State of the Union: An Agenda for Action on Poverty

Income inequality, upward mobility (or the lack of it), minimum wage and income security, job creation, child care and early childhood education, a chance to attend and complete college, access to affordable comprehensive health care, the particular challenges faced by working women (who are over half the workforce and 2/3 of the minimum wage workforce). These are themes and ideas that President Obama addressed in the domestic portions of his fifth State of the Union message Tuesday night. The President called out “upward mobility” as a uniquely American value that needs to continue to be a reality. He described current and future projects and policy directions that would support this, inviting Congress to join him and promising to do as much as he can without Congress, if necessary.

The President’s message and his ideas are a strong agenda for remedying poverty. And, as he stressed, If we remedy poverty, we build and sustain the middle class. If we do not build and sustain the middle class, then poverty deepens and widens. Importantly—all of this is not only a proper but an imperative role for government.

National leadership on these issues, backed up by policy directions and funding streams, is essential. The President laid out a strong, positive agenda for the national government’s role in solving the problems of poverty. At the Shriver Center, however, we also know that the full potential of these initiatives will become helpful reality in middle-class and low-income families and communities only after the states make the necessary implementation decisions on federal laws and launch their own compatible projects. Millions continue to be uninsured across this country because their states have decided to reject the coverages offered by the Affordable Care Act. Millions of lower paid workers will not benefit from the President’s order to increase the minimum wage in federally contracted projects, but could benefit if their states followed the President’s lead and enacted their own minimum wage improvements.

The Shriver Center’s programs are focused on building the capacity for state-level advocacy on behalf of people living in poverty, so that national initiatives such as those announced in the President’s speech are fully realized in homes and communities. Our advocacy, communications, and training programs support the professionals who work to provide people in poverty with a voice and a fair chance to favorably influence these debates in their states. For example, our own advocates were among the leaders in ensuring adoption in Illinois of the expanded health coverages offered in the Affordable Care Act, and we are helping to press for an improved state minimum wage.

The President’s agenda is a strong one that can create opportunity and improve quality of life across the economic spectrum. People concerned about addressing poverty and strengthening the middle class should embrace it and work to support national action. Congress should pass it, and the President should do everything he can to advance it in the absence of congressional action. Those of us on the ground in the states should understand that the final results in our communities will depend on us. We should prepare to take advantage of the full potential that comes from the national efforts.