Spotlight Exclusives

The 2013 State of the Union: Two Views

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In response to President Barack Obama۪s State of the Union address on February 12, 2013, Spotlight has gathered reflections from two experts on each side of the aisle to address the question: what would the ideas and policies President Obama described during the State of the Union mean for low-income families in the year ahead?

Timothy Smeeding
University of WisconsinMadison

In last night۪s State of the Union address, President Obama touched on just about every important economic and social issue that serves a rising, thriving middle class. Indeed, he argued for bringing the middle up, instead of employing a top-down economic strategy. But it was only after 30 minutes that he finally mentioned boosting social and economic opportunity for the poor as well.

Although President Obama۪s focus on low-income families was brief, he did mention several programs that will help them in their struggles to achieve self-sufficiency. The first was unqualified support for universal, high-quality early childhood education, which could go a long way in giving poor kids a better chance of success in school and life beyond. This is a priority that must be addressed, given the mounting scientific evidence that affordable, high-quality early childhood education benefits children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Head Start alone is not enough to level the playing fieldwe must look for something better to take its place. The president offered some hope of that becoming a reality last night.

The president emphasized another set of policies that can help the poor when he mentioned improving job training and school-to-work program partnerships, strengthening links among employers, technical high schools, community colleges, and other training programs. The government cannot force businesses to hire, so school-to-work programs are only successful when employers get involved and promise jobs to successful trainees who have mastered the skills they need. It is time for employers to become more active in programs like Career Academies and Year Up that link schools and training to employers and jobs. 

President Obama also discussed the related idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love. Both the fatherhood initiative and raising the minimum wage should help the working poor do just that. A $9 an hour minimum wage may make some employers think twice about hiring new workers, but if they are better trained to meet the needs of those employers, they will be worth the higher pay. And if there is higher pay, then absent fathers are also more liable to be able to support their children.

Finally, there were two important programs that the president didn۪t mention last night. In December, President Obama and Congress both agreed to maintain refundable income tax credits for the poor and for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, allowing low-income families to make ends meet and rise above the poverty line. Until the economy recovers and jobs with better wages open up, these two programs are absolutely essential for low-income working families. Deficit reduction should continue to spare these vital programs for the poor.

President Obama made some good suggestions last night, but much more work is needed to make these proposals into realities and to further address the needs of those in poverty.

Timothy Smeeding is the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty(IRP) and is an arts and sciences distinguished professor of public affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of WisconsinMadison. These are his opinions alone, and not those of IRP or any of its sponsors.

Ron Haskins
Brookings Institution

In a single paragraph, President Obama۪s State of the Union address opened the door to implementing important changes in the nation۪s multitude of preschool programs and to increasing the number of children participating in quality programs.

Of all the opportunities to promote the development of poor children and to increase opportunity in America, none is as promising as high-quality preschool programs. Although there are still disagreements about the strength of evidence on these programs, the literature on preschool۪s impacts on a host of short-term and long-term child outcomes is strong, and there are several excellent benefit-cost studies as well.

Research leads to the conclusion that if poor children attended high-quality preschool, they would be better prepared to achieve and behave well in public schools. There could also be longer-term outcomes including higher graduation rates, less delinquency, less teen pregnancy, and higher rates of employment and income. But these benefits and their corresponding budget savings will not be achieved unless the preschool education is high-quality, provided by highly effective teachers. Today, most preschool facilities do not meet that standard.

As would be expected in a State of the Union address, the president gave only a hint of what he had in mind for preschool. His goal was to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” If the Obama administration is serious about expanding early childhood programs, here is one way to proceed.    

The first order of business should be to figure out how to get the most out of the programs we now have and the money we now spend. The president should appoint a small group within the administration that includes one senior official from the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor, as well as the White House and Office of Management and Budget, and charge them with presenting a bold plan for coordinating these programs. The president۪s task force should consult widely, especially with the states, for how these programs can be better coordinated at the state and local level.

Second, the president should abandon his idea of providing high-quality preschool for “every child in America.” Rather, his task force should assume that only children from poor and near-poor families would be eligible for federal subsidies. Especially in this time of budget crisis, it is likely to be decades before the combined financing of the federal and state governments can afford the additional billions of dollars that would be required to provide free, universal preschool programs.

Third, the task force plan should include strategies for providing the poorest children and families, as well as those at risk of abuse and neglect, with home visiting and other support services. For this relatively small group, the services should begin in the prenatal period and extend throughout the preschool years.

Fourth, we will eventually need additional dollars to make sure every poor and near-poor child can receive services. Thus, the group should make an estimate of the costs of their system and propose several alternatives for sharing the burden between the states and the federal government.

The nation should stop setting preschool policy by merely creating more programs and adding money to existing ones in accord with political feasibility. Instead, we need a vision of the comprehensive system we should build and estimates of the long-term costs of the system. As President Obama said several times during his State of the Union address, “we can do this.”

Ron Haskins is the co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at the Brookings Institution.

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 Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.

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