The Obama Legacy: Legal Aid Across Government Agencies

Francesca, a mother of two, was struggling to provide for her family. She took $20 worth of clothing from a store—landing her with a citation and a $300 fine. She paid off the fine, but the record of the ticket followed her, and made it impossible for her to find and keep a stable job. Thanks to a U.S. Department of Labor funded job-training program, she was referred to Legal Action of Wisconsin, who helped her get the ticket dismissed and expunged. Almost immediately, she got a job at a bank call center—a job she’d been rejected from previously due to her record. Less than eight months later, she got a raise.

Francesca was lucky. Most of the millions of low-income Americans faced with catastrophic events—like an abusive partner, the potential loss of a home or a job, or lack of health care—don’t get the legal help they need. Paying for legal assistance is out of the question, since lawyers cost $200 to $300 per hour on average. Legal aid options exist, but they’re stretched painfully thin: There’s less than one legal aid attorney available per 10,000 Americans living in poverty. As a result, an estimated 80% of low-income Americans’ legal needs go unmet.

Our justice system—and our ability to achieve a wide range of federal priorities—depends on people getting the services they need to address their problems. That’s why four years ago the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice created a federal interagency group to identify the federal programs, policies, and initiatives that would be more effective with civil legal aid. Last year, President Obama recognized the power of civil legal aid by making the effort a White House initiative and expanding its reach to 22 federal agencies.

In his Presidential Memorandum establishing the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, President Obama noted:

Federal programs that are designed to help the most vulnerable and underserved among us may more readily achieve their goals if they include legal aid among the range of services they provide. By encouraging Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs, the Federal Government can enhance access to justice in our communities.

The tight match between federal agencies and legal aid happens throughout the federal government. The Department of Labor, for example, has a vested interest in making sure Francesca—and the millions of Americans like her—can find and keep a job. The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to make sure that veterans receive their benefits so they can keep a roof over their heads; the Department of Justice needs to help victims of elder abuse escape their abuser; and the Federal Trade Commission’s work to combat consumer scams needs support from legal aid providers who are often the victims’ first responders.

Thanks to the Roundtable, the Corporation for National and Community Service and Department of Justice teamed up to launch Elder Justice AmeriCorps, the first ever army of lawyers to help victims of elder abuse; Department of Labor-funded American Job Centers can offer legal help to remove obstacles to employment; the Department of Justice-Department of Housing and Urban Development Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program gets legal help to young adults in public housing to give them a second chance to succeed; and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families program helps ensure homeless veterans get the legal aid they need to get into stable housing.

Studies have shown time and again that legal aid makes a difference. Representation in housing cases increases the chance a family stays in their home; domestic abuse victims are more likely to break the cycle of violence when they have legal help; and people with criminal records are more likely to find employment if a lawyer gets their old record expunged.

Just as it’s wise to plug up a leaky roof before water seeps into the walls and causes extensive damage, civil legal aid saves public dollars by preventing problems that can be costly and harmful. For example, studies show that legal aid can improve health outcomes and drive down healthcare costs, and accelerate children’s transition from foster care to a forever family, reducing direct payments to foster parents and the expense of monitoring them.

We’re at the end of an administration that has fought to ensure Americans have access to justice and to get the best results possible for the low-income and other vulnerable people we serve. Although much has been accomplished, we must continue to expand access to civil legal aid and enhance the quality of life for all families and communities.

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



The Obama Legacy: Creating More, Better Jobs

During his 2016 presidential campaign, president-elect Donald Trump promised that if he was elected, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” Creating good-paying and high-quality jobs is definitely a worthwhile goal for the president to increase Americans’ living standards and decrease poverty.

Despite the president-elect’s claim that there are “no jobs,” the labor market has improved at a remarkably steady rate as the country worked its way out of the deep recession. During the past six years, there has been job growth each and every month, and a 5 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate. In part, that’s due to President Obama’s Recovery Act, which stimulated growth, provided aid to states, and invested in infrastructure. The rescue of the auto industry saved at least 1 million jobs, and kept an entire region out of a severe depression.

In 2015, most Americans finally started to feel the benefits of the recovery. Income rose for the typical American household, and the poverty rate saw one of the largest single-year declines in almost 50 years—primarily due to improvements in the labor market.

As steady as the recovery has been, the United States has not yet reached a full employment economy. There are still too few jobs, too few hours, and too slow wage growth for millions of people who are willing and able to work. Along with a strong safety net, decent jobs and wages for low-income people and their families is one of the most effective methods of reducing poverty.

If the next administration genuinely wants to create decent jobs, it will need to do much more than strike piecemeal deals with individual companies. It should work with the Federal Reserve to prioritize full employment, and make sure that we get there by keeping interest rates low until there is consistently strong wage growth. It should also take steps—some of which were taken by President Obama—to make sure these jobs make it possible for people to support themselves.

Raise the Minimum Wage

Despite what some policymakers and pundits suggest, a significant share of poor people already work—and their wages and benefits from that work are their main source of income. The problem is that their wages are too low. Full-time, year-round minimum wage workers don’t make enough to support a single person, much less a family. For people who rely on the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour—disproportionately women and people of color—the struggle can be even harder.

Congress has failed to raise the federal minimum wage for seven years, so Obama relied on executive action when he could. He raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for all federal contractors, many of whom work at poverty-level wages. Some individual states also raised their minimum wages, which is correlated with faster wage growth for low-wage workers.

The rest of the country is long overdue for a raise too, and Trump has—at times—promised to give it to them. However, given how opposed Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary is to even a modest increase, it’s unlikely that the new administration will take this action on behalf of workers.

Enforce and Update Labor Standards

Workers lose tens of billions of dollars a year due to wage theft, when employers fail to pay minimum wage, overtime, payroll taxes, or worker’s compensation premiums. Stolen pay can add up quickly for low-wage employees, and it can make the difference between making rent or facing eviction. Stronger enforcement of labor standards that guard against wage theft, and updates to outdated standards—such as increasing the overtime threshold and eliminating the tipped minimum wage—would especially benefit low-income workers.

Under Obama, the Department of Labor (DOL) implemented contracting regulations that include not only a higher minimum wage, but also address wage theft, on-the-job health and safety hazards, sexual harassment, race discrimination, and wage transparency. In addition, the Obama DOL applied the minimum wage and overtime regulations to the home health care industry, whose almost 2 million care workers are generally women of color and immigrants earning wages at or below the poverty line.

End Irregular Scheduling

Irregular work scheduling denies workers any dependability in their schedule or pay. That makes it nearly impossible for working parents to find child care, know whether they are going to get the hours they need, or coordinate schedules between multiple jobs. These employment practices are also more likely to affect low-wage workers who lack the leverage to push for better wages and hours, which leaves them facing job and income insecurity and a higher likelihood of falling into poverty. To remedy these problems, policymakers could enact laws to require minimum reporting pay and advance notice of worker schedules, allowing people to plan their lives and meet family responsibilities.

Provide Paid Sick and Family Leave

Seventy-three percent of the lowest wage private-sector workers lack a single paid sick day, and 96% do not have paid family leave through their employers. That leaves workers—particularly low-income workers—in an impossible position where they have to choose between getting paid or caring for themselves or their families. At best, a missed paycheck leads to many families and individuals making tough choices among expenses on basic needs; at worst, it can lead to hunger, homelessness, or worsening illness.

President Obama issued paid sick leave and paid family leave to federal workers and contractors, and while this is a step in the right direction, millions more workers need the same support. Extending earned sick leave and paid family leave to all workers will greatly impact the lowest-wage workers, who are 4.5 times more likely to lack paid sick time compared workers at the top of the wage distribution.

A Strong Safety Net

We need a strong and effective safety net for people who are unemployed, can’t work, or have jobs that pay poverty wages. For example, Obama’s expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit target working families and kept 9 million people out of poverty between 2009 and 2011; his extension of emergency unemployment compensation and extended unemployment insurance benefits lifted 2.5 million people out of poverty in 2012; and last year, Social Security benefits alone lifted 26.6 million people above the poverty line. Without stronger wage gains, particularly for lower-income workers, the safety net will need to continue to work harder every year simply to keep poverty rates from increasing.

But the safety net faces the possibility of historic cuts under a Trump Administration, with Social Security, housing assistance, Medicaid, and nutrition assistance all at risk. And that’s not even including the threat to the Affordable Care Act, which has reduced the share of Americans without health insurance to a record low and increased millions of Americans’ economic security.

As a new administration takes the baton, we need to strengthen efforts to help workers and reduce poverty.

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



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.



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.



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.