Olivia Golden is a leading national expert on child and family policy. She has worked in leadership positions at all levels of government from the Department of Health and Human Services under the Clinton Administration, New York State government, and D.C. City government, as well as in national research and advocacy roles. For the past 4 years Golden has led the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) — a national, nonpartisan organization that advances policies to support poor and low-income people as they strive for economic security.
What are the strengths and limitations of our current safety net policies for low-income children and families?
National safety net programs make an enormous difference for families and children. This Fall we’ve seen the national poverty rate for 2016 (the last year of President Obama’s term) drop to the lowest it has been since the recession. Millions of children have been lifted out of poverty by safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). And Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act has greatly improved health coverage among parents and children – which we know matters to economic success in the long haul.
That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, all of these programs are under threat right now and we are at risk of sliding backward. This past year saw many efforts to repeal the ACA and sharply cut Medicaid, and even now that repeal has failed, the current administration is seeking to add restrictions to Medicaid so it serves fewer people. And there will likely be upcoming attacks on SNAP food assistance. Moreover, the new federal tax bill that’s currently being debated in Congress poses numerous threats by diverting resources to the wealthy at the expense of lower-income families.
What are the strongest federal spending priorities and policies the federal government could enact to support low-income children and families? And what are the biggest threats to these priorities and policies?
There are a number of crucial priorities that go beyond today’s safety net.
Overall, we need bigger investments in a number of key areas that have been left behind by state and federal budget restrictions. Investments in child care are going backwards in terms of number of children served, higher education is less affordable, and core federal labor laws need strong enforcement. Public jobs programs are also critical. Good jobs are vital to families and children.
The threats, as mentioned above, are enormous. The most urgent threats we’re addressing at CLASP include:
- Threats to the core structure and funding of critical safety net programs;
- Threats to the safety, security, and economic stability of immigrants and their families; and,
- Threats to the safety and economic security of people of color
Democratic senators recently introduced the American Family Act of 2017, a bill designed to cut the child poverty and deep poverty rates in half by increasing the child tax credit. Given Republicans are considering an expansion of the child tax credit, what is the political feasibility of this bill? What important precedents could it set? What are the perils for low-income people of the huge tax cuts proposed by Republicans for corporations and the wealthy?
The proposals for the CTC currently being discussed in Congress are a great illustration of backwards priorities. For most families, the modest increase to the CTC in these proposals would only balance out other changes, leaving them no better off. The lowest income families would see no gains, as the refundable portion would still be capped. Immigrant children would lose their benefit. Yet, under the House bill, families up to almost $300,000 would become newly eligible for the credit — and under the Senate bill, married couples would not start to lose eligibility until they had $1 million in annual income!
Moreover, since the proposed tax bills would increase the deficit, Congressional leadership has made it clear that they will make future spending cuts to the very programs that low-income people depend on as they seek economic security. The bills would also make it harder for state and local governments to fund key programs, like schools. So, the tax bills currently under discussion would hurt low-income families immediately and in the future.
So the first step is to make sure the damaging proposals to restrict help for low-income families in favor of tax cuts for the rich do not happen. Then, advocates and experts can vigorously pursue different investments in children – whether through an expanded CTC or in child care assistance, higher education, or other areas.
What are the lessons to be drawn from the various unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and significantly change Medicaid?
The failure to repeal the ACA illustrates that voters are now realizing what we’ve always known from the research, much of it from universities like Michigan: that having health insurance, including through Medicaid, is extremely important for children’s wellbeing, parents’ work, and families’ success.
And we can see that voters are recognizing this positive impact through recent events beyond the defeat of ACA repeal. Just last week voters in Maine approved expanding Medicaid to 70,000 of their poorest residents, circumventing the governor who has blocked the expansion five times in the past four years. And other states may follow suit.
Despite strong public support for flexible work and paid leave policies, the Democratic FAMILY Act and Republican Strong Families Act have stalled in Congress, and Ivanka Trump’s paid leave proposals have failed to find support among policymakers. What will it take for federal paid leave policy to become federal legislation—and how can we ensure the neediest are included?
Looking at the state level, it is a promising moment for enactment and implementation of family leave policies, along with other related job quality issues such as paid sick days and fair scheduling.
There has been exciting movement even in states spanning the political spectrum. For example, in 2016 Arizona enacted state-wide paid sick days and a higher minimum wage. And six states are about to implement paid family and medical leave programs.
I think there will be movement on the federal level but it is hard to say when. For now, the states could play a big role in getting us there.
Over changing political environments, how has CLASP adjusted, or plan to adjust, its policy research and advocacy?
This environment is the most threatening to low-income people of CLASP’s nearly 50-year history. We’re concentrating on fighting back against any measure that would harm the common-sense programs and policies that empower poor and low-income Americans.
No organization can do it alone. We work in coalitions with anti-poverty and immigrant rights groups doing this important work, and where needed, we work with partners to create new coalitions.
We’re also focused on strengthening our ability to explain the issues to Congress–a place many often think of as mired in gridlock. But Congress plays an extremely important role right now because it can stop bad ideas so that we create the potential to move a broader anti-poverty agenda forward in the future.
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