Last Tuesday, President Obama addressed Congress and the nation outlining his priorities for the next two years and in the process laying out an expansive agenda that should create excitement among Latinos. The policies the president presented have the potential to greatly improve the educational and economic outcomes of the Latino community.

The president began his speech noting the progress that our economy has made since he took office. This is worth highlighting because despite what detractors say, the economy is in the best shape it has been since he became president. The facts speak for themselves: the deficit has been cut by two thirds; the stock market has doubled; unemployment is lower and health care costs are down.


And yet, in spite of all this progress, the recovery has not reached the average American. While unemployment is down, it is not back to its pre-recession levels; wages are stagnated and inequality has grown.  

This is where the policies he described last Tuesday come in. In order to improve the lives of the average American we need to recommit to our central value of creating opportunities for the middle class and those aspiring to be part of it. Thus, Congress can and should act to increase wages by lifting the minimum wage. It should also work with the president to ensure access to early education programs, community college, and work training. And support working families by encouraging investments in childcare and paid sick days. These common-sense policies have the potential of making a difference in people’s lives.

How will we pay for this? President Obama also laid out a plan to fund these investments by increasing taxes on capital gains and closing other loopholes within our tax code. Conservatives like to say that this amounts to class warfare. But this is not the case. Consider this: in 2015 the poorest fifth of Americans will pay on average 10.9 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the middle fifth will pay 9.4 percent and the top 1 percent will average 5.4 percent. You have read that right: in the United States the wealthiest of Americans pay the least amount of taxes. Furthermore, the rich in America have become even richer over the last several decades and even in the midst of the Great recession. Between 1983 and 2012 the average wealth of the top 20 percent of families increased 120 percent, while the middle 20 percent of families only saw an increase of 13 percent.

Obama’s policy agenda is urgent for the growing Latino community: By the year 2025, nearly one-quarter of the nation's college-age population will be Latino. Yet we are the least likely to be enrolled in early childhood programs and while we have made big gains in going to college, we have one of the lowest college completion rates. We are also disproportionally represented among low-wage workers and paid less than any other group. Additionally, only 38 percent of Latino workers have access to paid sick leave.

What will happen if Congress chooses not to support the president’s ideas? What is their alternative plan? How will we meet the challenges of the future?

Those are tough questions to answer and in the short term it may be convenient for Congress to kick the can down the road for someone else to fix. But all voters, particularly the growing number of Latino voters need to recognize what is truly at stake. The ladder of opportunity in our nation needs to be strengthened for all. That is not just the president’s agenda but should be every American’s chief concern.

Cárdenas is the vice president of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress which develops new ideas for an increasingly diverse America.