The State of the Union: Are American Presidents ever allowed to help their own poor?

I wouldn’t want to be a politician let alone the President of the United States of America, who is simultaneously head of the World’s most powerful nation while being  leader of the developed country with the greatest economic inequality. Inequality is, we are told, growing rather than narrowing in the land of the free and, assuming that politicians really do want to make things better for their people, I wonder, sometimes, if they go to bed at night wondering if they have any power at all to make a difference. Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a passionate State of the Union speech about ending his country’s poverty – fifty years later, President Obama is saying much the same. 
President Johnson, fifty years ago.

“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America … Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.” American President Lyndon B Johnson, State of the Union speech, January 1964.


President Obama, this week.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.” President Barack Obama, State of the Union speech, January 2014.

What goes wrong over there in the USA? It can’t just be Congress and the Tea Party. Maybe the problem is that the 1% who hold the nation’s wealth, also bankroll both main political parties and many of the nation’s institutions. This must have an impact on politicians’ tax policies. It is no surprize that no matter what is said at those State of the Union speeches, the rich carry on getting richer and the poor, well yes, they’re still getting poorer.

‘Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation’s income; the top 0.1 percent, 11 percent. Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent. Recently released census figures show that median income in America hasn’t budged in almost a quarter-century. The typical American man makes less than he did 45 years ago (after adjusting for inflation); men who graduated from high school but don’t have four-year college degrees make almost 40 percent less than they did four decades ago’. (Inequality Is a Choice 2013 Joseph E. Stiglitz, New York Times, October 2013.)

I admire but also pity President Obama – his heart’s in the right place, no doubt, but will he ever be allowed to make that difference? I don’t write this from an oasis of equality here in the UK, far from it. We too are watching the divide between rich and poor growing and here too many people are fed up with the percentage of wealth being skimmed by the country’s over-paid bosses while real incomes for the rest of the population are dropping. Such inequality, call it unfairness, is bad for any country – it saps its morale, undermines its industries and weakens its institutions. If there’s no hope for the USA, what chance is there for the rest of the World?

Good luck Mr President – you’ll need it.

Take a moment and listen to Al Jolson, yep, I’m serious.



My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published  on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.

It is now available as a paperback or on Kindle (go to your region’s Amazon site for Kindle orders)

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