Ed. Note: This op-ed first ran in The Grio
Throughout his distinguished career, Bob Herbert has helped shine a spotlight on the lives of Americans living in poverty – a group that is too often ignored. That was certainly true of his May 21st column, in which he told the story of 20 poor children from the Bronx who are growing up in truly appalling conditions. It was heartbreaking to hear about the children Mr. Herbert met: The girl who told him, “I never feel safe.” The child who said she felt there was no purpose to her existence. The stories they told about too many shootings, and too few jobs.
Mr. Herbert expressed understandable frustration that our political discourse rarely focuses on the notion that the American dream is closed off to far too many of our citizens. But when Mr. Herbert suggested that President Obama has “given up” on the idea of opportunity and upward mobility, he was simply wrong.
There’s a basic bargain in America. It says that no matter who you are or where you’re from, if you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules you should be able to find a good job, feel secure in your community, and support a family. I have worked in the White House since the day President Obama took office. At every juncture-every big decision, every major policy development, every negotiation -- I have seen President Obama fight for the things that help our country preserve that bargain for all Americans, rich or poor.
There are times when this bargain is tested. Economic crisis is one of those times. When President Obama took office, the United States economy was losing over 800,000 jobs a month. For some, it’s possible to get by without a job for a while. But for too many Americans working hard to be a part of the middle class, job loss means slipping into poverty. That’s why during his first months in office, President Obama took swift action to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs-giving tax cuts to working families, keeping teachers in the classroom, and keeping first responders on the streets.
For those Americans who fell on hard times and lost their jobs through no fault of their own, President Obama has acted to prevent millions from slipping into poverty and helped build a path to the middle class. To help families put food on the table and make ends meet, President Obama signed an expansion of the SNAP program and nine extensions of unemployment insurance. There are new opportunities for those on unemployment as well. Two months ago, in addition to extending benefits, President Obama signed unemployment insurance reforms to help job seekers develop the skills they need for their next job through apprenticeships and training programs.
Our country has been struggling with these issues for decades before the economic collapse in 2008. And while we won’t solve these problems overnight, President Obama believes the first step in the process is to invest in an education system that opens up opportunity to every hard working student.
President Obama has invested in early childhood education, including Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care assistance, benefiting more than 360,000 poor children. We have invested in new child nutrition programs, to make sure more young people have enough to eat, and have the chance to eat healthy food. The President has devoted more than $4 billion to turning around our lowest performing schools, many of which have already made double-digit gains in reading and math proficiency.
President Obama has also fought to make college more affordable. He has supported an expansion of Pell Grants to 3 million more students and raised the maximum Pell Grant award by nearly $1,000. In addition, President Obama established the American Opportunity Tax Credit, providing over nine million students and families with up to $10,000 for four years of higher education. Because of President Obama’s commitment, more children like the ones Mr. Herbert documented will be able to go to an early childhood education program, a high-performing public school, and a two-year or four-year college.
Of course, these are just a few of the initiatives the Obama Administration has undertaken to help more Americans reach the middle class. One of the first bills the President signed into law, the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, has helped ensure that millions of children have access to health care. In fact, the number of uninsured children fell by one million between 2006 and 2010.
We have built on the success of not-for-profits such as Harlem Children’s Zone, and worked with partners in government, business, and the not-for-profit sector to introduce innovative new approaches to fighting poverty. This includes our Summer Jobs+ program, which will provide more than 250,000 poor youth with a pathway to employment this summer.
Over the last two years – time and time again -Republicans in Congress have sought to ignore, or harshly cut, the investments we need to create opportunity and pathways to the middle class. There’s no way to know what would have happened if President Obama didn’t act when the economy was on the brink of collapse, but to this day Republicans in Congress treat the Recovery Act like a political football. In fact, when tax relief for working families was scheduled to expire at the end of 2010 and 2011, President Obama stood up to Republicans attempts to block the extension. Today, a combined 17.6 million low-income working parents are still eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit because of the President’s leadership.
Almost every Republican lawmaker voted to reduce funding for the SNAP program by nearly 20 percent, and cut Medicaid by one third. Representative Paul Ryan, who authored the Republican budget, has said our social safety net is in danger of becoming a “hammock,” and argues it must be radically scaled back. As President Obama has publicly pointed out, this vision of America would hurt poor children, kids with disabilities, and students.
There is more work to do, but President Obama is moving our country forward. He believes that your success should not be determined by your background or your zip code; that everyone should get a fair shot, everyone should do their fair share, and everyone should play by the same set of rules. Republicans in Congress believe that everyone should be left to fend for themselves. The difference between these two positions could not be more clear.
The question we are debating in Washington today is simple: Will we meet our responsibilities to these children? Will we invest in their educations, or ignore their potential? Will we help rebuild their neighborhoods, or turn a blind eye to the difficulties they live with every day? Will we provide them with the tools they need to achieve the American dream, or will they fall further and further behind?
The outcome of the debates between the President and Republicans in Congress matters. The direction we choose will affect the lives of poor children in the Bronx and throughout our country. We owe it to them to be clear about the choices we face.
Valerie Jarrett is Senior Advisor to President Obama, Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls and she oversees the Offices of Intergovernmental Affairs, Public Engagement, and Urban Affairs.