President Obama’s budget features ambitious and thoughtful proposals to create opportunity for children and youth, help struggling low-income families move into the middle class and succeed once there, and invest in America’s labor force.
The proposals reflect an up-to-date understanding of families’ lives and today’s workplace. They represent a strategic approach, not a laundry list. In general, they are grounded in evidence about what works, drawn from recent decades of research and experience with local, state, and national initiatives. And they take direct aim at the barriers that hold back both parents and children in struggling working and middle-class families, providing a “two-generational” double boost that can help entire families achieve and hold onto economic security.
The proposals also build on and, where needed, expand the strong core of safety net programs—including health insurance, nutrition assistance, Pell grants, and unemployment insurance—that already help families stabilize their lives, weather bad times, and move up. These safety net programs provide a significant work support for millions of families and play an important role in lifting people out of poverty, both when they are unable to work and when their wages are too low to meet basic needs.
The president calls for an end in cuts to discretionary spending, known as sequestration, which slowed economic growth and stalled poverty reduction in recent years. The budget blueprint proposes funding key initiatives through spending reductions and targeted increases in revenue, including taxes on the wealthy and closing corporate tax loopholes.
- Among the bold proposals that come together to make up this strategy:
- Affordable high-quality child care for all low-income parents with children under age 4, phased in over the next 10 years, coupled with immediate investments to support implementation of the bipartisan Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) reauthorization and to expand Head Start and Early Head Start services for the most vulnerable children;
- A federal-state partnership that provides a major incentive for up to five states to create paid family and medical leave programs, addressing a significant vulnerability for low-income working families destabilized by the loss of income that comes with major health events, including birth;
- A continuing investment in evidence-based home visiting programs (which would otherwise expire), to help low-income parents with infants and toddlers better support their young children’s development;
- Preschool for all low- and middle-income 4-year-olds phased in over 10 years, completing a continuum of services for families with young children;
- Tuition-free community college for students from low- and moderate income families, with careful attention to the needs of non-traditional students—who are older, often working and raising a family—as well as younger “traditional” students;
- Major expansions in the resources available for training through the nation’s core program for low-skilled and low-income youth and adults (the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act), for apprenticeships that allow low-income workers to “learn while you earn,” and for more targeted training opportunities;
- A multi-billion dollar proposal for summer and year-round jobs for young people disconnected from school and work; and
- Improvements in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit to help low-income earners and to expand the EITC to single adults and to young adults, who are currently largely excluded from it
The proposals are grounded in up-to-date evidence of who families are today, what has changed in our economy, and the barriers that hold back too many children, youth, and adults from full opportunity. Addressing these barriers is not only a matter of fairness, it is also crucial for America’s future, as today’s children and youth grow up and replace an aging labor force.
Children have the highest poverty rate of any age group (20 percent), and young adults have the highest rate among adults (19 percent). Almost half of young children live in families that are either poor or struggling just above the poverty line. About 70% of these poor children generally live in families with workers, often putting in long hours at low wages.
Today’s parents work through their children’s infancy and early childhood, a stark contrast to just a few decades ago. In 1975, fewer than half of all mothers were in the labor force, and only about a third of mothers with a child under age 3, compared to more than 70 percent of all mothers and 61 percent of mothers with a child under age 3 in 2013. Moreover, nearly a quarter of mothers take less than 10 days of parental leave.
Four in ten low-wage workers have no access to paid leave at all—no sick leave, vacation leave, parental leave, or personal leave—making it very hard for them to care for an infant, a sick child or family member, or themselves.
Participation in the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) has fallen for the third consecutive year to a 15-year low. Fewer children were served in 2013 than in 1998. Those who are able to secure help still struggle to afford quality care. The average cost of child care for a very young child is nearly twice the average subsidy payment.
Young children in poor and near-poor families face developmental risks due to the nature of low-wage work, the extremely high cost of child care, and the limited help available to families.
Postsecondary education is essential for attaining economic security. By 2018, 60 percent of all U.S. jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. At the current rate, employers in 2025 will need about 23 million more degree and credential holders than our higher education system will have produced. Yet, the fastest growing segments of our labor force have some of the lowest levels of education attainment.
Our educational system is not meeting the needs of all our students. The rate of low literacy among black adults is two times higher than it is among all adults (35 percent vs. 18 percent). This gap is even higher among Hispanic adults: 43 percent have low levels of literacy and 56 percent have low numeracy skills.
Far too many youth (an estimated 6.7 million) are detached from school and work and struggle to access training and education options that will help them develop the skills they need to succeed and earn family-sustaining wages.
Fifty-one percent of college students are now independent, adult learners, many of whom are parents juggling work and family while attending school.
Commentators always want to know whether the President’s budget is “dead on arrival” in Congress. But no large change happens overnight; a budget that frames the big questions and offers thoughtful answers shouldn’t be graded solely on its likelihood of 2015 enactment.
That said, from the perspective of Congressional appeal, two major proposals build on bipartisan legislation that Congress actually did enact in 2014: the first reauthorization in 18 years of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and the first reauthorization in 16 years of the nation’s core workforce program, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Both were passed on virtually unanimous votes—and while no one expects voting for large new funding proposals to be as bipartisan as the reauthorizations themselves, there is common ground around the importance of the programs and their broad direction. Other areas with considerable bipartisan appeal include apprenticeships, community college initiatives, pre-kindergarten, and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to include youth and adults without dependents.
Other proposals in the budget serve as a call to action for localities and states that want to innovate, even without the federal resources that would be offered by passage. Lifting up paid family leave with such a significant statement of presidential commitment could encourage action in states ready to be at the head of the line. And the early childhood, workforce training, and community college agendas are already being pursued at the state level; the ideas brimming over in this budget give ambitious state leaders more directions to consider, particularly as revenues in many states recover from the recession and states themselves want to tackle the big questions.
In several key areas, the president’s ideas may be gaining ground as generations change. Take child care, for example. When I testified before Congress almost two decades ago, in support of the last successful proposal to sharply increase child care spending back in the Clinton Administration, many members were skeptical that families needed paid child care—after all, if women wanted to work, they should look for family members to babysit. Last spring, when I testified before the House committee on the child care reauthorization, members from both parties understood the role that stable, safe, and affordable child care plays in the life of a family.
President Obama has proposed a thoughtful, strategic budget that appropriately addresses the issues our country and people are facing. The Congress should take this budget proposal seriously and work to move the country forward.
Olivia Golden is the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).