• Roosevelt Reacts: What Else Did We Need From the 2015 State of the Union?

    Jan 23, 2015

    Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

    Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

    Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

    Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

    In the face of strong Republican opposition, President Obama made his stance on many controversial topics quite clear. He outlined his views on topics such as the minimum wage, equal pay for women, LGBTQ+ rights, tax reform and more. These bold and somewhat ambitious goals for change in 2015 will require bipartisan compromise in Congress. It is likely, however, that there will be little correlation between President Obama’s bold vision for the future of the United States and Congress’ actions in the final two years of his presidency. No matter how wonderful or ambitious President Obama’s plans are for the country, the likelihood of any these issues being independently addressed by a Republican controlled Congress is very slim. Yet the president’s plans do not fall on deaf ears. President Obama’s speech gives Democrats in Congress and, more importantly, the American public, ammunition against the Republican’s inevitable inaction, which could potentially help set the stage for the 2016 election.

    Chisolm Allenlundy, University of Alabama '16:

    It was difficult to miss the amount of politics that happened on Tuesday at President Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address. What might have been easy to miss, however, was the meaning of it all.

    President Obama knows that his days of passing game-changing progressive legislation are over. This is a common position for 4th-quarter presidents to find themselves in, and Obama did exactly what such presidents do when they can no longer effectively push for policy change: they push for culture change.

    But most Americans don’t watch the political process so much as they hear about it from media sources, which put their own spin on material. According to consumer watch company Nielson, 31.7 million people tuned in for the SOTU, and even that figure is at a 15-year low. While the president has attempted to set the direction for progressive politics for the next year, policy change will be a struggle, and he needs to reach many more Americans to steer the course on our political culture. 

    Tarsi Dunlop, Middlebury College '09:

    Middle class economics played a key role in the President’s 2015 State of the Union. He explained that middle class economics is about the policies needed for average American families to get ahead. These policies aren’t handouts, but they make daily life better, easier, more fulfilling. For example, what if students could graduate from K-12 with good grades and know they had the option of going to community college without the staggering cost of debt? Granted, there are certain investments that must be made to make sure that community colleges are, as an institution, prepared for the role the President wants them to serve for our nation’s youth.

    The President also touched on other elements of middle class economics: key policy proposals that will help young people, new families, and the elderly. He emphasized affordable day care (right now monthly costs can run higher than a mortgage payment), as well as paid family leave and sick leave. Families shouldn’t have to choose between time with new babies and paid work, nor between working and staying home with a sick child. We need a vision and a budget to help the middle class thrive and it was great to hear concrete proposals in the President’s speech.

    Hayley Brundige, University of Tennessee, Knoxville '17:

    Obama's State of the Union Address illustrated just how far we still have to go in the fight for gender equality. I was ecstatic when Obama asserted that the right to quality childcare and paid maternity and sick leave are not just “women's issues” — as they are often brushed aside as — but a “national economic priority.” But in the back of my mind, I was dismayed that this concept that is so obviously a human right is still so far from being obvious to our elected officials. 

    Noticeably missing from the speech was any mention of preventing sexual assault, especially on college campuses. This was particularly surprising seeing as the administration has made this issue a point of focus recently, creating a White House task force on sexual assault and investigating colleges for Title IX violations. Obama even had a readily supplied anecdote, as campus activist and sexual assault survivor Emma Sulkowicz was literally in the audience. As a college student, I applaud Obama's efforts to make community college more accessible, but it's disheartening for him to not address the importance of keeping our campuses safe. No president on record has discussed sexual assault in a State of the Union address.

    Zachary Agush, Wheaton College '12:

    Over the years, President Obama has always integrated personal stories into his annual State of the Union addresses to paint a visual about the troubles individuals may be facing or to explain how a certain effort can help spark further growth and development for others. I have always considered that a major strength. This year’s speech focused in particular on young families. The President knows that the new generation is quickly becoming the majority of the nation's population and that the lingering inequalities and economic hardships will definitely make it increasingly difficult for them to have the quality of life they desire. This generation is also going to struggle to maintain Social Security and Medicare for those entering these safety net programs in the coming decade. I think those stories in particular hit some members of Congress, even those of the new Republican majority, that something needs to be done to at least give the next generation a chance at success. I am cautiously optimistic that something may happen - but it will only happen if this Congress can actually stop and think about how their gridlock is directly affecting the next generation. Maybe then, there can be progress.

    Sarah Hilton, Wheaton College '16:

    President Obama made huge strides for education policy on Tuesday night; even raising the issue of rising college tuition is a positive step forward. However, the President hardly mentioned the K-12 system. He praised rising graduation rates and higher test scores then ever before, but ignored the staggering inequality and lack of student performance when compared internationally. Obama’s two-year community college plan, while economically beneficial for the middle class, shows that our base expectations for education continue to require more time and expense.

    The focus instead should be on improving the K-12 system we already have by creating more diverse programs that train students for a variety careers from academic to vocational. Today, about half of students begin community college in remedial classes. We should be making our high schools more effective at reaching students. Vocational training for profitable and interesting jobs can be done in high school, and academic programs should be strengthen to reduce the need for remedial classes in community colleges. Strengthening the underlying K-12 system and increasing vocational training would have an earlier impact on our students’ lives.

    Jas Johl, University of California, Berkeley '08:

    The main rhetorical touch point for the state of the union was 'middle class economics.' Throughout the address, Obama repeatedly turned to that concept, presenting policy ideas designed to bolster it.  Of paramount importance to the ongoing success of middle class, he argued, would be to make the first two years of community college free for all. This proposal does address some of the symptoms of growing economic inequality, namely rising student debt. Nonetheless, it overlooks the underlying, systemic issues at the core of the problem: the broken state of our current education system. 

    As The Institute for College Access & Success and the Brookings Institute have both argued, the majority of those attending community college are already getting their tuition covered through Pell Grants and other means of financial support. I’d argue the more pressing issue is the fact that many of the students who enroll in community colleges are ill-prepared for 4-year universities, and spend the first two years of college taking remedial college (read: high school) courses that they didn't do well in or even pass the first time. Free college doesn’t help a student who isn’t ready for it.

    Obama makes the very valid point that making those colleges free would assuage the financial burden of a large number of young adults, and likely precipitate a better-prepared workforce. But a glaring absence in the president's speech was acknowledgement of the fundamental cracks in our institutions, namely, our already free K-12 educational system. Real middle class economics necessitate not just free education, but better education for all.

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  • After Four Decades with Roe, U.S. Women Still Need Abortion Access, and So Much More

    Jan 23, 2015Andrea FlynnShulie Eisen

    As economic inequality takes center stage in politics, it's important to remember that reproductive justice and bodily autonomy are just as essential for secure lives.

    As economic inequality takes center stage in politics, it's important to remember that reproductive justice and bodily autonomy are just as essential for secure lives.

    Yesterday’s 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision prompted a week of stark contradictions. Thousands of anti-choice protesters descended on Washington yesterday while the House of Representatives passed HR7, a bill limiting insurance coverage for abortions (after a broader abortion ban was – for the time – abandoned). Yesterday, Congressional Democrats re-introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill meant to protect abortion access from the medically unnecessary restrictions that have already made the landmark decision meaningless in many parts of the country. And in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama professed his support for abortion rights, along with equal pay, paid sick and family leave, a minimum wage hike, and expanded health coverage. It’s all been a reminder of what has been won and just how much there is left to fight for – from abortion rights to economic security.

    Over the past four years we’ve seen an unprecedented number of attacks on reproductive health – more than 200 between 2011 and 2013 – leaving many states with a scant number of abortion providers. Scores of women are now required to travel long distances, at great cost, to access not just abortion, but a wide range of comprehensive health services.

    While reproductive health has certainly been the obsession of choice of conservative lawmakers in recent years, it hasn’t been the only issue in their crosshairs. In many ways, the increasing hostility to abortion and family planning is reflective of a broader war against the poor that is sure to persist under the new Congress. It turns out the same lawmakers who have championed abortion restrictions in the name of protecting women’s health have done very little to actually help women and families. Indeed, a recent report from the Center for Reproductive Rights and Ibis Reproductive Health shows that states with the most abortion restrictions also have some of the worst indicators for women’s health and wellbeing. So lawmakers are restricting access to health services at the same time they are dismantling the social safety net on which so many women and families rely. The overall impact has been devastating.

    In states across the country, women are struggling under the burden of intersecting health and economic injustices. Let’s look, for example, at Kansas, where conservative Governor Brownback slashed business regulations, cut taxes for the wealthy, nearly eliminated income taxes, and privatized Medicaid delivery, all with the goal of making the state a conservative utopia. In the meantime, Kansas women continue to struggle with high rates of poverty, a lack of health insurance, un- and underemployment, and a persistent wage gap. Kansas is one of the sixteen states that refuse to participate in Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, leaving nearly 80,000 adults (half of whom are women) uninsured. It is the only state in the country that actually experienced an increase in its uninsured rate last year.

    To make matters worse for women in Kansas, lawmakers eliminated abortion access from 98 percent of the state’s counties – in which 74 percent of the state’s women live – and passed House Bill 2253, a 47-page law comprised of countless and senseless abortion restrictions. It included a 24-hour waiting period; medically inaccurate pre-abortion counseling; prohibiting abortion providers from working or volunteering in public schools; banning University of Kansas Medical School faculty members from teaching students and residents how to perform abortions; and eliminating public health insurance coverage of all abortion services. And the list goes on. Sadly these laws are not unique to Kansas and they have significantly diluted the initial promise Roe held four decades ago.

    The economic injustices described above, and those being felt by low-income families throughout the country, are starting to get the attention they deserve, and the policy solutions to address them are gaining traction (see the recent support for raising the minimum wage and instituting paid sick and family leave). But while economists and policymakers are increasingly focused on the pernicious impacts of inequality and economic insecurity, they rarely acknowledge how these issues intersect with reproductive health and rights.

    Let us use the anniversary of Roe to remember there can be no economic justice without reproductive justice. We can’t win on one front while losing on the other. Reproductive health – a cornerstone of which is family planning and abortion – is not a frill. It is a core component of comprehensive health care, which is a basic pillar of every individual’s personal, social, and economic wellbeing.

    What good is better and more equal pay if we can’t plan the timing and size of our families? What good is paid sick and family leave if there are no quality, affordable, and accessible providers to give us the care we need when we need it? We need all of it. Now. That’s just demanding a basic – very basic – floor of wellbeing. And that shouldn’t be too much to ask. Roe has served as part of that foundation for the last 42 years. But conservatives have successfully chipped away at it and will continue to do so until there’s nothing left to stand on. Perhaps we can seize upon the new energy around closing the inequality gap to remind our leaders that without bodily autonomy, we will never be secure.  

    Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

    Shulie Eisen is an independent reproductive health care consultant. Follow her on Twitter @shulieeisen.

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  • Obama’s Middle Class Economics Has to be About Fairness and Prosperity

    Jan 22, 2015Richard Kirsch

    The more-fair "middle-class economics" described in the State of the Union are also the right policies to help the economy grow.

    The more-fair "middle-class economics" described in the State of the Union are also the right policies to help the economy grow.

    In coining the new term “middle-class economics” and linking it to raising wages and taxing the rich and Wall Street to put money in the pockets of working families, President Obama used his State of the Union address to ask the public that most potent of political questions: “Which side are you on?” And as Republicans say no to improving wages and making college more affordable in order to defend the super-rich, Americans will get a clear answer. That’s a sure win for Democrats.

    But the President’s explanation of middle class economics downplayed an important part of the story: it’s not just about fairness, it’s about how we create prosperity.

    With the term “middle class economics,” the President is creating a contrast between economic programs aimed at boosting the middle-class and the Republican agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes for corporations. But Obama’s use of the term missed an opportunity to drive home to the American public that middle class economics is not just about fairness, but also about moving the economy forward.

    Obama defined middle class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” That is one of the President’s favorite phrases. But for all its appeal, it does not explain how middle-class economics drives economic progress and increases wealth. He fails to replace the Republican story that cutting government, taxes, and regulation are the keys to economic growth.

    The President actually included such an explanation of what drives the economy in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he said: “It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class."

    Democrats need to firmly claim both the grounds of fairness and prosperity. As I recently wrote, “The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.”

    This is an easy case to make, as it’s true for most of the policies in the President’s middle class economic agenda.

    To take just one example, raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy-boosting jobs instead of economy-busting jobs. When wages are raised, workers have more money to spend, essential when 70 percent of the economy is made up of consumer spending.

    The President’s tax proposals are also about more than just the unfairness of a tax code riddled, as he said, “with giveaways the superrich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.” His proposed taxes on risky bank speculation move that money to invest in vital infrastructure. When he proposes raising taxes on the rich, who already have more money than they can spend, and using those funds to make community colleges more affordable, he’s putting that money into the economy and investing in people’s skills to contribute to economic progress.

    Fairness is a very powerful American value. That’s why the most successful Democratic candidates in 2014 made it clear that they were on the side of working families against Wall Street.

    But the reason that fairness is so powerful is because of the contrast between the few with vast wealth and what Americans most want, to be able to care for and support their families. We value prosperity and security. That is why it is essential that Democrats can tell a clear story about how we move the economy forward. Middle-class economics is about more than fairness – it’s about how working families and the middle class drive the economy. 

    Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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  • For Now, Excitement of Free Community College Program Raises Lots of Questions

    Jan 16, 2015David Bevevino

    The initially available information about the president's free community college proposal leaves questions about implementation and additional costs unanswered. This piece expands on an earlier piece published at EAB.

    The initially available information about the president's free community college proposal leaves questions about implementation and additional costs unanswered. This piece expands on an earlier piece published at EAB.

    The President’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free for students “who are willing to work for it” has generated tremendous buzz in the higher education community over the past several days. For a sector of higher education that has experienced significant funding cuts as well as recent enrollment declines, this politically unlikely plan has led to excitement as well as some criticism.

    Anyone interested in the particulars of the plan can review the White House Fact Sheet here. The quick take on the details reveals that students, institutions, states, and the federal government will all have skin in the game:

    • Students must attend community college at least half-time
    • Students must maintain a 2.5 GPA and demonstrate that they are making progress toward a credential
    • Institutions will be incentivized to offer programs that transfer to four-year institutions or job-training programs with proven career outcomes
    • Institutions must implement proven practices that increase student retention and completion, such as the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associates Program
    • The Federal government will cover 75 percent of the average community college tuition while requiring states to cover the remaining 25 percent
    • Early analysis indicates that students could use Pell Grants and other sources of aid to pay for non-tuition costs
    • The White House has estimated the program will cost $60 billion over 10 years.

    Different Populations, Different Benefits

    Proponents of the president’s plan and the Tennessee Promise initiative it is based on tout expanded access and opportunity for all students. However, critics focused on low-income student issues, such as the Institute for College Access and Success explain that the financial benefits of “free” community college primarily reach middle and upper income students. Low-income students pay little to no tuition already as the Pell Grant more than covers the average community college sticker price. This differential financial benefit is one of the primary criticisms of “last dollar” programs like the Tennessee Promise which only covers tuition expenses. The Obama administration’s proposal seems to have responded to these concerns by covering tuition first and allowing students to use additional funding for non-tuition expenses such as books and commuting costs.

    Despite concerns about misaligned financial benefits, low-income students benefit in another way: a clear, simple path to higher education. In the first year of the Tennessee Promise, nearly ninety percent of the 2013 graduating high school population signed up for the program, a remarkable participation rate. Many of these students would have gone straight into the workforce if the Tennessee Promise had not made them believe they could afford college.

    Navigating the College Labyrinth

    A major challenge for community college leaders will be how to support these newcomers to higher education. Though many organizations have focused on the need for academic assistance, our research at EAB indicates that nonacademic factors such as financial distress and the lack of a college support network drive attrition, especially among first-generation, low-income, and working students. Our study, “Turning High School Partnerships into College Enrollments,” has explored how innovative community colleges have delivered student services in high schools and how they leverage community resources such as parents and mentors to build college navigation skills.

    As the proposal requires a 2.5 GPA (higher than the 2.0 required in Tennessee), a minimum of half-time status, and steady progress to degree, questions remain about how colleges can ensure low-income, first-generation, and other at-risk students receive the greatest benefit from the program. Major questions include:

    • How can community colleges provide personalized guidance to their students in an era of fewer resources and staff?
    • What strategies encourage students to navigate the college environment on their own to increase limited staff capacity to assist students with more complex needs?
    • Which successful practices can be transferred across community college campuses?
    • How should community colleges reallocate resources and staff to the most impactful student services strategies?
    • How can colleges connect students with the most relevant services before student challenges become overwhelming?

    Uncertain Financial Impact on Colleges

    The President’s proposal also raises questions about the financial impact on colleges and students. These include:

    • Will this new initiative be a boon to community college bottom lines? How will it affect the current trend of state disinvestment in community colleges?
    • How will the proposal affect the way states and local districts set tuition and fees, as well as estimate the per student cost of education?
    • How will institutions be measured on graduation rates, career outcomes, and institutional reform implementation under the proposals requirements?
    • If more low-income, first-generation, and part-time students enroll, will the program acknowledge the completion challenges these populations carry and not penalize colleges trying to support them?

    If the proposal increases enrollments, colleges will most likely see revenue bumps. Many college leaders would welcome enrollment increases after several years of declines. However, significant upticks in student numbers may put pressure on student support capacity and physical plants at community colleges. States and local districts may be caught funding the new capital or staff investments needed to meet student demand. If they cannot meet the requirements for student support or career outcomes, community colleges may come under additional scrutiny.

    Despite Political Challenges, an Exciting Day for Community Colleges

    Most commentators agree that the President’s plan has little chance of passing Congress. However, the idea may spread among the states and encourage new investment in higher education after years of shrinking state and local appropriations. Though major questions about supporting students and meeting financial challenges remain, the ambitious proposal has brought much needed attention and hope to community colleges across the nation.

    David Bevevino was the Vice President of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network in 2009. He now serves as a Research Consultant with the EAB Community College Executive Forum, a best practice research program serving community college presidents and their leadership teams.

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