This week the country finds itself at a historic crossroads.
Leaving the White House is our nation's first ever African American president—1 of 45 in a 238-year period that has covered legal slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the rise of mass incarceration.
And entering the Oval Office is Donald J. Trump—a president who orchestrated a campaign that was noteworthy for, among other things, its racially and ethnically charged divisiveness. The President's transition only aggravated our deepest worries.
It's the job of the incoming administration to lead and govern in the interest of all, not just some, of the people living in America. Among the many significant challenges facing the Trump Administration is poverty—an issue that "officially" afflicts over 43 million people, but as a practical matter afflicts at least twice as many, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.
Poverty matters to everyone in this country, and our nation’s leadership must address it.
The executive branch plays an extraordinarily important role in fighting poverty in America, particularly given the discretion it enjoys in enforcing federal law. President Trump's agenda should include the following:
- Strengthening civil rights and racial justice. Civil rights laws are a bulwark against invidious discrimination but only if those laws are consistently and widely enforced. An important moral test of a presidential administration is how it uses those laws to protect everyday people from racism, discrimination, and abuse.
- Establishing quality, affordable health care for all. Over the last 50 years, the United States has made enormous strides toward health care coverage for more Americans, regardless of which party controlled which branch of government. The federal government should build on that legacy, rather than inject massive instability and uncertainty into such an important sector of the American economy.
- Solidifying the safety net for people unable to work. Public benefits often make the difference between hunger and food on the table, stable housing and homelessness, sickness and health.
- Investing in the public good through fair budget and tax policies. The federal budget must adequately support key programs that level the playing field, make work pay, and provide a safety net for people in need.
- Advancing fair housing, healthy housing, and housing for survivors. The lack of safe, decent, and affordable housing, particularly in communities of opportunity, limits the chances of all individuals to thrive and succeed.
- Reforming the criminal justice system. The incoming administration should foster programs and policies to reform our deeply entrenched, unnecessarily punitive criminal justice system and curtail the growth of mass incarceration.
- Protecting access to the American Dream for immigrants and refugees. Immigrants, like everyone else, strive to keep their families safe and secure and contribute to their communities in many ways, including through their work and taxes.
- Ensuring opportunity and safety for women and girls. For low-income communities to move ahead, women and girls must have the same opportunities for meaningful education, work, and compensation as everyone else.
- Achieving justice from the start. Investing in children from birth to age three pays dividends, both for those children and society, over the course of a lifetime.
The incoming administration and the President have yet to put forth proposals or fully show their hand on many of these areas, so the actual shape and extent of their approach to poverty and opportunity remains to be seen. But early signs, statements, nominations, and budget frameworks are extremely worrisome. Indeed, the path that lies ahead appears to be a difficult one for people in poverty.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and his congressional GOP allies have persistently advanced aggressive attacks on programs and agencies that are vital for combating poverty and promoting upward mobility—including food assistance that feeds hungry families, refundable tax credits that support working families, and financial aid that helps low-income students attend school. As the majorities in Congress undertake action on these ideas with the reality that what they do is most likely no longer symbolic and will produce outcomes that they are accountable for, the ability to build the roll calls for passage remains to be seen. But if implemented, these cuts and proposals would be harmful to low-income people on a scale we haven’t seen in decades.
In many areas, the President himself has inspired serious concern. He has tapped nominees for key federal agencies who present a grave threat to their respective department’s ability to fight poverty.
The incoming administration and the GOP-held Congress pose one of the greatest threats to equal justice and opportunity that we have ever seen.
Given the uncertainties and the stakes involved, there is a key role for advocacy informed not only by data and expertise, but also by the daily, on-the-ground experience of advocates in communities across the country. With the collaboration of our national networks of state and locally focused advocates and organizations and our nearly 50 years of experience, the Shriver Center stands ready to make a strong contribution to the national effort to protect, defend, and advance justice and opportunity for people living in poverty.
The road ahead will be challenging, but we stand ready to take it on. We hope you will join us.