By Brianna Keilar and Kevin Liptak
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The growing gap between rich and poor Americans is threatening the ideals the country was founded upon, President Barack Obama said in remarks Wednesday that officials said signaled his economic agenda for the remainder of his presidency.
Making sure that the U.S. economy works for every working American is “the defining challenge of our time,” Obama said in remarks at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. A “dangerous and growing” income and opportunity gap is jeopardizing the notion that if people work hard, they can get ahead, Obama said.
“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough, but the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty, because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us,” Obama said during his remarks, which represented a distinct move to the left on economic issues for the President.
He also called for a hike in the federal minimum wage, calling an increase a good step for families and the economy as a whole.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have pushed an increase in the federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25 an hour. A proposal would boost it to about $10, and the White House has said Obama supports such a measure.
On Wednesday, Obama also made a general push to simplify the tax code, provide more work training in high schools, and make it easier for Americans to save for retirement.
The speech came as public approval of Obama sinks to new lows. The botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, coupled with stories of people losing their health plans, has contributed to the drop, but more Americans also say they disapprove of the President’s handling of the economy, five years after the downturn.
A CNN/ORC Poll taken in November showed 59% of respondents said things were going badly in the country today. Thirty-nine percent – a plurality – said economic conditions are getting worse.
While Wall Street indexes and corporate earnings have reached new highs, the situation for low and middle class Americans has largely remained dire, including a jobless rate that remains high and scores of people who have given up looking for work.
The current economy is “profoundly unequal,” Obama proclaimed on Wednesday.
“Growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain, that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead,” Obama said. “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time, making sure our economy works for every working American.”
The problem of income disparity, and the fight for a higher minimum wage, have gained renewed attention in the past weeks – low wage fast food workers have staged one-day strikes across the country demanding higher paychecks, and protesters stood outside Wal-Marts and other box stores on Black Friday demanding employees be paid better.
Obama’s remarks Wednesday took place at a theater and arts facility in Washington’s Southeast quadrant, an area of the capital where incomes remain low and 45% of the population lives below the poverty line.
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