Turning the President’s 2015 Budget Proposal into Action

These days, Washington has a reputation for inaction. As a result, many commentators dismissed the president’s 2015 budget proposal despite its powerful call for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity for low-income adults, children, youth, and families. But these ideas are too good to lose, and CLASP has suggestions for how to turn them into action.

What’s in the president’s budget? Broadly, it calls for expanded workforce training for low-skilled adults and high-quality early education for young childrenvaluing the role of education and opportunity for both generations. It calls for a higher minimum wage and endorses policies that support working families, including resources for states to implement paid family leave and enforcement of existing labor laws. Centered on jobs, the proposal supports young people and childless adults (including non-custodial parents) in low-wage work through an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and increases the availability of subsidized jobs.

How can these good ideas turn into action? One obvious and crucial path is through Congressional enactment. Given the large number of Americans who live in poverty, struggle with low-wage jobs, and cannot access high-quality early education or strong college and career preparation, Congressional action and federal investment are crucial to achieving the president’s goals.  But this is not the only way to get started. Two immediate steps can begin to turn these ideas into reality and help Americans living in or near poverty. 

First is state innovation. Much of the national discussion of safety net programs misses the central role of states in implementing and funding safety net programs that support low-income children, youth, adults, and families. For example, the federal government is the junior partner in spending on childrenabout two-thirds of public spending on children is state and local, although federal spending is the biggest share for early care and education and other programs for the youngest children.

While many of the budget’s good ideas fund, encourage, or reward state action, states should move forward even before these new provisions are in place. Take paid family leave insurance, a policy in place in three states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) that helps workers take time to care for an infant or ill family member without losing all their wages. Other states are already planning and pursuing similar legislation. The budget package proposes $105 million to help states create the infrastructure needed to implement this policybut before Congress acts, states could begin planning and even enact legislation so they will be ready to stand at the head of the line should Congress set up the fund.

Another example is subsidized employment, a proven strategy where public resources help employers create jobs for unemployed and disadvantaged workers. The budget would move Temporary Assistance for Needy Families resources to create a dedicated pool for subsidized employment. But states don’t have to wait; subsidized employment is an accepted way to spend TANF resources today. California, Nebraska, and Minnesota have already set aside TANF funds for subsidized jobs programs. Others should, too.

A second path to action is improved federal capacity to take on the challenges of poverty. The budget includes many ideas for more effectively implementing programs, sometimes building on initiatives already enacted on a smaller scale in the 2014 budget. Strong, consistent action by federal agencies, including technical assistance, creating incentives for states, and fostering collaboration among government and non-government partners, can lay the foundation for bringing the resources proposed in the budget to scale should the funding come through. For example, the 2015 budget builds on and expands a cross-agency focus on disconnected youth through the Performance Partnership Pilots (PPP), established in the 2014 budget. We know these young people benefit when federal agencies work together, help states and localities think differently about how to braid and blend funding and resources, and share research-based strategies across agencies. PPP could create robust community-based interventions that serve the needs of youth in various risk categories, connect them to the appropriate services, implement strategies to reengage disconnected youth, and achieve outcomes that make them college- and career-ready.

That said, neither of these paths gets to a large scale fast enough to meet today’s needs. State action isn’t enough because state budgets are constrained—and those with the most low-income people typically have the smallest budgets for addressing the problems. Improved federal implementation isn’t enough because today’s resources devoted to increasing opportunity are scant compared to need; job training and early childhood programs still serve just a fraction of eligible people.

State, community, and national stakeholders have many options to seize the good ideas in the president’s proposal. But to address the urgent and large-scale needs of poor and near-poor Americans, Congress needs to play its part in a truly national response.