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State of the Union on point

Julianne MalveauxBy Julianne Malveaux

I was among the 33.5 million people who sat riveted to their televisions, parsing every second of the State of the Union (SOTU) address. I was stunned to learn, through a Washington Post article by Lisa De Moraes, that viewership was less substantial for this address than last year’s 38 million and even lower than the 48 million that watched in 2010. Are people less interested in what our president has to say? Or is there something else going on?

In any case, this was an important and significant SOTU address. Unleashed from the pressure of re-election and able to set forth a progressive and aggressive agenda, President Obama dealt with some of the key issues facing our nation. He was able to utter the word “poverty” without his tongue freezing up. Unfortunately, he is still unable to utter the words “Black” or “African American.”

Still, President Obama laid out an agenda that will ultimately have a positive effect on the African American community, especially if some of his efforts are targeted.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take from soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

President Obama was not so direct, nor so cutting. But he offered important clarity to an issue his administration has ignored heretofore. While focusing on the middle class, he also noted that people should not work full time and still earn a wage that puts them beneath the poverty line. His advocacy for a minimum wage of $9 per hour or about $18,000 a year for a single worker who might support a family, was a significant move forward for the poor. Missing was a conversation about poor people and health benefits and about the employers who refuse to employ people full time so they can avoid paying benefits.

The State of the Union address is not an opportunity to drill down on every issue, so I understand that President Obama could not offer details to the many proposals he raised. Still, it was refreshing to hear the president talk about poverty, about women’s work and wages and about issues of equality. The first legislation President Obama signed was the Lily Ledbetter Act, which dealt with equal pay issues, without acknowledging the fact African American women (and Latinas) are at the bottom of the pay scale.

President Obama discussed infrastructure improvements in his 2008 campaign. Partisan bickering has made it difficult for him to work with states to refurbish, as he says, 70,000 bridges, as well as roads and highways. But some politicians are so willing to undermine the Obama administration they are also willing to see our nation become dysfunctional.

The president has offered an ambitious agenda, one that will improve the lot of all Americans. While I chafe at his failure to mention African Americans, I am excited by proposals to close the wealth gap. His agenda won’t be implemented unless we advocate for it. What will you do to move it forward?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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