– President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the growing income gap in America is a "defining challenge of our time" that is not just a minority problem, as he reiterated his push for stronger anti-discrimination laws and immigration reform to close the gap.
"The fact is this: The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing," Obama said in remarks at a nonprofit community center in one of Washington's most impoverished neighborhoods.
"So if we're going to take on growing inequality, and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we've got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern."
Obama said the thought that the problem of inequality is strictly a black, Hispanic, or Native American problem is a myth. He also argued that the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down.
The average family wealth for whites in 2010 was about six times that of blacks and Hispanics. The median income for non-Hispanic households is $57,009 and the median income for Hispanic households is $39,005.
According to the Urban Institute, Hispanics earn 1 dollar for every 1.8 dollars earned by whites. During the Great Recession, from 2004 to 2010, Hispanics lost 25 percent of their wealth, more than whites (1 percent) and blacks (23 percent).
"As a consequence, some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility that were once attributed to the urban poor — you know, that's a particular problem for the inner city, or single-parent households or drug abuse. It turns out now we're seeing that pop up everywhere," Obama explained
He said the U.S. needs stronger anti-discrimination laws to help offset the "painful legacy of discrimination" which means minorities are far more likely to suffer from higher unemployment and higher poverty rates.
The president vowed to focus the last three years of his presidency on addressing the discrepancy and a rapidly growing deficit of opportunity that he said is a bigger threat than the fiscal deficit.
Obama's remarks on the economy come as he seeks to move past the health care woes that have consumed his presidency in recent weeks. He acknowledged his administration's "poor execution" in rolling out the flawed website that was supposed to be an easy portal for purchasing insurance, while blaming Republicans for a "reckless" shutdown of the government.
"Nobody has acquitted themselves very well these past few months. So it's not surprising that the American people's frustrations with Washington are at an all-time high," Obama said. But he added that Americans' frustrations also run high to try to meet ends meet, no matter how hard they work.
The speech comes amid growing national and international attention to economic disparities — from the writings of Pope Francis to the protests of fast-food workers in the U.S. The president cited the pope's question of how it isn't news when an elderly homeless person dies from exposure, but when the stock market loses two points.
Obama said increasing income inequality is more pronounced in the United States than other countries. He said Americans should be offended that a child born into poverty has such a hard time escaping it. "It should compel us to action. We're a better country than this," the president said.
Obama did not propose any new policy initiatives in the speech, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. But he reiterated his call for an increase in the minimum wage and other measures he's been backing to help lower income Americans.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.