President Barack Obama plans to renew his effort to prod Congress to address economic inequality in tonight's State of the Union address. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is celebrating the state's lowest unemployment rate in more than five years and will propose cutting taxes by $500 million in his state budget recommendation on Wednesday. This week's themes from the Democratic president and the Republican governor reflect the partisan divide regarding government's role in helping narrow the widening gap in wealth and opportunity.
That gap between the affluent and the rest of America should not be in dispute. The Congressional Budget Office shows incomes increased for the top 1 percent by 275 percent from 1979 to 2007, far more than the very modest gains by the middle class. Other studies show the average income of the top 1 percent rose by more than 30 percent while the remaining 99 percent saw income gains of less than 1 percent between 2009 and 2012. Now the richest 10 percent of Americans earn the largest share of income since the end of World War I.
Obama is expected to repeat his pitches to help the families in Florida and the nation who are struggling to make ends meet and prepare for the future. He still wants to extend for three months the emergency unemployment benefits that expired in December, which has affected more than 1.3 million Americans and more than 90,000 jobless Floridians. Yet Congress has failed to act as Republicans insist on offsetting the cost. The president also is expected to renew his call for raising the federal minimum wage, providing free prekindergarten to all children and investing in more public works projects to create jobs. While Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio are talking more about the income gap, the president's agenda is going nowhere among congressional Republicans focused on the midterm elections.
In Florida, the governor is quick to claim credit for the unemployment rate that dropped to 6.2 percent in December. Yet the decline in the rate is misleading. The state is hardly creating enough jobs to keep up with the rising population, and more people are giving up looking for work. The average length of unemployment in Florida between January and October last year was 48 weeks — the highest in the country. Yet the state caps unemployment benefits at 16 weeks, the state's online site for filing for benefits remains a mess and the governor would be testing welfare recipients for drugs if the courts would let him. Florida also has failed to accept billions in federal money to expand Medicaid, which would provide health coverage to about 1 million low-income residents.
Instead of pushing for the Medicaid expansion Scott once endorsed, the governor's budget will focus on more tax cuts. Instead of substantially increasing need-based financial aid for low-income college students, the governor will promote more performance-based funding for universities. Instead of raising revenue to build more roads and public works projects that would create jobs, he is expected to keep promoting incentives for businesses promising to add jobs that may never be created.
The president and the governor will offer significantly different visions for creating economic opportunity this week. One invests in human capital, and one invests in big business. One creates more opportunities for the jobless and the poor, and one tells those Floridians they are on their own.