley reports trying to do much more than that will be a tough sell with the government bent on tightening its belt.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When President Obama spoke at his inauguration about wanting to give an American girl born into poverty the same chance as anybody else, he might have been thinking of someone like Malika Palmer(ph). She's a high school senior from Southeast Washington, the poorest corner in this wealthy city. Palmer's been getting some advice at a Boys & Girls Club about college as a lifeline to the broader world outside.

MALIKA PALMER: They tell me, well, it's not easy. It's hard and you have to, like, make sure you study, don't party too much, just stay on top of your work and come to class on time every day.

HORSLEY: The president himself offers similar coaching when he meets with young people like Palmer. In his first year in office, Obama visited this Boys & Girls Club. He read to some of the kids, passed out Christmas cookies and was challenged by a 7-year-old to a game of foosball.

Most afternoons, you can find youngsters playing foosball at the club or practicing music or doing their homework. CEO Pandit Wright calls the Boys & Girls Club's mission fun with a purpose.

PANDIT WRIGHT: The young people that come here, what we're doing is exposing them to some of these opportunities because the bigger risk is that we have a generation of young people who don't even know what's possible.

HORSLEY: That risk weighs on the president. The gap between rich and poor has been growing. And former administration economist Jared Bernstein says the government's austerity measures are not helping.

JARED BERNSTEIN: I don't understand how at one level we're talking about pushing back against income and equality immobility, the lack of opportunity and slashing the heck out of the very part of the budget to help support it on another.

HORSLEY: The White House warns the automatic spending cuts due to kick in next month, for example, would push 70,000 kids out of Head Start and cut federal school funding for more than a million low-income students.

Neera Tanden, who heads the liberal Center for American Progress, argues the government should be doing exactly the opposite: devoting more money to child care and pre-K education.

NEERA TANDEN: We appreciate that the country is facing fiscal constraints. But the truth is when we leave 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent of our workforce behind, we are ensuring that America is not going to be able to compete.

HORSLEY: The president is expected to address early childhood education in his speech. But congressional Republicans are skeptical that more federal money is the answer. Here is House Republican leader Eric Cantor speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last week.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: Since 1965, the federal government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into improving schools, especially in low-income areas, over $15 billion last year. And frankly, the results have not matched the investment.

HORSLEY: Cantor would instead let parents use existing federal dollars to send their children to private or charter schools. The Republican leader does not say how that would help children whose parents are less involved in their schooling. While the president often stresses that more equal opportunity contributes to a stronger economy, it's also true that a stronger economy contributes to fairness. Economist Bernstein notes the only period in the last three decades in which income gains were widely shared was the 1990s when jobs were so plentiful workers at all levels could demand higher pay.

BERNSTEIN: The only real friend to working people when it comes to bargaining power is a very low unemployment rate. We haven't had that for a long time.

HORSLEY: Despite the president's focus tomorrow and public interest in a stronger economy, forecasters say federal spending cuts will continue to weigh on growth, keeping unemployment high at least to the end of next year. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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