So President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership are going to end inequality? A half century after President Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to eliminate poverty, progressives aim higher. While cynics may think the real goal is changing the subject from Obamacare, most progressives actually have kept the faith. Eliminating inequality guarantees the moral high ground, especially with a supportive media who also desperately want to believe and who will faithfully transmit whatever theme their political allies send their way.
My Left Foot is a touching film (and novel) about a poor young Irishman, Christy, with cerebral palsy; he can neither walk nor speak. But he has a shrewd mind and uses his left foot, the only limb he controls, to draw, paint, and thereby express his soul.
President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address also told a tale about overcoming disabilities. The disability metaphor extends through the entire speech and culminates at the end, when he introduces his special guest, a severely injured Afghan war veteran:
CUNY staff members protesting on July 28, 2016 on campus in New York City. (Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News).
Buried in President Obama’s Wednesday address on economic inequality lay this claim about the Affordable Care Act:
It’s the measurable outcomes in reduced bankruptcies and reduced hours that have been lost because somebody couldn’t make it to work, and healthier kids with better performance in schools, and young entrepreneurs who have the freedom to go out there and try a new idea—those are the things that will ultimately reduce a major source of inequality and help ensure more Americans get the start that they need to succeed in the future.
One assumes controversy ensues about the claims that Obamacare will lead to better performance in school and more entrepreneurship. Fair enough. The non-controversial pivot is supposed to be the assumption that these outcomes, if achieved, would reduce inequality.
But this is, strictly speaking, absurd. Such outcomes would likely increase inequality. What they would reduce is poverty. Opportunity has a way of doing both. The distinction is vital, and rhetorical imprecision—assailing inequality when what means to target is poverty—confounds the search for useful solutions to the latter.