Obama’s State of the (Dis-)Union Speech, 2013

If you ain’t poor (by America’s low poverty standards), you are “middle class.” That is the current political and pundit mode of understanding the USA. Those below the middle class income standards have no claim to a class appellation—they are just “poor.” The president’s speech was largely about improving the situations of those already in that desirable middle class way of life; it was also concerned to lift the non-middle class.

To improve the situation of those at the bottom of the presumed economic ladder, the president called for a rise in the minimum wage and tying it in the future to changes in the cost of living: a major step for those caught in the beginning steps of that broken income ladder.

Recognizing that the current unemployment rate is still too high, despite its lowering in his administration, the president called for more government spending on the nation’s physical infra-structure that would produce jobs and likely benefit some low-income households.

The social infra-structure also received attention, notably in the expansion of pre-school services. That growth would particularly aid low-income single parent and two-earner households. It would promote more effective educational outcomes for children of lower-educated parents.

The president’s advocacy of the easing of the path to citizenship could be important for the millions of undocumented immigrants locked in low-pay jobs. More of the president’s concern, however, was focused on facilitating the entry and stay of high-skilled persons; but a loosening of the path to citizenship and prolonged stays could benefit immigrants in non-middle class livelihoods. With the rising population of Hispanic voters, even Republicans might buy into a limited relaxation of immigration rules.

The Republican rejoinder presented by Senator Rubio of Hispanic background revisited that party’s concern to not tax the rich, the presumed investors in start-up enterprises, and to lower corporate taxes. A class theme was involved in this approach—‘we need the wealthy’. Perhaps, however, blocking some tax loopholes would be acceptable as part of a package to reduce government deficits.

Underlying the State of (Dis)Unity Messages was the concern for America’s backbone—the middle class, perhaps more a symbol than a people.

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S. M. Miller (Mike), the co-author of “Rights and Respect: Class, Race and Gender Today” and more than a dozen other books, is an academic-activist involved in poverty, race, and class inequalities in the U.S. and other countries. He chaired the sociology department at Boston University. Currently, he sits on the board of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and other advocacy organizations.

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