Last week, I attended a talk by Reggie Love at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Reggie Love is a Duke alumnus and was a member of the national championship-winning 2001 basketball team. After graduation, Mr. Love got a job working for then-Senator Barack Obama. He continued to work for Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign, and ultimately became a personal aide to the President during his first three years in the White House. During the question and answer session of the event, an audience member asked Mr. Love whether President Obama feels that his presidency has been successful. Mr. Love said he thinks that, overall, the President is proud of many of his accomplishments, such as the health care law. However, he also noted that there is a lot more that the President wants to accomplish before 2016. Specifically, Mr. Love thinks the President’s greatest frustration, and the thing that “keeps the President up at night,” is that he has not been able to combat income inequality in the United States or to raise the country’s median income.
This statement by Mr. Love left me both excited and frustrated. I was excited to learn that this issue is so high on President Obama’s priority list and that he really wants to do something about the problem. However, I was also frustrated that the government has not been able to accomplish anything, especially given the fact that income inequality is so important to the President. Why hasn’t anything been done? While I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in Washington, I would guess that it has something to do with the influence of big business, concerns from some that an action such as increasing the minimum wage would hurt the economy, and the general atmosphere of bipartisanship and gridlock.
I might be somewhat of an idealist, but I do still have some confidence in the American government, and specifically in the idea that if enough people care about something and want it to change, the government will eventually have to respond. An article published in Salon earlier this month, which originally appeared in Scientific American, states that Americans do not realize the extent to which income inequality exists in the United States. Some understand that things are unfair and that there is a problem, but they do not really realize how much those at the top have in comparison to those at the bottom. This is not surprising to me, considering the fact that the extent of inequality is almost incomprehensible (how could one family have more wealth than 42% of Americans combined?).
I hope that after people see the videos we produced in class, they will better understand the issue of income inequality and the problems faced by low-wage workers in the United States. I also hope that this awareness will translate into real concern for workers and support for workers’ rights. The past few years have taught us that, unfortunately, it is not enough for the leader of the free world to care about an issue, but maybe something will change if more of the American people care as well.