The Status Report: Obama’s Commitment to Creating Opportunity

One year ago, Brookings experts wrote a series of 12 memos to the incoming president on the most pressing policy issues facing the country. Now they assess the administration’s progress on those issues in The Status Report, a daily series of commentary with video to be featured in POLITICO’s Arena. Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins give President Obama a composite score of B-, applauding his fast action to create more opportunity in the recession but questioning the fiscal sustainability of the safety net.

Balancing new policy with fiscal sustainability: C+

Ron Haskins, Co Director, Center on Children and Families

Social policy legislation during the first year of the Obama administration was prolific. The programs expanded, mostly in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included unemployment insurance, education, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, preschool programs, and many others. The increases served both the Keynesian purpose of increased government spending to stimulate the economy during the recession and the social purpose of relieving misery. But, with the notable exception of education, most of the increased spending did not constitute reform because the provisions mostly just expanded benefits. Still, Keynes was served and some misery was relieved.

Potentially of greater long-run consequence, in legislation and proposals that are still being considered, as well as in administrative actions, Obama is attempting to put in place a host of more serious program reforms. Obama would consolidate and perhaps expand programs addressed to teen pregnancy prevention, initiate new home visiting and neighborhood programs to boost the development of poor children, and offer states subsidies for coordinating and reforming their preschool programs. As Isabel Sawhill and I have argued in our recent book, Creating an Opportunity Society, the preschool period is vital to helping children achieve a solid foundation for future education – and education is the key to opportunity in America.

A major problem with both the stimulus spending and Obama’s substantive reforms is that no one has any idea of how the federal government will be able to pay for them in the future. If the President’s grade were based on fiscal sustainability, he would get at least a “D.”

Arguably the most important social policy action by the president has been the emphasis on evidence-based policy, an emphasis that was also a feature of social policy in the Bush administration. Scientific program evaluations have shown that most social programs do not actually produce the impacts for which they were designed. If policymakers can focus attention and resources on improving or eliminating programs that fail while sustaining or expanding programs that work, the nation’s social programs will be gradually improved and taxpayers will get the returns they deserve.

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Initiating sound social policy: B+
Isabel V. Sawhill, Co-Director, Center on Children and Families

The United States provides its people with less opportunity than many believe and less than some other advanced countries. For example, children born into the poorest one-fifth of all families have about a 35 percent chance of making it to the middle class by the time they are adults.

Last fall, our former colleague Rebecca Blank advised President-Elect Obama in a memo on ways to carry through on his campaign promises to increase educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. Here is our assessment of the challenge:

First, we need to reduce early unwed childbearing and encourage young adults to marry before they have children. Right now, 40 percent of all children are born outside of marriage and almost half of unwed childbearing begins in the teenage years. Second, we need to improve education, with the goal of insuring that everyone graduates from high school well-prepared for both college and career. Finally, we need to provide jobs and encourage people to work full-time. Our research shows that those who do all three – finish high school (at least), delay childbearing until they are married, and work full-time have a 74 percent chance of being middle class (an income above $50,000 a year).

I commend the Obama administration’s positions, for the most part, on these issues. The president has supported teen pregnancy prevention programs and Congress has now passed a bill with an emphasis, for the first time, on evidence-based programs. He also strongly supports fatherhood programs whose effectiveness is more questionable.

The administration has supported a whole host of reforms in education from more investment in preschool to merit pay for teachers, more charter schools and more college tuition assistance. These are proven or promising means of improving educational outcomes. As my colleague Russ Whitehurst says, “Give the administration an A for motive, effort and reach.” I heartily concur.

The administration has supported several efforts to stimulate the economy and create jobs. The picture here is not pretty, but it’s hard to blame the administration for the bad economy. I would have preferred even more stimulus, a faster spend-out rate, and a package that combined short-run stimulus with long-term fiscal constraint. Until the administration stops kicking the fiscal can down the road, its entire social and economic agenda will be constrained.