As one presidential administration ends and another begins, the United States finds itself at a historic crossroads. Leaving the White House is the first and only African American president of the United States—1 of 45 presidents in a 238-year period that covered legal slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. Pres. Barack Obama was also the first Democratic president since Pres. Bill Clinton signed off on welfare reform in 1996. The historical significance of the Obama presidency is difficult to dispute.
Pres. Donald Trump comes into office having made some history of his own, mostly for his unconventional campaign and the racially charged rhetoric that he used throughout. Given that he has no track record in government and that his cabinet nominees thus far have been openly hostile to the supports—affordable health care, a living wage, robust enforcement of civil rights—that low-income people need most to move out of poverty, our expectations for the federal government under the new administration are at best uncertain. President Trump’s job is to lead not some, but all people living in our country, and we and our colleagues at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law intend to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard on important issues affecting them and their communities, especially those who have historically had difficulty being heard.
Poverty persists, and our country, especially our country’s leadership, must face this challenge. Although 2015 saw a dip in poverty numbers, the fact remains that more than 43 million people in this country live in poverty.1 Native Americans and African Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be included in this population; Latinos, twice as likely.2 What is more, 6.1 percent of Americans live in deep poverty, which is income at half the federal poverty level, a meager $12,150 for a family of four.3 Given the impact that poverty has on communities of color, we must consider policy solutions with a racial justice lens, especially in light of an incoming administration that has expressed hostility to this type of focus.
Poverty persists, and our country, especially our country’s leadership, must face this challenge.
To take stock of the current presidential transition, we first consider the roles that the executive branch, the states, and civil legal aid attorneys have in improving the quality of life and opportunities of low-income people. After reviewing President Obama’s progress on poverty and civil rights over the last eight years, we offer recommendations for action by the executive branch, the states, and legal aid during the next presidential administration.
The Roles of the Executive, the States, and Legal Aid
The executive branch plays an extraordinarily important role in fighting poverty in America, particularly given the discretion it enjoys in enforcing federal law. Civil rights laws are a bulwark against invidious discrimination but only if those laws are consistently and widely enforced. An important moral test of a presidential administration is how it uses those laws to protect everyday people from racism, discrimination, and abuse.
Our nation’s most vulnerable residents must have a seat at the table and a chance to influence the outcomes in ways that will help them move out of poverty.
In addition to enforcement, the executive branch bears the responsibility to elaborate and refine federal law. Through rulemaking and guidance, federal agencies wield enormous power to fashion the precise contours of federal policy. Thus the leaders whom the president nominates to head these agencies speak volumes about the administration’s intent for how these agencies will, or will not, function. Beneath the agency heads, political appointees and expert civil servants work side by side, drafting policy and guidance that alter the responsibilities of states, municipalities, and ordinary people. Although less visible than Congress, the presidency, and the federal courts, the federal bureaucracy can drastically improve the lives of low-income people, or it can make their lives even more difficult.
While the federal government is an indispensable actor in the fight against poverty, states also make countless, crucial decisions that affect the lives of low-income people. State legislatures can augment and strengthen federal protections, but they can alternatively undermine such protections or exacerbate punitive federal policies. State agencies are often called on to enforce federal and state policies and create administrative processes that poor residents must follow to vindicate their rights. Continuing and perhaps even accelerating the trend of recent decades, most of the policy changes that flow from the Trump administration and Congress will come down to the states as an array of choices on policy, timing, implementation methods, funding, and public engagement. The choices each state makes will affect the ability of its residents to work, care for loved ones, and live in dignity.
Holding the federal and state governments accountable are lawyers and advocacy allies who work on behalf of people living in poverty. Working with and for community-based leaders and organizations, these advocates amplify the voices of people living in poverty in the debates on policy options and spending priorities. At a time when interest groups pour vast amounts of money into lobbyists, media specialists, and other professional representation, our nation’s most vulnerable residents must have a seat at the table and a chance to influence the outcomes in ways that will help them move out of poverty. This kind of representation is a key part of what “equal justice” means, especially in an era of change and hostile rhetoric. In addition, civil legal aid lawyers, together with allies in the civil rights bar, privately enforce constitutional rights and civil rights laws. This work becomes more important if the federal government withdraws from vigorous enforcement or if governments at any level violate the Constitution.
Action During the Obama Years
The Shriver Center published a 2008 special Clearinghouse Review issue organized around the title of its introductory article: “The Shriver Center’s Twelve-Point National Agenda: Poverty-Fighting Ideas for a New Administration.”4 Written mostly before President Obama won the election and edited very little afterward, the special issue was meant to “help build understanding of the multiple interrelated aspects of poverty and the strategies available to attack it effectively.”5 The introductory article stated that “for our leaders to claim they have a comprehensive agenda to fight poverty, they should have major initiatives in all twelve of the issue areas of the agenda.”6 The article then described at least one major policy idea that would make progress in each of its identified issue areas, not as an exclusive or comprehensive list, but as examples of the many things that an engaged federal government can do.
The 12 issue areas from that Clearinghouse Review article serve as an interesting scorecard for the Obama administration’s work on poverty and as a checkpoint for how issues have evolved in the intervening eight years. Such a review helps to frame the challenges not only for the Trump administration but also for the states, people living in poverty, and civil legal aid lawyers and antipoverty advocates.
Here are the issues we identified in 2008 and a word about action during the Obama years:
1. Strengthen the Legal Foundation for Civil Rights and Racial Justice. The Obama administration embraced this goal, with several major statements and speeches by the president.7 The administration activated the U.S. Department of Justice’s national network of U.S. Attorneys and took action through the civil rights divisions of the individual federal agencies and their regional offices.8 But at times the Obama administration faced criticism over slower-than-expected progress in some aspects of civil rights work.9
2. Establish Quality, Affordable Health Care for All. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a historic accomplishment, bringing health coverage to tens of millions and setting in motion key reforms of the health care system as a whole.10
3. Guarantee Economic Safety for People with Employment Challenges. The Obama administration and its allies fended off challenges from Congress to weaken the key safety net programs and also made improvements.11
4. Invest in the Public Good Through Fair Budget and Tax Policies. Upon entering office, the Obama administration pushed through a landmark stimulus package that saved jobs and shored up state budgets that would have otherwise cut key programs.12 Throughout its term, the administration resisted negative actions from Congress and, in spite of intense pressure on non-defense discretionary programs, made gains where possible in larger budget deals.13
5. Preserve Our Nation’s Rental Housing. During the Obama administration, new demonstration programs, policies, and avoidance of deep program cuts preserved rental housing, particularly federally supported low-income housing.14 The Obama administration strove to advance fair housing and promote residential integration, modernize lead-reduction efforts in federally subsidized housing, and protect the housing rights of survivors of violence.15
6. Create Redemptive Opportunities for People with Criminal Records. This has been an area of progress, in some cases because of bipartisan efforts. The collateral consequences of criminal records that have obstructed access to employment or housing have been reduced in various ways nationally and in many states, though more work remains ahead.16
7. Increase Economic Mobility Through Lifelong Education. The Obama administration has made ambitious proposals to expand college access and skills training. Congress passed a new job-training bill, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, with substantial improvements.17
8. Link Economic Development to Workforce Development Opportunities. The Obama administration indicated its desire to connect economic development to workforce development, and amendments to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act were a step toward that goal, particularly because of their sector-based approach.18 Additional work is necessary, however, to make this connection a reality.
9. Advance Low-Wage Workers by Making Work Pay. The Obama administration substantially improved the Earned Income Tax Credit.19 President Obama also issued one executive order requiring paid sick time in federally funded projects and another raising the minimum wage for federal contractors.20
10. Build and Protect Assets for Financial Stability and Growth. The creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau led to substantial improvements in consumer protection.21 The Obama administration also supported the creation of state-run retirement savings programs for workers whose employers do not sponsor plans.22
11. Protect Access to the American Dream for Immigrants and Refugees. On the one hand, the Obama administration ramped up deportations of undocumented adults apprehended by law enforcement and was hesitant to support the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. On the other hand, the president issued aggressive executive orders championing protections for undocumented immigrants brought into America as children and parents of those children. The administration also repeatedly offered to negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform package.23
12. Ensure Economic Opportunity and Safety for Women and Girls. President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, promoting equal pay, and his term brought improvements in the Violence Against Women Act and aggressive enforcement actions under Title IX.24
Each of these areas saw other accomplishments and also saw initiatives that were blocked by Congress. An annual battle over the budget determined whether and at what pace key antipoverty initiatives could proceed. Like many who care about our nation’s progress on poverty, the Shriver Center was impatient at the pace of many of these reforms. For example, our country’s excessively punitive criminal justice and immigration systems remain deeply entrenched; the fact that we did not make sweeping changes to either was frustrating.
One of the main takeaways of the Obama years is that most of the important poverty-fighting initiatives depended heavily on local implementation. On the level of enforcement of federal rights, regional agency officials and U.S. Attorneys’ offices often determined the shape and direction of enforcement. And states and localities had wide ranges of options in implementing federal policies, notably exemplified by the massive state-by-state discrepancies in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.25
One of the main takeaways of the Obama years is that most of the important poverty-fighting initiatives depended heavily on local implementation.
The role of lawyers, organizers, and community leaders in these state and local outcomes was important and often decisive. People in poverty, especially those at the intersection of protected classes (such as race, gender identity, or disability), must have an effective voice in state and local policy conversations. Also critical were the civil legal aid attorneys who robustly represented their clients in legal disputes in court and elsewhere.
Actions to End Poverty and Achieve Racial Justice During a Trump Administration
All 12 of the areas we identified in 2008 continue to be of high importance in the fight for equal opportunity and improved quality of life for people in poverty. Here we lay out some key points in the ongoing work to end poverty and racial injustice. We have included some of the original 12 issues and modified others to account for changes in the political landscape, but the essentials remain. Our judgment in highlighting these points is based on our own 50 years of advocacy experience at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as feedback from colleagues in our multistate networks: the Legal Impact Network and the network of Racial Justice Training Institute alumni. For this agenda to work, low-income people must have equal access to the courts, which requires a steady investment in civil legal aid from the federal and state governments.26
Strengthen Civil Rights and Racial Justice.
Many people living in poverty come from communities that our civil rights laws are designed to protect: racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, women, members of LGBTQ communities, and others. To ensure that everyone has a meaningful opportunity to move out of poverty, there must be strong enforcement of our civil rights laws. For example, robust enforcement of the Fair Housing Act requires the pursuit of claims involving intentional discrimination as well as disparate impact, especially in light of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the disparate impact theory.27 Other federal enforcement priorities include Title VI (discrimination by recipients of federal funds), Title VII (employment discrimination), and Title IX (gender discrimination in education).28 In addition to enforcement at the federal level, states and private attorneys play especially important roles in making sure that all people enjoy their full rights to be free from unwarranted discrimination.
Quality, affordable health care for every person in America is essential to the fight against poverty.
People living in low-income communities, particularly African Americans, deserve the basic human right to feel safe and free from the worry that a chance interaction with law enforcement will result in the death of a loved one or themselves. In recent years, footage from the media, police body cameras, and bystander videos has drawn much-needed attention to and outrage over widespread and longstanding violations of civil rights by local police departments.29 The Justice Department has conducted and continues to conduct careful investigations of civil rights violations—unjustified shootings and killings, illegal stops and searches, abuses while in custody—and requires reforms where warranted.30 The Justice Department must continue the investigations currently under way and must open new investigations when possible violations come to light.
There should be no rollback of the gains made thus far. The U.S. Department of Education has released a number of “Dear Colleague” letters advising school administrators on important civil rights issues, such as sexual harassment and violence, bullying and harassment of LGBTQ youth, and equitable access to educational resources.31 The Justice Department issued a similar letter, calling upon courts to reassess their fines-and-fees systems so they do not unfairly burden low-income people with arrest warrants and incarceration because of their inability to pay.32 Similarly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued guidance on the fair housing implications of criminal-records screening, crime-free and nuisance ordinances, and policies affecting people with limited proficiencies in English.33 We must preserve these and similar protections in the coming years.
Establish Quality, Affordable Health Care for All.
Quality, affordable health care for every person in America is essential to the fight against poverty. Health care is crucial to a decent quality of life for people in poverty who are not able to work their way up economically (due to, for example, youth, age, or medical condition).34 For those able to work, health care is essential to employability, productivity, and the ability to learn; it is central to families’ sense of economic well-being and control. Like many Americans, we are deeply concerned that the stated intent of the incoming administration and congressional leadership to repeal the Affordable Care Act will erect new barriers to upward mobility, send the health care system into chaos, and disproportionately harm poor people and people of color.35 Over the last 50 years, the United States has made enormous strides toward health care coverage for more Americans, regardless of which party controlled which branch of government.36 The federal government should build on that legacy, rather than inject massive instability and uncertainty into such an important sector of the American economy. Congress should not repeal the Affordable Care Act or any part of it without a timely and effective replacement. Any such replacement should foster the goal of quality, affordable health care for all. And the Medicaid program, as expanded by the Affordable Care Act, should continue in its present structure as a federal-state matching grant. A block grant or other new structure that would limit the federal role in funding health care would cut the program such that states and their residents could not sustain it.
Solidify the Safety Net for People Unable to Work.
Public benefit programs that help Americans meet their basic needs should be protected and strengthened. Public benefits often make the difference between hunger and food on the table, stable housing and homelessness, and sickness and health.37 Public benefits offer necessary support so Americans can go to work, take care of their families, and fully contribute to their communities. The federal government’s current funding of medical assistance, food assistance, and disability benefits ensures that our national safety net responds to changes in need, such as during an economic downturn. States, too, play a vital role in administering public-benefit programs.38 The radical restructuring of public benefits programs, as some officials in Washington have proposed, would weaken and undermine the programs’ capacity to meet need and accomplish their purposes.39 Moreover, we must ensure that accessing public benefits does not burden applicants and recipients or otherwise violate their rights to due process of law.40
Public benefits often make the difference between hunger and food on the table, stable housing and homelessness, and sickness and health.
Invest in the Public Good Through Fair Budget and Tax Policies.
The federal budget must adequately support key programs that level the playing field, make work pay, and provide a safety net.41 Under current budget rules in Congress, the positions espoused by President Trump to give tax cuts to the wealthy and increase defense spending, if enacted, would result in tremendous cuts to nondefense discretionary spending—the budget category containing those key programs. Moreover, Congress is considering proposals to change the structure of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid in ways that cap federal spending instead of spending to meet need.42 Together these ideas would massively shift costs to states. Most states would not be able or willing to take on those added burdens and would instead cut benefits or constrict eligibility for benefits programs.
The federal budget must adequately support key programs that level the playing field, make work pay, and provide a safety net.
The new administration must understand that the budget needs revenue to carry out the important functions of the government: to ensure equal opportunity, a fair chance for upward mobility, and a decent safety net. The administration should oppose shifting costs to the states through structural changes to key programs, and it should push to end budget rules that result in cuts to key programs that are driven by a self-inflicted squeeze on spending rather than by policy.
Advance Fair Housing, Healthy Housing, and Housing for Survivors.
The lack of safe, decent, and affordable housing, particularly in communities of opportunity, limits the chances of all individuals to thrive and succeed. Local resistance to affordable housing only exacerbates historic patterns of residential segregation through this country. To correct this imbalance, HUD set forth the “affirmatively furthering fair housing” rule, which is grounded in HUD’s obligation under the Fair Housing Act to administer its programs in a way that not only prevents discrimination but also affirmatively furthers fair housing.43 We urge HUD to affirm its commitment to this rule in the new administration. The rule’s requirement that state and local government entities assess the impediments to fair housing in their jurisdiction as a condition of receiving federal funds moves this country toward creating the kind of inclusive communities of which so many people are currently deprived.44 This process will help communities assess the housing barriers faced by many people, including survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.45 Implementation of the rule will give communities the opportunity to start to free themselves from dangers such as lead poisoning or violence.46 We believe in “affirmatively furthering fair housing” as a way to make communities stronger and to empower the people who live in them.
Reform the Criminal Justice System.
We are committed to a criminal justice system for both adults and youth that prevents crime, protects public safety, and is evidence-based, humane, unbiased, effective, and efficient. Both the federal government and the states have important roles to play in moving toward such a system.47 Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has supplied both leadership and funding for states and local communities to improve their criminal justice policies and practices. Reports such as the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and grants administered by the Justice Department offer interested local law enforcement both guidance and funds for smart-on-crime improvements.48 The new administration should continue these kinds of prevention, diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry efforts. By funding research and pilot projects and sharing the results, the administration should encourage states to develop further prevention and diversion programs; examine and rewrite overly harsh and ineffective sentencing provisions; develop and implement more effective reentry programs for people leaving jails and prisons; adopt laws and policies for expunging and sealing criminal records and “banning the box”; eliminate barriers to jobs, housing, education, benefits, voting, medical care, and other consequences that face people who have criminal records; and offer implicit bias training to all officials and employees involved in the criminal justice system.49 We encourage the administration to convene federal interagency working groups, such as the current Federal Interagency Reentry Council, to identify and eliminate current federal policies that get in the way of effective criminal justice reform; one such policy is the short time limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults (many of whom have criminal records and are routinely denied employment).50
We support policies that recognize an arrest for what it is—suspicion, not proof, that a person did something wrong.
To curtail the growth of mass incarceration, we must invest more in education and mental health services so that jails and prisons are no longer tasked with treating school disciplinary or mental health issues.51 Furthermore, we support policies that recognize an arrest for what it is—suspicion, not proof, that a person did something wrong—and that stop giving an arrest the power to threaten someone’s liberty, housing, and education just because that person is poor.
Protect Access to the American Dream for Immigrants and Refugees.
Communities across the country include immigrants who, like everyone else, strive to keep their families safe and secure. A person’s immigration status does not change this common value. Immigrants contribute to their communities in many ways, such as through their work and taxes.52 Many send their children to public schools so they can become full contributors to society as they grow into adults. Federal and state governments have given them access to certain benefits so that they may support their families.53 These schools and government agencies should not diminish the value and accessibility of the services and benefits they provide by handing over, or being forced to hand over, information about these families to immigration officials. Once broken, this trust will be difficult to repair, and that trust is necessary for communities to operate safely and fairly. In this spirit, we urge the federal government to maintain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and give undocumented youth the opportunity to stay and continue making their important contributions to this country. Furthermore, we oppose any erosion of civil and constitutional rights that may become part of a dragnet approach to deportations, and we categorically oppose the creation of lists of disfavored people based on religion.
For low-income communities to move ahead, women and girls must have the same opportunities for meaningful education and work as everyone else.
Ensure Opportunity and Safety for Women and Girls.
For low-income communities to move ahead, women and girls must have the same opportunities for meaningful education and work as everyone else. Progress in education means reducing gender disparities in career and technical education and in the pathways to science, technology, engineering, and math careers and other nontraditional occupations, including blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing and construction; progress in education also means meeting the unique needs of pregnant and parenting students as well as student survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Progress in the workplace means putting forth policies that serve the needs of women and their families. Low-income women deserve fair and equitable wages and workplaces. Therefore, it is necessary to raise wages, strengthen and enforce protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and support equal pay for equal work, fair and predictable schedules, employment protections for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.54 Low-income women are often tasked with caretaking responsibilities in their homes, and the workplace must reflect this reality by ensuring that workers have guaranteed access to paid family and medical leave as well as earned paid sick days.55 The federal and state governments should actively work to eradicate discrimination to ensure that workplaces are fair, safe, and inclusive so that everyone may participate.
An excellent public education is one of the best pathways for escaping poverty and transforming families.
Achieve Justice from the Start.
Policymakers inside the Beltway and beyond increasingly recognize that investments in children early in life pay dividends for the children and for society over the course of their lives.56 Quality health services as well as excellent childcare and pre-kindergarten programs enable parents to balance work and family. The federal and state governments can play a critical role in helping parents give infants and toddlers the care they deserve and in protecting children from abject poverty and the toxic stress that interferes with their ability to thrive.57 To pursue this two-generation strategy for America’s kids, early childhood policy demands an increased focus on racial equity. Young children are more diverse than American society as a whole, and they are a window into our future as a nation.
Guarantee a Quality Education for All.
An excellent public education is one of the best pathways for escaping poverty and transforming families. Many children, particularly children of color and those living in low-income neighborhoods, are expected to learn in schools that are significantly under-resourced in a number of ways, such as dilapidated building conditions, inadequate books and materials, or few-to-no advanced placement courses. The achievement gap for children of color and children living in poverty reflects this disinvestment in public education and in communities that most need high-quality schools. Increasing racial segregation of public education contributes to these inequities. Moreover, low-income youth of color face other barriers to building a career that may pull them out of poverty. For example, they often lack adequate support to plan for, pay for, and succeed in college; similarly, they may not always have the informal networks and mentoring that lead to internships and other work-based experiences. To tackle these issues, we must increase resources for public schools and create more equitable policies that help all students, including low-income students and students of color. We must continue to protect the civil rights of students and the progress made thus far, such as the expanded collection of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the end of zero-tolerance discipline policies.
History is not just for presidents; it is also shaped by the daily, on-the-ground decisions made in the fight against poverty in this country.
Equity demands that people, especially low-income people, are not exploited by institutions. For this reason, the United States must deepen its commitment to protecting consumers, including through a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Bureau has secured over $11 billion in relief for over 25 million consumers through enforcement actions against financial institutions that caused them harm.58 The Bureau has handled over one million consumer complaints and has studied and proposed important rule changes in industries across the financial sector, including rules pertaining to payday lenders, mortgage companies, and debt collectors.59
We—our own advocates, our network partners, and our partners across the Clearinghouse Community of civil legal aid and equal justice advocates—have a lot of work cut out for us for the next few years. History is not just for presidents; it is also shaped by the daily, on-the-ground decisions made in the fight against poverty in this country. It is made not by a single person or a single organization but instead by the concerted effort of communities and networks working together to lift the voices of people not heard in this past election. It is made by the legal aid and equal justice communities collaborating, strategizing, and remaining active through whatever the new administration throws our way, whether that means engaging on common ground, pushing back, or calling out. We take on this challenge and trust you will join us.Download this article