Spotlight Exclusives

The Obama Legacy on Education and Poverty

James Kvaal, University of Michigan James Kvaal, University of Michigan, posted on

James Kvaal spent over seven years in the Obama administration and played a key role in designing major initiatives in education, labor policy, and other areas of domestic policy. Among the many hats Kvaal wore during the Obama administration include deputy under secretary at the Department of Education, policy director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and deputy director for domestic policy. Spotlight recently spoke with Kvaal, currently serving as the policymaker in residence at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, to discuss the legacy of the Obama administration when it comes to poverty and economic opportunity and what he expects from the Trump administration. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do you see as the Obama administration’s legacy when it comes to the issues of poverty and opportunity?

I’d start with the Recovery Act. This helped stave off a second Great Depression and was one of the single biggest pieces of anti-poverty legislation in our history. In a time of economic crisis it kept millions from falling into poverty. The law included an expansion of tax credits – especially for families – and safety net programs like unemployment insurance that I think was especially vital at the time. The Affordable Care Act also made a tremendous difference to millions of Americans living in and near poverty.

In the second term, the Obama administration developed a sustained focus on strengthening communities – especially those hardest hit by the Great Recession –  by working closely with elected officials, workings across agencies and programs toward common goals, and doing so in a way that was guided by data and evidence.

Finally, the president’s policies led to a growing economy and job creation. That helped lift more than 3 million Americans out of poverty last year.

What about issues you worked on directly? What do you consider especially impactful?

One part of the solution is to help more Americans earn college degrees, including two-year degrees, and to reduce the burden of student debt on young people starting their lives. Under Obama, we have nearly doubled investments in college scholarships through Pell Grants and the American opportunity tax credit. That has translated into more than $20 billion in new scholarships a year. We have made student loans more affordable by cutting interest rates and capping payments at 10 percent of income.

President Obama also worked hard to invest in and elevate the role of community colleges and other colleges and universities who are doing a good job serving students with low-income and working class backgrounds. These institutions don’t get the most attention, they are not the ones at the top of the U.S. News rankings, but these are the colleges that will be building the future of the middle class.

Finally, we were active in trying to move forward the national conversation around college completion. It’s a pressing national problem when you have a system that only graduates around 6 in 10 students. That’s on par with some of our worst urban high schools. And there are things we can do, from developmental education reform to easier transfer of credit, that will make a difference even without a huge cost.

 You were policy director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign? Do you think he’s delivered on the policies and priorities he laid out?

My prediction is that history will judge President Obama as one of our most effective and impactful presidents. He avoided a second Great Depression, ended two wars overseas, achieved the progressive dream of universal health care, and much more. He is leaving office with the longest job creation streak in history, and economic growth is finally translating into rising wages and falling poverty.

Are you worried about the incoming administration undoing many of the policies you implemented?

When you’re in the White House, in our system of government, it’s not easy to do everything you set out to do. But it won’t be easy to undo it either.

When it comes to education, there could well be attempts to roll back the strict standards we imposed on for-profit colleges that left hundreds of thousands of students with loans they couldn’t afford. And Congress has proposed cuts in Pell Grant scholarships and programs that provide student loan relief. I don’t know what will come off these proposals. We need to be determined and continue to fight for these things.

Can you envision any potential areas for bipartisan compromise over the next four years?

There certainly are areas of potential agreement, if both sides want to reach for it. For example, there is support among both Democrats and Republicans on tax relief for working families, criminal justice reform, career training and apprenticeships, and much more. But in order for the two sides to work together, Republicans will need to set aside plans for deep cuts in the social safety net and be willing to address some of the tensions along race and other lines that were especially divisive last year. I’m not sure if they are willing to do that.

Considering the changing political landscape, what advice would you give to readers who care about issues around poverty and opportunity and are looking to get involved?

This is very important. There is the potential for Republicans to make cuts to the social safety net in ways that we haven’t seen for decades. This would cause immense hardship. I think all of us who care about those issues need to make sure policymakers in Washington understand the importance of these programs. Elected officials do listen, and we need to be more committed than ever to defending programs that prevent extreme deprivation and that give people an opportunity to get into the middle class.

James Kvaal is the Towsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight 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

You can also sign up to receive our weekly newsletter and other updates here.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives