The President’s Proposed 2017 Budget: Why It’s Relevant

A president’s last budget proposal always faces skepticism about its prospects in Congress. That’s even more true than usual this year, given the explicit statements from Congressional Republicans about their intention to conduct a separate process.

Yet being taken up immediately in the Congressional budget process is not the only way for proposals to become reality. Because so many of the Obama Administration’s proposals offer practical solutions to the real problems faced by poor and low-income people, these ideas will come to life in many different ways—in some cases in this Congress (despite the rhetoric) and in other cases in the actions of mayors, governors, state legislators, or future presidential administrations.

For example, look for these and other proposals to reappear in the headlines in the coming months and years. (For a fuller discussion of the whole budget proposal, see our February 11 statement detailing Obama’s budget proposals.)

Paid family and medical leave. This Congress may not be ready yet, but expect to see more states across the country move on modernizing our workplaces by providing paid leave to care for a new baby, a seriously ill relative, or to deal with a worker’s own serious illness. Already legislation is under active consideration in a number of jurisdictions including New York, Washington D.C, and Connecticut. In this budget proposal, President Obama continues to emphasize how the federal government can partner with states; a $2.2 billion Paid Leave Partnership would cover initial set up and half the benefit costs for a program in up to five states. This builds on the Administration’s high-impact initiative in which it implemented modest grants to help states conduct analyses and design programs addressing paid family and medical leave—which has been a critical catalyst for information and innovation in several states considering legislation. This budget also includes some design funding.

More funding to train low-income and low-skill youth and adults, through Congress’s bipartisan redesign of the nation’s workforce training programs (the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act). The President’s budget proposes an increase of $150 million for workforce training programs for adults and youth, representing the full funding levels authorized in the WIOA law, which Congress passed with near-unanimous margins in 2014. This is a proposal that could—and should—find its way into the spending bill for next year. While far from enough funding to reverse decades of decline in the nation’s investment in worker skills, this proposal at least makes a beginning and reflects very broad agreement among Americans that the nation’s future depends on workers having the skills and training they need to succeed.

Comprehensive early childhood agenda and affordable community college. Look for both state and national leaders to keep coming back to themes sounded in the president’s budget about young children and young adults. Specifically, President Obama lays out not just a vision but a practical pathway to major investments in young children’s learning and development and in students’ postsecondary success—investments that would, among other next steps, ensure all low-income families with young children access to affordable, quality child care; expand high-quality preschool programs to all four-year-olds from low-income families; and provide grants to states to make up to two years of community college tuition-free. The budget directly takes on the threat posed to America’s future success by large gaps in public investment for both young children and young adults—gaps that persist despite strong research evidence about the value of these investments and despite extraordinarily high levels of poverty for these young people.

Bipartisan agreement to fix one or two gaps in the safety net. While this prediction is the most uncertain, some of the president’s proposals have considerable bipartisan support and could gain Congressional interest and even approval in the months to come. Overall, America’s safety net programs are highly effective, but the growth of low-wage, unsteady work has created an enormous headwind for many workers struggling for economic security for themselves and their families. President Obama’s budget proposes to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for workers without children, including non-custodial parents, a suggestion that has also been made by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The EITC has proven to be highly effective at promoting work and helping low-wage workers with children move out of poverty, but provides minimal benefits to childless workers. Another area where there could be bipartisan interest, based on Congressional discussions last year, is the Obama Administration’s proposal to strengthen the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF or welfare) block grant. In 2015, Congressional hearings revealed a growing bipartisan recognition that the participation measure currently used in TANF to assess state success is flawed, leading to interest in improving the program and focusing more on success in moving parents to work. The Administration’s proposals highlight crucial additional areas for improvement should this process go forward, including more resources focused on cash assistance; employment services and child care; a more effective response to states with high unemployment; and, an explicit goal of reducing child poverty.

The United States can afford to do better. In all these areas and many more, the president’s budget proposes practical revenue sources to support the vision. By doing so, it shatters the myth that a nation as rich as the United States cannot afford to make these common-sense investments to lift up low-income children and adults and to strengthen our future prospects. And President Obama’s budget also offers excellent solutions for other federal, state, and even local policymakers to consider in their own efforts to increase economic mobility and security.