Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Center for American Progress March 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

Hillary Clinton tackles economic inequality, in her own way


Hillary Clinton used one of her final events before an imminent presidential campaign launch to tackle economic inequality in American cities, but preached a message more inclusive than antagonistic. 

“A lot of our cities really are divided,” Clinton said during an urban policy panel at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., which was also sponsored by the labor union AFSCME. “They have a lot of inequality that has only gotten worse. They have some of the most dynamic, well-educated, most affluent people in the world. And people who are trapped in generational poverty and whose skills are not keeping up with what the jobs of today and tomorrow demand.”

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Inequality has become a rallying cry for progressives, including those who want Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to challenge Clinton for the nomination. Others have called on Hillary to adopt Warren’s populist message, including her blistering rhetorical attacks on big banks and the richest 1%. But the former secretary of state and all-but-declared presidential candidate’s solution to inequality was decidedly more Clintonian than Warren-esque.

“I’m looking not just at what can be done working across governmental lines, but what we can do in partnership with the public and private sector.”
Hillary Clinton
Clinton sat dead center on a ten-member panel that included labor union bosses, local and federal government leaders, financial investors, and think tank experts. The assembly represented Clinton’s vision for an “evidence-based” policy conversation that steers clear of politics and relies on close collaboration between the public and private sectors. 

It’s a model pioneered by Clinton’s husband at his Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative, and one which Clinton hinted she would bring to government if she became president.

“I’m looking not just at what can be done working across governmental lines,” Clinton said, “but what we can do in partnership with the public and private sector.” One example she pointed to was youth unemployment, saying it can be helped by giving companies government help train young people and give them their first jobs.

Without using the word “gentrification,” Clinton also spoke to one of the thorniest issues in urban policy, saying cities need to find a way to remain affordable for middle and working class Americans, even as they become more popular destinations for the affluent. 

Don’t focus on “mobility and job creation on average,” she said, “but do it in a way that lifts everybody up.” Clinton cast race aside as a major factor in the divisions, citing the work of Harvard professor Raj Chetty, instead saying the solution is strengthening the social and economic fabric of cities with institutions like unions and faith groups.

Government resources, which for decades facilitated flight to the suburbs, need to be refocused on rebuilding city infrastructure, Clinton added.

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Cities are often praised in Washington as places beyond partisanship, where elected officials are forced to tackle tangible problems regardless of ideology, a message Clinton has adopted of late.

“[We need to] get out of the very unproductive discussion we’ve had too long where people are just in their ideological bunkers having arguments instead of trying to reach across those divides and come up with some solutions,” Clinton said, echoing her recent emphasis on bipartisan problem solving.

Republicans, not surprisingly, were not impressed with Clinton’s talk of social mobility. “It’s always interesting to hear Hillary Clinton chime in on income inequality given that her speaking fee alone is more than the average American makes in four years. What voter out there struggling to make ends meet can relate to someone who spends millions flying around on private jets and thinks leaving the White House with a multi-million dollar book deal counts as being ‘dead broke?’” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Michael Short.

Also on the panel was Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who has been discussed as a potential vice presidential pick, and Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, California who talked about convening a meeting with gang members to try to find a path to peace. 

Clinton liked the idea.

“What you did with gangs and gang members is exactly what needs to be done in so many parts of our country,” Cinton said.  

“So don’t be too surprised if you get a call,” the soon-to-declare presidential candidate continued. “Maybe we’ll start not too far from here, in a beautiful domed building, where we’ll get everybody in the same room and start that conversation that could lead to collaboration and better results for our cities and our countries.” 

The White House is about three blocks from where Clinton spoke.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton tackles economic inequality, in her own way