February 13, 2013

Some anti-child-poverty advocates are disappointed that President Obama didn’t call for a National Commission on Children as they’d hoped. But there is no denying that he heard their call for more attention to the plight of poor children and their families. For while the State of the Union was geared toward “a rising, thriving middle class,” ensuring that the poor with the gumption to strive for the middle class have the pathways to get there was a key part of his address.

If you watched the speech on television you heard Obama’s call to make high-quality preschool available to every child in the nation and the tangible benefits that would accrue from that. “[L]et’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind,” the president said. “Let’s give our kids that chance.”

And you heard Obama call for boosting the minimum wage to $9 and tying future increases to the cost of living. “[L]et’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” he said.

(The White House)
(The White House)

But if you watched the “enhanced presentation” of the State of the Union or clicked on the “enhanced graphics” you got more than rhetoric. You got data that bolstered the president’s message.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on,” Obama said, ”by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” The chart at right puts heartbreaking statistics behind the president’s assertion. At-risk children are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent are more likely to become a teen parent and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

(The White House)
(The White House)

The president’s crew got a little cheeky when he said, “I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.” A funny photo of Obama and Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney mimicking her “not impressed” pose from the Summer Olympics accompanied a chart with this statistic: “A woman earns an average of 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. By age 65, this earnings gap means she will have lost $431,000.”

(The White House)
(The White House)

When he said, “[A] full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year,” the enhanced presentation noted that “A parent needs to earn at least $23,550 to raise a family of four above the poverty line.” And when Obama said, “America is not a place where the chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny…[T]hat’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them,” a chart with data from the Pew Charitable Trust appeared. “[Forty-two] percent of American children who are born to the parents on the bottom rungs of the income ladder will stay there.”

The speech might not have been as explicit as advocates had wanted. But, as The Post’s Zachary Goldfarb reports today, “behind his proposals is a desire to tackle a much less widely accepted phenomenon: a growing inequality of opportunity.”

Access to preschool puts children on the right path. Raising the minimum wage and paying women equally puts workers and their families on the right path. Now that Obama has given voice to these proposals from one of the biggest bully pulpits, advocates have the call to action they’ve been waiting for.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.