President Barack Obama challenged Americans on Tuesday to do more to alleviate poverty in the United States and close the widening income equality gap between the country's wealthy and its middle class and impoverished people.
At a conference on poverty at Georgetown University in Washington, Obama said there is no reason one of the world's most prosperous nations cannot do more to create a more equal society. He traded thoughts with a newspaper columnist, a public policy professor from Harvard University and the president of one of the country's leading business lobbies.
Obama said the U.S. has "been able to lessen poverty when we decide to do something about it." The country, he said, faces a basic question of how much will it has to do more.
"What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest in those things that allow a poor kid in a rural town or in Appalachia or in the inner city to access what they need, both in terms of mentors and social networks, as well as decent books and computers and so forth in order for them to succeed?" Obama asked. "And right now, they don't have those things."
The president said no one wants to be poor, but that people are often born into poverty or face difficult early years, often through lack of employment for their parents, poorly equipped schools or abandonment of their fathers, as was the case for Obama in his youth.
"It's hard being poor," Obama said. "People don't like being poor. It's time-consuming. It's stressful. It's hard."
He said alleviating poverty would take political will and government spending. "It will cost us some money; it's not free," he said.
Obama said the "best anti-poverty program is a job," but that governments at the federal, state and local levels in the U.S. have often abandoned programs they once funded that improved education and aided those who most needed help.
He noted that the wage gap between corporate leaders and average workers had widened precipitously in the United States, and he attacked the Republican-controlled Congress for refusing to alter a specific tax break that benefits wealthy hedge fund managers.
"If we can't ask society's lottery winners to make a contribution," he said, "then this conversation is just for show."