Media and Politics

The Obama Legacy: Supporting Children and Families

President Obama took office in the midst of the Great Recession—a low point for low-income children who faced the prospect of hunger, unstable housing or even homelessness, and a sharp cutback in work hours for their parents. He will leave office having made significant progress in helping stabilize families, thanks to successes in record access to health care, reduced child poverty, an economy that is generating more jobs, and the potential for better wages and working conditions. Should the momentum continue, we will see improved educational and employment outcomes for children as they reach adulthood—which is vital to our economy as these children replace a retiring Baby Boom generation.

Yet we also have much unfinished business, in part because so many of the administration’s promising initiatives—such as comprehensive immigration reform, a significant investment in child care and early childhood education, and a major youth employment initiative—were not enacted. And unfortunately, the ideas currently proposed by leaders in Congress and the President-elect’s transition team would tear apart not only President Obama’s successes but also the core of our safety net.

Here are five areas where the Obama administration sought to drive progress for children and families—and what we expect from the next administration.

Expanding Health Insurance

Children’s health insurance has increased dramatically under the current administration. Thanks largely to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), about 1.7 million children gained coverage from 2013 to 2015. Now more than 95% of children are insured—a record high.

These improvements in health insurance have long-term positive consequences. There are obvious benefits like reductions in infant mortality and childhood deaths, improved health, and reduced disability. But there are subtler effects, too: expanding health coverage for low-income children improves high school and postsecondary success, and also employment over the long haul. Plus, children’s life chances are improved when parents are able to get the care they need, like treatment for depression (which is widespread among low-income mothers of young children).

Despite the mounting evidence of lifetime benefits for children, President-elect Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to repeal the ACA. If they succeed, the number of uninsured children will double—even without accounting for the additional cuts now being discussed for Medicaid, which is especially important to low-income families.

Reducing Child Poverty

During the worst of the Great Recession, more than 21% of children lived in poverty—15.6 million in total. By 2015, the number had dropped by about one million, and the child poverty rate was down to 19.7%. While that rate is still far too high, the improvement reflected an economic recovery that helped all families.

The Obama administration fought to protect key safety net programs that support families when they are most economically vulnerable—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps)—and successfully expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC). These programs are crucial for low-income children—in 2015, SNAP reduced child poverty by 2.7 percentage points and the EITC and CTC together reduced it by 6.5 percentage points. As with health insurance, these programs pay off for a lifetime: children getting this help have improved health, education, and employment outcomes.

Despite this strong evidence, Congress and others have argued to sharply cut SNAP or change its structure to a block grant—a fixed amount of money that states can spend for various purposes. That fixed dollar amount—which doesn’t increase during tough economic times—leaves families and communities without resources when they need them the most.

Addressing Disparities for Children of Color

Despite some progress, disparities for children of color remain stark. About 1 in 3 African American children and 3 in 10 Hispanic children live in poverty, even with high levels of household work effort. That’s more than double the poverty rate for white children. Fixing these disparities matters more than ever to the nation’s future, because of who today’s children are: almost half are children of color (a milestone already reached for young children), and about one-quarter are children of immigrants.

The Obama administration made important commitments to build ladders of opportunity for children and families of color, though the work remains unfinished. The administration made strides on educational equity, beginning with early childhood education up through improved access to postsecondary education and job training. It also focused on justice reform, with the goal of reducing interactions between students of color and law enforcement in schools.

In addition, more than 5 million U.S. children have at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant. In an effort to keep these families together, the administration issued an executive action providing temporary protected work status for parents of children who are American citizens or long-term residents—but court action blocked it. Now these children remain at risk of separation from their parents, which creates high levels of stress and undercuts their development and their families’ economic security.

Fair Wages and Working Conditions for Families

About two-thirds of poor children live with a working adult. These families typically must confront a combination of low wages, volatile and inadequate work hours, and insecure jobs.

Over the past eight years, dozens of states and cities have passed paid sick time, paid family leave, and scheduling laws that make a big difference to these families. The administration’s commitment to paid leave—including strong support for the federal Healthy Families Act and its “Lead on Leave” campaign—helped fuel change at the local and state level. Moreover, the administration’s paid sick days and minimum wage executive orders for government contractors and the overtime rule are crucial expansions of labor protections that could benefit millions of workers.

But while bills to take the paid leave, scheduling, and minimum wage provisions nationwide were introduced, none has passed the divided Congress—and the President-elect’s announcement of a Labor Secretary who is sharply critical of regulations to help low-wage workers suggests the modest steps taken so far could be rolled back.

Stalled Budget Investments in Children

Unfortunately, what has not improved nearly enough in these eight years is public investment in children through child care and Head Start, as well as youth development activities and career opportunities (with the exception of modest increases in Pell grants).

The administration’s strong budget proposals to provide all low-income infants and toddlers with access to high-quality care, and to expand other early learning programs, were never enacted. In fact, even though Congress did enact important bipartisan measures to improve the major federal program that helps low-income parents with child care—such as streamlining rules so parents can keep child care support despite unstable work hours, and strengthening training for child care workers—it never provided funding to support the changes. Today, less than 1 in 6 eligible children receive child care assistance, less than half of eligible preschoolers benefit from Head Start, and Early Head Start serves less than 7% of eligible infants and toddlers. This lack of action flies in the face of resounding evidence that early childhood investments pay off both for children and the economy over the long run.

Overall, the agenda being discussed by Congressional leaders and the President-elect’s transition team fails to build on the administration’s accomplishments. It also proposes denying basic help like health care and nutrition to a generation of children, which would have lifelong consequences. All Americans need to fight back against these devastatingly shortsighted choices, which would place children’s own healthy development, education, and work success at risk—along with our nation’s economic future.

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

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The Obama Legacy: Chipping Away at Mass Incarceration

In 2015, Barack Obama traveled to Oklahoma to meet with inmates at the El Reno prison—the first sitting president to actually walk into a federal prison. After meeting with men in the prison, he was struck by how much they have in common. He told reporters, “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made.”

As President Obama prepares to leave office, the United States still holds the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars. In order to assess his impact on the criminal justice system, it’s necessary to examine the policy shifts that got us here in the first place.

In 1980 there were 24,000 people in the federal prison system, about 25% of whom were serving time for a drug offense. By the time Obama was elected in 2008, that number had ballooned to 201,000 people, nearly half of whom were locked up for a drug offense.

There are two key reasons for the population explosion—both rooted in the war on drugs. First, President Reagan encouraged federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to emphasize drug arrests. Second, Congress adopted mandatory sentencing policies—frequently applied to drug offenses—that established a “one size fits all” approach to sentencing. Federal judges were obligated to impose prison terms of 5, 10, 20 years—or even life—largely based on the quantity of drugs involved. They were not permitted to take any individual factors, such as histories of abuse or parenting responsibilities, into account to mitigate those sentences.

The racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

The most egregious of these policies were tied to crack cocaine offenses. Someone possessing as little as five grams of the drug (about the weight of a sugar packet) would face a minimum of five years in prison. That threshold was significantly harsher than the mandatory penalty for powder cocaine, which required a sale of 500 grams of the drug (a little over a pound) to receive the same penalty. Since 80% of crack cocaine prosecutions were brought against African Americans, the racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

Momentum for reforming the crack cocaine mandatory minimum laws predated the Obama administration, and had growing bipartisan support when the President took office. The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2010, reducing sentencing severity in a substantial number of crack cases. Then in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors calling on them to avoid seeking mandatory prison terms in low-level drug cases, which has cut the number of cases with such charges by 25%.

While the changes in sentencing laws have helped to reduce the federal prison population, the highest profile of Obama’s reforms is his use of executive clemency to reduce excessively harsh drug sentences. That is a story of both politics and policy. During Obama’s first term he used his clemency power far less than his predecessors—a pattern that was sharply criticized by many reform groups and editorial boards. But after launching a “clemency initiative” in 2014, the President has commuted the drug sentences of more than 1,100 individuals (with promises of substantially more by the time he leaves office). Notably, in about a third of these cases, the individuals had been sentenced to life without parole due to mandatory sentencing policies.

The President’s efforts to make sure people can return to their lives after they have been incarcerated are noteworthy as well. A pilot program at the Department of Education is addressing the consequences of the ban on the use of Pell Grants for higher education in prison (a provision of President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill). The new initiative restores access to this funding on a limited basis, and will reach about 12,000 incarcerated students. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also made it easier for people with criminal records to find work, by cutting down on the rampant misuse of an individual’s criminal justice history during job application processes. For example, employers may no longer inquire about arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction, and an offense may only be considered if it is relevant to the job at hand. Additionally, employers need to take into account when a conviction occurred, so that people are not continuously punished for an offense committed long ago.

Mass incarceration makes our country worse off.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of President Obama’s work in regard to criminal justice reform has been his role in changing the way we talk about the issue. After a disappointing first term in which these issues received only modest attention, Obama’s last years in office framed criminal justice reform as a top priority. Among a series of high-profile events during his second term was the President’s address on mass incarceration at the NAACP national convention, at which he concluded that “mass incarceration makes our country worse off.”

Mass incarceration did not come about because there is a shortage of ideas for better approaches to public safety—it was the result of a toxic political environment where legislators favored political soundbites over evidence. By using the bully pulpit to frame justice reform as a major issue, Obama provided some coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options.

It is difficult to be optimistic that the incoming administration will look favorably on criminal justice reform. Leading Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, may be persuasive in making the conservative argument for reform. But President-elect Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric, which paints many incarcerated people as “bad dudes,” suggests progress at the federal level will be a challenge.

Realistically, opportunities for justice reform are more likely at the state level. Many local officials are already convinced of the need for sentencing reform and reentry initiatives, and they may be less influenced by the political climate in Washington. If so, such changes at the local level may ultimately gain traction in a Trump White House as well.

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

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The Obama Legacy: The Mix of Hope and Fear in Immigration Policy

As President Obama prepares to leave office, more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation face an uncertain fate. During the past eight years, immigrant communities have felt the fear stemming from mass deportations, and the hope of promised reforms. But now, any progress won might very well be erased by President-elect Trump and his advisors.

President Obama promised a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. His efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform were blocked by Congress, but his executive action—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—provided temporary status for 741,000 young people who came to the US as children. The initiative protected those who were eligible from deportation and granted them temporary work authorization. A proposed expansion of the program would have extended protections to an estimated 330,000 more people, including the family members of DACA recipients. It was blocked by the courts despite its clear legality.

The data already demonstrates that DACA empowers young people to pursue their education, and makes a dramatic difference in the opportunities available to them. Nationally, undocumented immigrants often have to rely on low-wage jobs: Nearly 20% are employed in the leisure and hospitality industry, more than 15% are employed in construction, and 5% are in agriculture. DACA recipients, on the other hand, are most likely to work in educational and health services—only 5% are in leisure and hospitality, 3% are in construction, and less than 1% work in agriculture.

DACA also benefits US workers more broadly, because it makes it more difficult for employers to undercut wages. Since they are unable to assert their labor rights, undocumented workers are more vulnerable to wage theft, non-payment of minimum wage and overtime, and other forms of exploitation. DACA helps ensure that good employers who play by the rules aren’t competing with bad actors who minimize costs and maximize profits through labor violations.

President Obama’s legacy on immigration is not all positive, however. He presided over the largest number of removals ever in the United States. Not only does deportation break families apart, but it threatens their economic well-being. The loss of a breadwinner can mean the difference between paying rent and being homeless, feeding a family or facing hunger. President Obama enforced a flawed immigration system, and many advocates were angry that he didn’t push for comprehensive immigration reform when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate.

However, it is House Republicans who bear most of the blame for the broken system that remains in place. In 2013, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform. The bill increased the number of border patrol agents, made common sense reforms to our visa system, and provided a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. But House Republicans failed to act. Their inaction not only has consequences for immigrant families, but for the entire economy. It is estimated that greater labor mobility and stronger workplace protections would increase the average undocumented immigrant’s earnings by nearly $1,900 each year. For the typical family with an undocumented immigrant, that increase in earnings is equal to 37% of average food expenditures, or 27% of average transportation costs. These additional resources lift-up families and stimulate local economies.

While President Obama’s legacy on immigration will get mixed reviews, President-elect Trump’s vision is unequivocally myopic, enforcement-minded, and cruel. His advisors—like Kris Kobach (author of Arizona’s notorious SB 1070) and Attorney General-nominee Jeff Sessions—support virulently anti-immigrant policies, and one of Trump’s signature campaign promises was to build a literal wall to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country.

Removing DACA recipients would cost $433.4 billion.

Trump’s proposal to deport all 7 million unauthorized workers is not just divorced from reality—it would be deeply damaging to the economy. Removing DACA recipients alone from the workforce would cost $433.4 billion in lost GDP over a decade. If all unauthorized workers were removed, the damage would be even wider spread. Industries ranging from construction to leisure to hospitality to wholesale retail would suffer. All told, a policy of mass deportation would immediately reduce the nation’s output by $236 billion—$4.7 trillion over 10 years—which is almost two-thirds of the decline experienced during the Great Recession.

Ultimately these policies are about people, not numbers. It’s possible to measure the loss in GDP due to deportation, but you cannot encapsulate the grief of being separated from a family member or the exhilaration of pursuing a college education and the job you have always wanted. And numbers cannot express the difference to our national psyche between welcoming immigrants and recognizing their contributions to our communities and the economy, and going backwards to a climate of fear and hostility.

As President Obama takes a last look at the Oval Office, he knows his work on immigration was incomplete. It will be up to the rest of us to make sure that what he did accomplish isn’t undone, and to push for the solutions we know will benefit our entire nation.

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

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The Obama Legacy: How to Protect What We’ve Built So Far

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hope seems elusive. But our resolve cannot be.

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.

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The Obama Legacy: We Finally Have Health Care and Now Congress Is Threatening to Destroy It

The Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010 was one of the most significant social innovations in the past half-century. After repeated, failed attempts at reform—dating back more than a half-dozen Presidents to FDR—President Obama succeeded in securing major changes to America’s health care system.

More than 22 million uninsured people gained health coverage, resulting in the lowest uninsured rate in U.S. history. People with pre-existing health conditions can no longer be denied coverage by insurance companies. Annual and lifetime caps in insurance payouts are barred, thereby protecting people with major illnesses and accidents. Health care coverage must be comprehensive—it cannot be filled with holes. Women can no longer be discriminated against in premium costs. Young adults can stay on their parents’ insurance plans until their 26th birthday. Preventive care is provided at no cost.

These changes have made a huge difference in the lives of millions of people. Because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all Americans are far less likely to go bankrupt after a major accident, or be penalized for chronic conditions, or have a minor illness spiral into a serious medical problem. There has also been remarkable progress in extending coverage to low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

To be sure, the new law is far from perfect. There are still millions of people who don’t have health coverage, in part because 19 states have refused to expand Medicaid. In the individual private insurance marketplace, fewer insurers are selling coverage and premiums are rising at unacceptable rates. High-quality care still has too high of a price tag. But the ACA established a strong foundation that we can build on.

Unfortunately, the progress we have made may soon be reversed. President-elect Trump and congressional Republicans are determined to repeal the law. They also want to convert the Medicaid program—which currently serves more than 73 million low-income people—into a block grant with significantly diminished funding. These changes to Medicaid would kick people off of the program, reduce its coverage, and lead to deductibles and co-payments that recipients cannot afford.

For nearly seven years, we have heard from conservatives that they will repeal and replace the ACA. While congressional Republicans now have a clear plan to repeal the law—in short, to repeal it in early 2017 but delay implementation so that people don’t start losing their insurance until after the 2018 midterms—they have not put forward a unified proposal on what to replace it with. That means when they vote to repeal the bill, they will have no idea what the changed health care system will ultimately look like.

If Congress moves forwards with this half-baked plan, an estimated 30 million people will lose health coverage, while the wealthy receive massive tax breaks. That would more than double the uninsured rate, and flip the country from having its lowest uninsured rate in history to its highest in decades. Eighty-two percent of the people who will lose coverage are in working families, and four out of five don’t have college degrees. These numbers will be even higher if the ACA repeal is combined with the proposed restructuring of Medicaid.

Millions of Americans would be priced out of the care they need.

The net result is a lose-lose-lose-lose proposition. Millions of Americans would be priced out of the care they need. Many hospitals, especially those in rural and low-income communities, will need to close because they cannot afford to care for uninsured patients. And the health care sector will face enormous job losses, which would have a major ripple effect throughout the economy. Finally, states would not only lose significant federal revenues, they would face an increase in expenditures to help pay for some care for the newly uninsured.

A new coalition, “Protect Our Care,” is focused on helping the public understand the harmful consequences we would face if the ACA is repealed and Medicaid is gutted. The coalition aims to ensure that its education and mobilization effort effectively reaches the public, opinion leaders, and policymakers before it is too late.

It behooves people of good will, from both political parties, to work together to ensure that we continue to improve our health care system—not take large steps backwards that would create chaos.

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

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