Spotlight Exclusives

The Obama Legacy on Children and Families

Mark Greenberg Mark Greenberg, posted on

Mark Greenberg has spent his career working and advocating on behalf of those living in poverty, most recently in the Obama administration as Acting Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (within the Department of Health and Human Services). Spotlight recently spoke with Greenberg to discuss the legacy of the Obama administration’s work around poverty, and the key challenges and opportunities he expects in the years ahead. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do you see as the Obama administration’s most significant achievements – especially issues you worked on personally – in terms of fighting poverty?

We should start with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA helps all Americans, but it’s especially beneficial for those living below or near the poverty line. Along with expanding health care coverage, the ACA has reduced the risk of catastrophic medical expenses that could lead to bankruptcies or other significant disruption of the lives of families. Going forward, helping children get access to better and more consistent health care has important implications for efforts to advance opportunity and mobility.

Beyond high-profile legislation like the ACA or the Recovery Act, there were significant actions in regulations and policy guidance that can help move the anti-poverty agenda forward.

At ACF, we issued the first major revisions to Head Start performance standards in more than 20 years. We also put out a comprehensive update and modernization of child support rules; new regulations addressing protections and services for victims of domestic violence and runaway and homeless youth; new regulations to increase and improve the information available on child welfare; and regulations and other actions to implement legislation that addressed the health, safety, stability, quality, and continuity of child care.

I’m proud of what we accomplished. I wish we had had Congresses that acted on more of our budget proposals, but even where there wasn’t new legislation, we were able to make progress in regulations, policy guidance, research, technical assistance, and through our grant-making authority. With the tools that were available to us, I think we accomplished a lot.

What do you expect from the new administration when it comes to anti-poverty policy? Is there any potential for bipartisan compromise?

Frankly it’s too early to know. Many of the issues concerning poverty weren’t discussed much by President Trump during the campaign. The most obvious risks so far are the danger of ACA repeal or curtailment, the potential impacts that proposed major tax cuts and deep federal budget cuts will have on funding for existing anti-poverty programs, and the apparent interest in Congress in replacing existing programs with block grants.

Having said this, historically, a lot of children’s programs have had significant bipartisan support. The child care reauthorization that happened under Obama was bipartisan, and we came very close to getting bipartisan children welfare legislation. A crucial question going forward is whether that will change with the new President and new Congress.

What should anti-poverty advocates focus on in the current political climate?

First, I think we all need to be attentive to the broader set of concerns about the protection of democracy and democratic institutions. But, for an anti-poverty agenda, realistically, much of the agenda at the federal level is going to have to be defensive, at least for the immediate future.  There may be much more opportunity for progress at the state and local level, but it’s hard to see much potential for an affirmative agenda in this Congress.

Having said that, In the United States, there has been a very strong consensus that strategies to reduce poverty should be about helping people find work and supporting those who are working in low-wage jobs. There is still the possibility to move forward on that in a bipartisan way, but pressures around tax and budget cuts and block grant initiatives will make it more difficult.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of what’s commonly referred to as welfare reform. What are your thoughts on the current state of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that emerged from this reform? 

Reforming the TANF program is one of the areas where I wish we could have made more progress. It is clear that TANF is reaching a dramatically smaller share of eligible families and poor children than when the block grant was created. TANF funds have been redirected by states to fill state budget holes in ways that are very far from the purposes Congress established for the program.

There were limits to what we could do about that without new legislation. We improved the reporting about where money is going, and strengthened technical assistance and research, and there’s much more that individual states can do to make sure TANF is addressing families in need, but legislation at the federal level is needed to make significant changes to the program

What would a robust anti-poverty agenda look like going forward? What key levers should policymakers be focused on?

There are many components to a robust agenda, including a strong focus on early childhood; strengthening supports for working families, and helping those who aren’t in the workforce; increasing the minimum wage; improving the quality of low-wage jobs; supporting unionization efforts; immigration policy; decarceration efforts; and more. History tells us that the times when the nation has made the greatest progress have been times when a near-full-employment economy is combined with concerted and focused government action.

Are there any other issues that our readers should be aware of?

To highlight one, at ACF, we had responsibilities around the federal refugee resettlement program, and I was able to visit a number of refugee service providers and talk with staff and refugees. It’s a powerful experience to listen to refugees, learn about what they went through and what it means to them to be in America. We sought to encourage stronger links between refugee resettlement and other human services programs, and I think there’s much more than can and should be done to strengthen services and supports for arriving refugees and their families.

Mark Greenberg most recently served in the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families.

This commentary is part of a series of conversations with former Obama administration officials on a range of issues related to poverty and opportunity. For a previous conversation with Deputy Under Secretary at the Department of Education James Kvaal, click here.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of SpotlightSpotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

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