One paragraph in the president’s speech, though, struck me as going straight to an important policy, even philosophical, limitation of the conventional framing of economic mobility and opportunity:
We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag. To the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner. To the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president — that’s the future we hope for.
Yes, I believe in generosity, compassion, and tolerance, and, yes, I believe in the kind of opportunity described in those examples. But, in addition to all of that, I want the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina to be able to grow up to be a furniture worker, too, if that is what he or she wants –and, in doing so, I want that child to have health insurance, a decent pension, paid sick days, paid family leave, paid vacation, some reasonable level of job security, and a real voice at work. Not just furniture workers, but food-service workers, office cleaners, retail clerks, home health aides, and the rest of our large, underpaid workforce.
Public policy should not be exclusively or even primarily about making life better for future workers by making it easier for them to move up the occupational food chain. We should focus, instead, on how to make life better for today’s workers in the jobs they have today.
We are an exceptionally rich country and can afford to treat the bottom and middle of our workforce much better than we have in recent decades.