The Obama Legacy: Supporting Children and Families
By Olivia Golden
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.