OAKLAND (AP) — Former President Jimmy Carter says the income gap in the United States has increased to the point where members of the middle class resemble the Americans who lived in poverty when he occupied the White House.
Carter offered his assessment of the nation's economic challenges Monday at a construction site in Oakland — the first of five cities he and wife Rosalynn plan to visit this week to commemorate their three-decade alliance with Habitat for Humanity.
During an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, he said that years of tax breaks for the wealthy, a minimum wage untethered from the inflation rate and electoral districts drawn to maximize political polarization have reduced the quality of life for all but the richest Americans.
Carter says that even comparatively well-off regions like the San Francisco Bay Area have been hard-hit by foreclosures and need more affordable housing.
Carter also said that if he were back in the White House, he would work with Republicans and Democrats to secure more funding for affordable housing and urge more flexibility in resolving differences involving the critical issue.
They spent the morning framing windows at a new 12-unit townhome in East Oakland where the international Christian nonprofit already has built or repaired 115 homes.
"I would work as harmoniously as I could with other members of the Congress, and with both Democrats and Republicans, to figure out how we can face a time of great deficits," said the 89-year-old former president, looking relaxed in a baseball cap and white sneakers. "I think to improve the quality of life of American people and to give them hope for the future and a decent place to live ... is one of the best investments we can make."
He also urged cooperation and flexibility in improving housing.
Carter noted that the average income in Oakland is much higher than in the communities where Habitat normally works, Still, a "despicable" daylight holdup at the Habitat construction site demonstrates there are families struggling everywhere, he said.
Armed robbers took cellphones and money on Oct. 1 from volunteers preparing for the Carters' visit, and one person was pistol-whipped.
He said that low quality of moral values "can best be addressed by letting people have a decent place to live, and to have some semblance of human dignity and hope that the future is going to be better," he said.
Habitat for Humanity was founded in Georgia, the home state of the Carters. They first joined a Habitat for Humanity work site in 1984 in New York and have spent a week every year working on construction sites in the U.S. and abroad.
On Tuesday, the former president and first lady are scheduled to help renovate homes in a section of Silicon Valley that has remained immune to the wealth generated by the high-tech industry. After that, they intend to travel to Denver, New York and Union Beach, N.J., where they will help rebuild homes wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.