“Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” -President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

“Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.” -President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

President Obama’s State of the Union Address outlined several measures being undertaken at the executive and state levels that aim to improve the lives of struggling Americans. These initiatives are limited in their impact, but they do have the potential to help more people – if the principles behind them are applied more broadly. Here is my takeaway of five “good” ideas that could be made “better.”

1. Minimum Wage
Thousands of employees and their families will benefit from the President’s executive order mandating an increase in the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10. However, his plan will cover only those individuals employed under future government contracts. At the same time, many states and municipalities, including New York, are also taking steps to increase their minimum wages.

Better: If the federal minimum wage were raised across the entire country, millions of low-income people would be able to earn a “living wage,” and we would be a step closer to the time, as Mr. Obama said, when no fulltime worker would have to raise a family in poverty.

2. Early Education
Thirty states have already expanded funding for public Pre-K programs, including New York. This early advantage levels the playing field for poor and disadvantaged students, building a foundation for success throughout the course of their education.

Better: Every child in every state deserves the same access to pre-kindergarten classes. Pre-K has been shown to increase a child’s chances of completing post-secondary education, improving earning potential and enabling kids to break deep-rooted cycles of multigenerational poverty.

3. Tax Credits
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been a boon to poor working families with children, including many NYLAG clients, since it was enacted in 1975. This law encourages employment, strengthens credit, and helps low-wage earners make ends meet.

Better: Expanding the EITC to include childless low-wage workers would help raise the income of more of our poorest workers, and provide an incentive to stay on the job, reducing unemployment.

4. Student Debt
Many federal student loans are currently eligible for Income-Based Repayment plans to help reduce monthly payments and make student loan debt more manageable for out-of-work and low-income individuals. The President described efforts to “shake up our system of higher education … so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.”

Better: At NYLAG we have seen firsthand the devastating effects of overwhelming student debt on the lives of our clients – including those victimized by some for-profits schools that promise an education but only deliver crushing debt. Tougher federal oversight and regulation would help protect vulnerable, low-income students from these predatory practices.

5. Immigration Reform
 Several states have taken local action on immigration reform, passing legislation that facilitates college attendance. New Jersey, for example, just passed legislation making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates. Several states, including California and Texas, have gone a step further by granting financial aid to qualifying students who aren’t legal residents, and similar bills are progressing in New York and other states.

Better: NYLAG has worked with immigrants of every status for almost 20 years, battling the complexity, capriciousness, and inequities of our country’s immigration policies. There is bipartisan support for enacting comprehensive immigration reform. It’s time to fix a broken system that holds back our economy, victimizes the innocent, breaks up families, and keeps millions of hardworking people living in the shadows. The President is right. Let’s get this done.

The business of government is inevitably a business of compromise, and it would be unrealistic – in any era – to expect to see the wholesale adoption of so many sweeping domestic policy changes. But, by examining the greater good we could accomplish through enacting these types of broad measures, I draw inspiration for the fight to make justice a reality for the vulnerable, poor and voiceless.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge