Education and jobs go hand in hand as the two biggest social issues in the United States. Despite President Barack Obama’s reform efforts, massive inequality dominates in both areas. Because of this, social mobility — the ability to move up the social ladder — remains severely restricted.
Living-wage jobs are the best anti-poverty program. Even though unemployment numbers continued to improve over the past year (now at the lowest rate since 2001), wages remain stagnant. African-American workers still see higher unemployment (8.3 percent, compared with 4.5 percent for white workers), lower wages (median full-time earnings of $624 a week, versus $829 for white workers) and employment discrimination. Women still earn less than men. Upward mobility remains difficult for workers who grew up in low-income families.
Education, which should ideally provide people with the opportunity to advance, has been the subject of massive debate during the Obama years. High school graduation rates have risen, albeit slowly. There is a growing consensus around the importance of early education. Federal student aid has increased, and income-based student loan repayment programs have expanded. Fewer high school graduates are enrolling in college, compared with earlier years in the Obama administration, in part because the end of the recession means job opportunities that look more attractive than more school.
The George W. Bush–era No Child Left Behind law, while ostensibly focusing on improving student achievement, succeeded mainly in stigmatizing and punishing schools, teachers and students. Many schools seeking higher test scores have abandoned imaginative and engaging teaching and learning practices, art and music classes and recess. Schools in poor neighborhoods and communities continue to do worse than those in wealthy neighborhoods and districts. Residential segregation by race and class has led to resegregated schools across the country. While No Child Left Behind has given way to the Every Student Succeeds Act, its emphasis on testing remains, to the detriment of children in lower-testing schools.
Health care is another crucial driver of inequality. Here again, Obama’s reform efforts have been stymied. The Affordable Care Act was passed a little over a year into his first term, when Democrats had a majority in both houses of Congress, and was an early triumph. It increased the number of people with health care coverage and closed loopholes that insurance companies had used to deny coverage. Now coverage cannot be denied to patients on account of existing conditions, children can stay on their parents’ policies until age 26, many preventive services are covered without copays or deductibles, and many people receive tax credits to help pay for insurance coverage.
But the Affordable Care Act had significant flaws. For example, private insurance companies continue to raise consumer costs by manipulating in-network and out-of-network costs and raising the costs of deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance. Universal single-payer coverage remains a distant dream. Advocates would like to see a law similar to an expansion of Medicare to all. Moreover, the program was supposed to use Medicaid to expand coverage to poorer Americans, but Republican-led states, with help from the Supreme Court, have rejected such expansion in 19 states, at latest count.
Other forms of welfare for the poorest Americans remain threatened. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and presidential candidate Jeb Bush are calling for “opportunity grants,” which would turn the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing vouchers and child care assistance into a state block grant program. Giving control over these social safety nets to cash-strapped states is a ploy meant to cripple these programs.
That’s not all. New regulations continue to in chip away at an already inadequate public housing program. New resident work requirements and privatization initiatives threaten public housing residents, even as waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 rental vouchers stretch for years. In Worcester, Massachusetts, a work-or-school mandate applies to all public housing residents under the age of 55, with little consideration for difficulties posed by lack of transportation or child care. Chicago plans to privatize half its public housing under the Rental Assistance Demonstration plan.
Supporters of social justice reforms can blame two things in particular: the 2010 Citizens United decision, which increased corporate influence on elections, and the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts after the 2010 census. Neither constraint will change anytime soon.
The prospects for 2016 are not all doom and gloom. Even with the Republican control of Congress, Planned Parenthood funding remains in place, same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, and gun buyers may soon face even tougher background checks. The Obama legacy has yet to be fully written, but regardless of who succeeds him in 2017, defense of the status quo and partisan politicking remain more likely scenarios than changes toward more progressive policymaking.