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James Henry: Obama’s State of the Union address should’ve been used to convince the public of the shared interest in solving the problem of poverty

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Henry Report.

Now joining us is the man behind the report, James Henry. He’s a leading economist, attorney, and investigative journalist who has written extensively about global issues.

Thanks for joining us, James.


DESVARIEUX: So, James, let’s get right into it and discuss President Obama’s State of the Union address, where he focused a lot on income inequality. What was your response to the president’s speech?

HENRY: Well, first of all, I’m glad he’s waked up and, you know, finally discovered this issue. I mean, six months ago, when I talked to senior economists at the White House, they weren’t using poverty or inequality as targets for how well they were doing on any policies. And so this is a real, you know, recognition that poverty and inequality have both grown dramatically in the last five years.

You know, we’re talking about economic recovery, but it turns out that the top 1 percent of the population has captured about 95 percent of the income gains since 2008 during this recovery.

On the side of poor people, we now have about 16 million kids living in poverty. In the absence of any government assistance, we would have 70 million Americans, close to 25 percent of the population, living in poverty. With government assistance, we now have 50 million people, and half of them are living below the half-poverty line, which is $11,500 a year for a family of four. If we go back 50 years, when the war on poverty was started by Martin Luther King and L. B. J., we had actually poverty levels that are not much higher than what we’re seeing today, and they’ve increased dramatically in the last decade.

So I’m glad that President Obama has finally recognized what a lot of other people have been talking about, this dramatic growth in poverty and income inequality and wealth inequality on his watch.

The concern is, you know, what are we going to actually get done about it. And I was hoping that he would have used this speech to educate Americans about how it’s in everyone’s interest to address these problems. And if you do polls on this issue, it turns out that less than half of Americans think that poverty is an important problem for us to address. And I think other presidents have–like F. D. R. and L. B. J. have been able to use the bully pulpit that the White House provides to educate the public on how important this issue is.

We know he has a hard time getting anything done in Congress, and he’s going off in the direction of trying to do executive actions unilaterally. I think it’s more important for him to actually use these opportunities to educate people about how serious a problem we’re facing.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. James Henry, thank you so much for joining us.

HENRY: You’re quite welcome.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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James S. Henry is an investigative economist and lawyer, a Global Justice Fellow at Yale University, and a Senior Advisor at the Tax Justice Network. Previously, James served as Chief Economist at the international consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. As an investigative journalist his work has appeared in numerous publications like Forbes, The Nation and The New York Times.