In the soaring State of the Union address that began his second term, President Obama challenged America to build “ladders of opportunity into the middle class.” It was more than a lovely turn of phrase. It conveyed the President’s vision of a nation in which everyone has a real chance to participate and prosper, and it pledged leadership at the highest levels of government to transform that vision into reality. The words drew upon the nation’s values and traditions, while calling on us to realize the promise of America by unleashing the potential in all our people.
From his first day in the White House, President Obama worked towards achieving this vision. It’s easy to forget that his presidency began in the depths of the Great Recession and the worst financial crisis in 80 years. President Obama recognized that bank bailouts, begun by his predecessor, were not enough to revitalize the economy, and they would do nothing to relieve the human suffering already caused by the financial collapse. In the administration’s view, economic growth and resilience required investments in America’s greatest asset—its people—and in the opportunities and resources everyone needs to thrive and succeed.
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The $800 million economic stimulus program—enacted just a month after the president took office—focused on job creation and improvements in transportation infrastructure, two critical underpinnings of opportunity. The administration followed that legislation with the hard-won Affordable Care Act, which gave millions of people access to health care—the most basic of resources for living a healthy, productive life.
These early broad-stroke moves signaled an historic federal commitment to creating a fairer, more just, more inclusive and equitable America. Over two terms, the Obama Administration would double down on that commitment with innovative initiatives aimed at enabling people at the bottom of the ladder to move up.
President Obama was not the first U.S. leader to pay attention to poverty and inequality. But the administration understood the full dimensions of the challenges facing people living in areas of concentrated poverty, and the need for comprehensive solutions. After all, Obama had cut his teeth in the world of community organizing, and he knew the nation hadn’t moved the needle much on poverty by building affordable housing or creating job training programs in neighborhoods cut off from good schools, jobs, transportation, and other essential services.
So the Obama administration changed the old, misguided antipoverty playbook.
In one of the most significant shifts in federal domestic policy since the War on Poverty in the 1960s, turf-conscious federal departments and agencies forged cross-sector solutions to build communities of opportunity in inner cities, aging suburbs, tribal communities, and rural regions. And to a degree unprecedented in the federal bureaucracy, agency leaders listened to the wisdom, voice, and experience of community leaders in shaping policy and implementing programs. For people of color in particular, who are often spoken to or spoken about by the government—rather than spoken with—this represented a dramatic change.
Leaders in HUD, Treasury, USDA, the Department of Education, Health and Human Services and other agencies wove together smart policies in transportation, housing, health, food, sustainability, and economic development to revitalize struggling communities and change the systems that hold back low-income people and people of color. Agencies expanded access to healthy food and public transit in low-income neighborhoods that had lacked these essentials for years. Housing policy shifted focus from financing affordable dwellings in economically barren neighborhoods to aligning with investments in transportation, sustainability, and employment opportunities. Education investments went well beyond making long-overdue improvements in failing schools to put in place systems that support low-income children and children of color from cradle to college to career. These investments catalyzed local communities to provide children with everything it takes to succeed in school and life, from health care to mentorship to enrichment programs outside school.
The White House also challenged the nation to re-think the policies of mass incarceration that have locked more than 2 million people—60% of them people of color—behind bars. The administration urged us to re-imagine the prospects for people returning from prison to their families and communities, and to recognize their value.
The national discourse on poverty shifted too. The U.S. presidency is often called a bully pulpit. President Obama transformed it into a pulpit for dignity and respect. “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American,” he declared in his second inaugural speech. “She is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
President Obama’s grace, intelligence, and unwavering moral compass changed the way America talked about race, justice, and the potency of inclusion. He changed the tenor of conversation about people of color, women, gays, lesbians, immigrants, and transgender people. Some might call it political correctness, but I found the new language to be as refreshing as the wind—a wind that I had hoped would blow racists and hate-mongers to the fringe. I will always think of the past eight years as a moment when America tried to discover its best self.
All of this is at stake as we brace for the new administration. If the incoming president fulfills his campaign promises—and his Cabinet picks suggest he will—the nation will turn back the clock on economic policy, consumer protection, health care, civil rights, voter rights, immigration, and everything else I hold dear. Already, fear and hate are undermining the hope for building healthy communities of opportunity throughout America.
Hope seems elusive. But our resolve cannot be. Progressives, people of color, and fair-minded Americans everywhere must stand together to do four things:
Resist. The immediate targets of the incoming administration are likely to be Muslims and Mexicans. Americans of all colors, backgrounds, lifestyles, and ages must mount fierce, unified resistance to unconstitutional and unjust acts against any group. When one is attacked or reviled, everyone is.
Protect. We must safeguard the essentials we need for the health and future of people, places, and the planet. That means fighting to preserve access to health care for vulnerable groups, robust public education systems, and nearly a half-century of environmental protections. It also means redoubling efforts to protect voter rights, the foundation of American democracy.
Find openings. Even as we organize, advocate, sue, and march to oppose the worst of what may come, we must be alert to policies and programs that offer even small opportunities to build stronger, more sustainable communities.
Innovate. The nation did not change on Election Day. The vision of equity—of a nation in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential—remains powerful, and it is more urgent than ever. Guided by that vision, we can continue to innovate in local communities and at the state level. As we demonstrate what works, we will press the new administration to support these new approaches in order to lift up all communities.
Together, we will show Washington that America does not need to build walls. It needs to build ladders of opportunity.
Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.