A Stopwatch Shows the President’s Priorities

The Washington Post conducted a fascinating analysis last week of how much time President Obama devoted in his State of the Union Address to each of his main policy concerns—equality of opportunity, education, energy and environment, health care, immigration, minimum wage, foreign policy and partisanship and political culture.

In his 65 minute speech, the President talked for nearly 15 minutes about education (6 minutes, 10 seconds) and equality of opportunity (8 minutes, 23 seconds), nearly equal to the 15 minutes, 30 seconds spent on foreign policy. By comparison, energy and environment clocked just over 4 minutes, immigration just under a minute and a half, and even health care only five and half minutes.  Clearly, education and equality of opportunity rank high on his second-term agenda.

Why? Perhaps because years of education are highly correlated to higher incomes and more secure employment—the gateways to equality of opportunity.

New (12/13) Bureau of Labor Statistics research on the earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment for full-time employees over 25 shows that the average weekly earnings for all workers was $815 in 2012. Those with less than a high school diploma averaged $471, and those with a Bachelor’s degree averaged $1,066. The average unemployment rate for all workers is 6.8%. For those with less than a high school diploma, the rate is 12.4% and for those with a Bachelor’s degree, the rate is 4.5 %.

Education is not the only doorway to opportunity, but it is the main entrance for most. This is what the President meant when he said, “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”

In the decades ahead opportunity will be realized by those who have access to careers of the future. Our economy is turbo-charged with discovery and invention; without the analytic and social skills of creativity, collegiality and caring learners will be marginalized from the economic currents that are reshaping the landscape of work.

President Obama is challenging himself and the rest of us to deepen our thinking about how we can expand the number of people who walk through the doorway to opportunity by creating policies that ensure greater equity and inclusion. As the year unfolds, we will see how much of the promise is fulfilled and how much is left to be done.