The Obama Legacy: Equity in Education

Eight years ago, America was facing one of the worst economic crises in our history. An optimistic young president swept into office and set to work rebuilding and renewing America’s promise that everyone, no matter who they are, deserves a chance to succeed.

Our public school system has always been fundamental to that promise.

Three weeks into the new administration, President Obama signed a law providing $100 billion in additional funding for education. While most of that money went to states to protect teaching jobs, support low-income and special needs students, and provide college grants, $5 billion was set aside to drive reform and innovation, and another $3 billion for turning around our lowest-performing schools. President Obama also made a number of significant investments over the course of his tenure, including increasing funding for Pell Grants by more than $50 billion and increasing investments in early childhood programs by more than $6 billion.

Today, much has changed for the better in American education. Others can decide how much change is due to our efforts, but America’s progress since 2008 is undeniable:

  • Most states have higher learning standards and better assessments.
  • We have more children in early learning programs.
  • We have more high-quality school options available.
  • We have countless examples of evidence-based innovation to learn from.
  • Students enjoy greater protections from violence, discrimination, and inequity thanks to an invigorated Office of Civil Rights.
  • Many more students have high-speed internet access.
  • Test scores for the lower grades are up.
  • We have cut “dropout factories” with unacceptably low graduation rates by 40%, and the nation’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 83%.
  • We have more young people in college and more college graduates from low-income families.
  • Many of our community colleges are better aligned to the needs of local employers.
  • All colleges—public, private, and for-profit—face more pressure to graduate their students instead of merely enrolling them and allowing them to drop out.

But, this is no “mission accomplished” moment. We still have many unmet challenges:

  • Too many children show up in kindergarten behind their peers due to a lack of access to pre-K programs and other factors.
  • Too many young people are still trapped in underperforming schools.
  • Too many schools lack the needed resources to serve the growing low-income population.
  • We still disproportionately suspend and expel students of color.
  • Inequality persists in funding and access to rigorous college prep courses.
  • High school test scores are mostly flat and many high school graduates are not ready for college or careers.
  • We don’t do nearly enough to prepare young people in high school to go straight to work, if that’s what they want to do.
  • Too many college students and graduates are struggling with student debt while too many low-income students are priced out of college altogether.

Congress and the President have helped lay a foundation to address some of these issues. We have a new federal education law that makes needed and important changes. For the first time, states must adopt challenging academic standards that are aligned with college entry requirements and career-ready standards, so it’s unlikely that states can retreat. The new law also acknowledges that learning starts at birth, and encourages investment in early learning programs.

The law moves us away from accountability based on a single test score to one based on multiple factors, like graduation rates. I have often said that the prior version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, was “loose on goals but tight on means,” because it didn’t demand high standards and it was too prescriptive about how to improve. The new law flips that around and gives states more flexibility to implement reform and accountability.

Now it falls to the next administration to maintain a high bar, continue the progress, and stay focused on our national goals. These four goals are neither Democratic or Republican, left or right, liberal or conservative:

  • Leading the world in early childhood education.
  • Boosting high school graduation rates to 90% and beyond.
  • Making sure 100% of high school graduates are truly college and career-ready.
  • Leading the world in college completion.

While state and local governments will always play the predominant role in education, the new administration needs to understand the historic role that the federal government has played in driving equity, and promoting excellence and innovation.

Thanks to the federal government, we have a world-class system of public universities. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, we won the peace after World War II. Thanks to the federal government, millions of low-income students can go to college.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, segregation in public schools is no longer the law of the land. Thanks to the federal government, America protects the rights of students with disabilities and it dedicates funds for English-language learners, and homeless, migrant, and rural students.

Parents don’t care all that much which level of government pays for education, makes the rules, or holds the system accountable. They just want what’s best for their kids—and that’s what we should all want.

Change can be perilous or promising.

It’s a new day in Washington, and change can be perilous or promising. The perils are obvious: a retreat from accountability, an unwillingness to defend the most vulnerable, and a divided country that no longer views education as a shared opportunity to lift all boats. Instead, education is rationed to those with the means to acquire it—rather than extended to all those with the talent and the will to gain the most from it.

The promise, on the other hand, is infinite—a world where every child has the opportunity to rise from nothing to something, to fulfill his or her destiny and to realize the American dream. If we want to reduce income inequality and increase social mobility, the only way to do that is to give every child a world class education. It’s the best investment we can make.

As a citizen of the greatest country in the world, I always root for the success of those who serve, regardless of political affiliation. But, let’s remember that success in education is measured not by laws or rules, courtroom battles, political campaigns, or the size of the federal footprint, but by student outcomes.

Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.



The Obama Legacy: Women’s Equality

On January 29, 2009—just over a week after his inauguration—President Obama sat down at his desk in the Oval Office and signed his very first bill: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The legislation was named after a woman who had been paid significantly less than her male colleagues for over a decade, and it ensured that employees have the right to sue for pay discrimination.

President Obama’s action gave women a stronger tool to fight for equal pay, and it made them more financially secure. It also signaled clearly that our president was going to spend his term fighting for a woman’s right to have the same chance as a man to succeed, to have a better shot at escaping poverty, and to create a better life for themselves and their families.

Facing opposition from an unfriendly Congress, President Obama signed executive orders granting federal workers and contractors a higher minimum wage and paid sick days, making pay more transparent by requiring government contractors to give their employees the necessary information each pay period to make sure they are getting paid what they are owed, and making workplaces safer by allowing victims of sexual assault or harassment their day in court. These reforms were key for women, who make up the majority of minimum wage workers and who are often tasked with caring for dependents when they are sick. Making pay transparent also helps employees to know if their pay is lower than other similar employees—which could be an indication of pay discrimination.

President Obama also enacted one of the most significant anti-poverty measures in years when he expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit in the stimulus bill. Between 2009 and 2011, these expansions kept 9 million people out of poverty. They were particularly crucial for women and their families, who would have lost over $8 billion in tax assistance if the reforms had been allowed to expire.

Additionally, President Obama vigorously enforced civil rights laws, which removed impediments to opportunities for women and girls. The Obama administration stepped up enforcement of Title IX to combat sexual assault in universities and colleges, as well as K-12 schools. He also fought for and signed the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was expanded to better protect all women, including LGBTQ individuals, American Indian and Alaskan Native women, and women who are undocumented immigrants.

Arguably no legislation during the Obama years did more for women’s equality than the ACA.

But arguably no legislation during the Obama years did more for women’s equality than the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For many years prior to the passage of the ACA, health care costs were the leading cause of bankruptcy filings—meaning that many women and families were just one medical emergency away from financial ruin. Additionally, simply being a woman was considered a pre-existing condition, which allowed insurance companies to charge women more for health coverage. In fact, before the ACA, 92% of health insurers gender-rated their plans—charging women more than men for their plans—even when maternity coverage was excluded. Women are unfortunately used to paying more for things labeled as “for women,”—for jeans, razors, or beauty products, for example—but health insurance is no longer one of those things.

In total, nearly 10 million women gained health coverage since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Medical bankruptcies decreased, as did the share of Americans struggling to pay their medical bills. Insurance companies can no longer charge women more than men because of their gender. And through Medicaid expansion—in the 32 states and DC that expanded Medicaid as the law intended—low-income women gained access to health care and mandated coverage of many core preventative services, including contraception.

These significant achievements have made a real difference in women’s lives. Thank you, Obama. Really. Thank you a million times over.

Now, as Obama concludes his presidency, much of the progress of the past eight years is threatened. We have replaced our unabashedly feminist president with a president who isn’t quite convinced that women should be allowed to work. Additionally, President-elect Trump and Congressional Republicans have made repealing the ACA their banner cry, and Trump has promised to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, Speaker Ryan has argued for the block granting of Medicaid, housing, nutrition assistance, school lunches and more, and for dramatic cuts to social safety net programs—all while potentially slashing taxes for big corporations, millionaires, and billionaires.

The fight ahead to preserve our progress is daunting, but we’re ready. The well-being and economic security of women and families are worth fighting for with everything we’ve got.

Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.



The Obama Legacy: Place-Based Poverty

I have spent the last 50-plus years of my life fighting poverty. In 1967, when I worked for Senator Robert Kennedy as his legislative aide, the Senator and I traveled to Mississippi. We saw children starving—literally—with bloated bellies, open sores that wouldn’t heal. Our nation did the right thing then—we expanded the food stamp program—and that’s why you don’t see that kind of starvation here today.

But we had to fight for it. And now we are going to have to fight again.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump spoke about America’s inner cities in dystopian terms, rendering a picture even more dire than the real one (which is plenty bleak). He promised that he would fix everything, without providing any specifics. But city leaders were quick to point out that he wasn’t really speaking to the residents themselves, who understand the challenges their communities face on a daily basis. Instead, he chose to play up stories about crime and violence to appeal to the worst instincts of white voters.

If President-elect Trump had a real interest in addressing concentrated urban poverty, he could build on President Obama’s record and learn about the important work that is already happening in every major city.

Instead, we will soon see an all-out attack on virtually every federal program that helps low-income people, from cradle to the grave, wherever they live. It will put millions of Americans at risk, whether it’s losing food or health care or housing. Anyone who cares needs to join in fighting back—those who are directly suffering, and those who have the privilege to remain untouched by retrogressive policy. At the same time, we can’t limit ourselves to defensive action—we need to put forth a vision for our future and work toward its realization.

Many of the policies that low-income neighborhoods need do not focus on them exclusively. A real full-employment policy would help beached boats float wherever they are, and raising the minimum wage would help low-wage workers across the country climb out of poverty.

Obama understood that the quality of life in high-poverty places depends on a mosaic of policies.

President Obama took us forward on these matters, sometimes in big steps and sometimes small. He had many other significant efforts blocked by Congress—such as his most recent jobs proposal, an increased minimum wage, and comprehensive immigration reform. His housing initiatives reflected his commitment to people having a genuine choice about whether to stay in their current community with improved economic conditions or move to opportunities elsewhere. He did not achieve radical change, but he understood that the quality of life in high-poverty places depends on a mosaic of policies—and he was heading in the right direction.

The Obama administration undertook place-based work that targeted rural, urban, and tribal communities. In fact, its efforts to support neighborhood revitalization have been more impressive than any previous administration—even given the funding limitations imposed by the Republican-majority Congress that has been in place since 2010.

Obama’s creation of Promise Neighborhoods, based on the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, was a significant innovation towards that end. The initiative uses schools as hubs for community partnerships, where cradle-to-career educational programs and family supports are designed to improve educational and development outcomes for children. Since 2010, a dozen Promise Neighborhoods have received sizable five-year grants for implementation and are operating on a substantial scale.

Through executive action, President Obama also created Promise Zones. These low-income neighborhoods receive preference for funding from a variety of existing federal programs. The marshaling of funds that are already appropriated means that program money is spent where it is needed most, and that’s something that should appeal to progressives and conservatives alike.

The Obama Administration also reconstituted the first President Bush’s HOPE VI into a version 2.0, called Choice Neighborhoods. Had it been properly funded, it would have had more reach in helping to build stronger communities through mixed-income housing, including housing for people with the lowest incomes. This was a key effort given that rental assistance to families with children is at its lowest point since 2004, and homelessness of school-aged children is at a record high.

Support from the Obama Administration—including grants from these place-based programs—have fostered the growth of a number of sophisticated, multifaceted inner-city organizations and partnerships, all doing valuable work for children and families, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

The Youth Policy Institute (YPI) in Los Angeles—which focuses on poverty reduction through support services, educational opportunities, and job training and career support—has been able to use this funding from Washington to further develop its model and reach, and to engage thousands of families with services and supports. The organization’s work includes five of its own schools, after-school programs at 78 schools, and 83 public computer centers. It also offers Early Head Start, teen pregnancy prevention, job readiness, and job placement services. YPI works with families on parenting skills, financial planning, and computer literacy. They help day laborers and teach community agriculture. In all, YPI has 1,600 staff serving more than 100,000 youth and adults at 125 program sites. It works with 60 partners, and has a budget of $41 million annually—and its partners’ budgets add up to a much greater sum.

Because YPI is three decades old and receives state, local, and private funding, it will likely weather a Trump storm; but many newer organizations may face rougher sailing. The competitive funding they’ve received from the Obama administration for the last eight years has been a major factor in their growth.

All of the Obama Administration's place-based work is at risk.

Indeed, now all of the Obama Administration’s place-based work (and more) is at risk.

The Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, SNAP, housing vouchers, and many more critical programs all face the prospect of being totally axed or turned into block grants—either way, it means far less people having access to basic needs like food, housing, and healthcare. Support for good schools and accessible transportation, aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, and true criminal justice reform—all critical for urban residents—are on the block for deep budget cuts and gutting through executive action.

These cuts, and the weakening of community-based organizations, place children in particular in deep jeopardy. Without a real jobs program and investment in communities that have been stripped of their wealth, families will not have the resources to support the developmental needs of their children. Trump has put out a so-called jobs initiative, but the purported infrastructure plan is nothing but a tax cut to make the rich richer.

Perhaps the threatened Trump cuts reveal the road map we need to fight back. The federal policies helping people—and the initiatives revitalizing neighborhoods—serve millions of people, through thousands of organizations. Businesses and faith leaders, foundations, local public officials and community leaders, and regular people—if we are organized—can stand up and fight back against those who would do us harm.

We’ve done it before and now we must do it once again. This is not over yet.

Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.



The Obama Legacy: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, and How We Can Fight What’s Coming

In November 2008, the nation was facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  The housing bubble had burst, the economy was hemorrhaging 700,000 jobs a month, and “too big to fail” banks were on the verge of collapse.

Severe economic pain was widespread—more than 10 million people were unemployed, up from 7 million before the crisis.  No one was hit harder than communities of color, where residents who should have qualified for prime loans had been targeted and steered toward higher-priced exotic subprimes, then lost their homes to foreclosure. As reporter Jamelle Bouie put it, the loss of wealth represented “a generation’s worth of hard work and progress wiped out.”

This was the economy our nation’s first African-American president inherited.

Barack Obama’s work to respond to hardship and deprivation began before he even took the oath of office, when he ordered his transition team to develop what would become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act).  He signed the bill into law in February 2009.

The Recovery Act was one of the most powerful pieces of antipoverty legislation passed in decades. It extended tax credits to more people who worked in low-paying jobs—a reform that eventually became permanent, and helped lift nearly 10 million people out of poverty last year alone. It prevented more than a million home foreclosures, saved or created up to 3.6 million jobs, and helped families and communities survive the economic havoc that had been unleashed by a reckless Wall Street.

It was one of the most powerful pieces of antipoverty legislation passed in decades.

Princeton economist Alan Blinder and Moody’s Chief Economist Mark Zandi estimate that without the Recovery Act we might have faced a depression, with 17 million lost jobs (instead of about 8 million), and a peak unemployment rate high of nearly 16 percent (instead of 10 percent).  The Recovery Act’s expansion of the safety net also kept more than 6 million Americans out of poverty.

Immediately following passage of the Recovery Act, the President began work on healthcare reform, eventually signing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into law in March 2010. The legislation established historic economic protections. Gone is the ability of insurance companies to reject people for coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions.  Gone was the chance that Americans would be too poor to afford insurance, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid (until the Supreme Court got involved).  And gone is the chance that young adults would be cut off from their parents’ plans.

More than 22 million Americans have gotten health insurance through Obamacare, and the share of Americans without health insurance has dropped to a record low.  The law also protects millions of low- and moderate-income families who would otherwise be a single health crisis away from poverty.  Vice President Joe Biden described the significance of the legislation perfectly when he said, “This is a big f—ing deal.”

Once the Affordable Care Act was in place, Obama began working with Congress to tackle some of the root causes of the Great Recession—including the actions of “too big to fail” financial institutions. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices, and to take action against companies that break the law.

Throughout his term, President Obama worked tirelessly to make sure Americans have a fair chance at success. He launched the Promise Neighborhood and Promise Zones initiatives to improve economic opportunity in high-poverty communities—whether urban, rural, or tribal.  He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to file an equal pay lawsuit. He issued Executive Orders to raise wages for federal government contractors, updated a meek Overtime Rule in order to raise working-class wages, took executive action to help ensure that people aren’t held back by a criminal record, and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect undocumented children and young adults from deportation.

The president also drew attention to issues that have been neglected for far too long, ranging from criminal justice reform, longstanding federal policy failures on American Indian and Alaskan Native issues, and science-based nutrition standards for school meals.  And he accomplished all of this while most Republicans in Congress refused to cooperate on virtually any of his proposals—a tactic stated explicitly by Senator Mitch McConnell, among others.

The legacy is not all positive and the work is not complete.

To be sure, the legacy is not all positive and the work is not complete. The economic recovery following the Great Recession was extraordinarily slow and painful for far too many of us—and many people haven’t recovered at all. He could have prevented more foreclosures by forcing banks to modify mortgages.  DACA and the Overtime rule were blocked by the courts, food and nutrition assistance programs were cut nearly as quickly as they were expanded, and revenues were never increased sufficiently to meet the nation’s long-term antipoverty and infrastructure needs.

That said, President Obama’s legacy is one that demonstrates a tireless commitment to making the American Dream accessible to all Americans.

As we now approach the swearing-in of President-elect Donald Trump, just about everything we have alluded to here, and much more, is in jeopardy.

That’s why in the coming weeks, TalkPoverty’s series examining Obama’s legacy will focus not only on poverty and inequality, but on what’s at risk under a Trump administration. It will address how we can protect—and eventually expand—the gains we have made over the past eight years.

No one will be more vulnerable to the changes proposed by Trump and his Republican allies than people who are already struggling. We need to be ready to fight as if lives are at stake—because they are. 

Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.



Andy Puzder Brags About Low Wages. Now He’s Nominated to Be Secretary of Labor.

President-elect Trump, who campaigned as the savior of the working class, has spent the past three weeks staging a bait-and-switch of epic proportions. His pick for treasury secretary profited off of the 2008 financial crisis, his health secretary wants to cut Medicare, and his housing secretary referred to desegregation as a “failed socialist experiment.”

And now he has nominated Andrew Puzder, the billionaire fast-food executive, to lead the Department of Labor.

If Trump’s actual goal is to display utter contempt for American workers, then burger-czar Puzder is a pretty strong choice. He’s a key figure in an industry that’s notorious for labor abuses, including low wages and wage theft, and he has personally played a strong role in perpetuating those injustices. According to a recent Labor Department investigation, the majority of Puzder’s own restaurants—about 60%—were found to be in violation of labor laws.

Puzder will be tasked with enforcing the very laws he has repeatedly broken.

And now Puzder will be tasked with enforcing the very laws he has repeatedly broken.

Puzder vocally opposes labor protections that are crucial for most Americans, including overtime pay, protections from workplace discrimination, and access to affordable health care. But his nomination deals a particularly violent blow to the nation’s most vulnerable and lowest-paid workers. Despite the fact that he makes more in a day than the typical fast-food worker earns in an entire year, Puzder believes that low-wage workers are paid too much. He has been an outspoken opponent of the minimum wage, which puts him at odds with more than 90% of Americans. And his claims that higher minimum wages lead employers to cut jobs runs counter to decades of rigorous research showing that moderate minimum wage increases boost family income without affecting employment.

Nowhere is Puzder’s nomination more devastating than in the 21 states where policymakers have refused to raise the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour. The overwhelming majority of those states—19 out of 21—voted for Trump after he promised to be “a president who will protect them and fight for them.” They have been waiting more than seven years for a raise, and every year the purchasing power of their $7.25 shrinks—making it even more difficult to make ends meet. But with a Labor Secretary who thinks “some jobs don’t produce enough economic value” to justify a minimum-wage increase, a president who has declared that wages are “too high,” and a Republican Congress that has repeatedly rejected widely supported minimum-wage legislation, these workers will likely have to keep waiting.

If the federal minimum wage stays at its current level, by the end of Trump’s first term it will be worth 20% less than it was worth when Congress last increased it in 2009. That means a full-time minimum-wage worker would earn just $13,750 per year in today’s dollars—nearly 15% below the poverty line for a family of two.

Adding insult to injury, Puzder penned an op-ed last year that lambasted Americans who must turn to public assistance to make ends meet. But there’s a simple reason that low-wage workers are eligible for public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid: It’s because employers like Puzder pay their employees too little to survive.

It’s the height of hypocrisy that Trump—who sold himself as a champion for American workers—has crowned an anti-labor billionaire to be the nation’s chief advocate for working people. To preserve and protect American workers’ rights, security, and dignity—and to prevent the most vulnerable, lowest-paid workers from sinking further into poverty—lawmakers must take a strong stand against the coronation of this anti-labor secretary.