Thursday, February 14, 2013

SOTU 2013: Promising Prospects for Anti-Poverty Policy

“Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”
After a distinct lack of mention of poverty throughout the 2012 Presidential election campaigns—from either candidate—President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union address, mentioned “poor” and “poverty” five times.
With clear frustration in his demeanor, Obama spoke of how unacceptable it is that wages and income have barely budged for the vast majority of Americans, while corporate profits have skyrocketed. To address this, he proposed increasing the minimum wage to $9/hour, up from the current $7.25/hour. For a family where the parent is working 40 hours a week at minimum wage, this would put an extra $280 in their pocket, money that could go towards rent, utilities, transportation, child care, or even leisure activities like going to see a movie. Furthermore, this increase in the minimum wage would be indexed to the cost of living, which would cushion the impact of inflation on the buying power of a family’s income.
President Obama’s housing plan to let families refinance at today’s interest rate and save $3,000 a year, while beneficial to many, will be especially beneficial to people of color, who were disproportionately affected by the housing crisis. Nationwide, Black and Latino families saw their wealth and assets decimated as their homes went into foreclosure.
The President spoke at length about the tremendous value of early childhood education: “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.” We all know that children are our future, but put into economic terms there is no doubt that infusing children with services early in their lives results in a strong return on investment for the nation. Obama committed to working with states to make high-quality pre-school available to every child.
Finally, the President also mentioned reforming some of the financial penalties in our public policies that he views as dissuading some people from marriage. In addition, he put a greater emphasis on policies that encourage fathers to take responsibility for their children. Children fare better when they are raised in two-parent households, so the President’s commitment to these policies is a boost to strengthen family relationships. The President did not go into detail about specific policies to address family strengthening, but given the diversity of formations that make up American families today, including multigenerational households, children raised by relatives, and single parents, it would be helpful for policymakers to consider these realities moving forward.
Although the President spoke at length on issues that would help low-income and poor Americans, there were still key issues left unaddressed. Of critical importance is the mass incarceration of people of color, particularly Black men for non-violent crimes, which continues to have deleterious effects on whole communities, affecting men’s ability to be good fathers, gain employment, or continue their education (if they were youths).
President Obama’s State of the Union speech was significant because just uttering the words of ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ means that federal policymakers will be more apt to address poverty in the coming months. This is of timely importance because of the imminent due dates for major budget decisions, involving the sequester, debt ceiling, a final fiscal year 2013 budget, and release of the fiscal year 2014 budget. All of these are opportunities for policymakers to protect low-income and poor Americans by not cutting the services and supports that help them to work and support their families.
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