President Donald Trump stressed the importance of family and unity in his inaugural State of the Union address Jan. 30. But, his speech generated new questions for low-income families in America heading into his second year.
In an address light on policy details, the president issued broad calls for lifting citizens “from poverty to prosperity,” overhauling the immigration system, reforming U.S. prisons and extending opportunity “to all citizens.”
Despite his calls for bipartisanship, many of Trump’s ideas were viewed as divisive or worse by leading grassroots organizations, particularly his plan to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.
“President Trump offered no surprises, only more of the dangerous rhetoric that has divided our nation and pitted one community against another,” Melody Klingenfuss, a state-wide youth organizer for California-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), who attended the State of the Union with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement.
“There is a lot of work that can get done if tribal flames are not fanned by our Divider-In-Chief.”
Looking ahead, the work Trump laid out for 2018 poses a few core questions for low-income families and community leaders working to alleviate poverty:
1. How would the move of “citizens…from poverty to prosperity” work?
“We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.” — President Donald Trump
The president’s words foreshadow that welfare and other safety net programs are expected to be a focus of congressional and White House work this year. Earlier in January, the Trump administration already changed rules to allow states to attach some work requirements to Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that provides health insurance to roughly 74 million Americans.
In his speech, the president provided a few more broad ideas for struggling families, including investments in workforce development, job training and “great vocational schools.” Those general ideas could signal that broader efforts to revise federal welfare – officially known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – and other social programs are on the way.
2. Is federal immigration reform possible in 2018?
Once again, immigration was one of Trump’s dominant talking points, but it was delivered as a mixed message. The president offered a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of DREAMers – who were brought to the U.S. as children as undocumented immigrants by their parents. But, he tied that promise to a broader, and what many consider conservative, plan to build a massive and controversial wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and cut immigration levels.
In his speech, the president held up his broader plan as a compromise. But, presidential proposals are often starting points for such complex policy debates, not compromises to be wholly embraced by policymakers.
How much room is the president leaving for legislators to craft a compromise that has eluded both Democrats and Republicans for years but public opinion surveys show is wanted?
“Tonight’s comments by the president in his State of the Union were a shameful display of xenophobia cloaked in hollow patriotism,” Promise Arizona’s executive director, Petra Falcon, said in a statement. Her organization works with immigrants and the Latino community.
3. Will the Trump administration join bipartisan work to reform criminal justice?
In one of the president’s more newsworthy statements for families, he called for prison reform. This is an area where Trump can back up his call for bipartisanship because he is wading into an issue where there already has been bipartisan and sometimes effective work on federal, state and local levels.
In fact, many advocates and observers say actual criminal justice reform is happening on the local level.
Expectations among reformers, however, are low, at least in regards to the federal level.
The president’s “prison reform likely means tweaks around the edges to address conditions of confinement – and some attempt at addressing prisoner reentry. All of that is welcome but it’s a far cry from the sort of step needed to meaningfully address mass incarceration,” Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in an email interview.
The Trump administration’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions is well-known for his conservative views of criminal justice. Under his leadership, the U.S. Justice Department has moved toward harsher federal sentencing and a renewed commitment to private prisons.
“There is no prison reform without sentencing reform. Tell Sessions to get out of the way of (sic) you really want criminal justice reform,” Inimai Chettiar (@Inimai), head of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, wrote on Twitter last night.
Overall, the president presented a broad vision for 2018 in the official State of the Union, which he is expected to fill out when he delivers his budget plan to Congress, expected in February, and through the fights he chooses in Congress during the course of the year.
An hour before his Jan. 30 address, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Girls for Gender Equity, MomsRising, and Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworker Women’s Alliance), and others gathered to present their own state of the union, TheStateofOurUnion, “where women – all people – can live and work in safety and dignity.”
“We are moving the country toward a culture where all people can be safe and live well. We will not be invisible. We will not go back,” Ai-jen Poo, co-director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said Tuesday on Twitter (@aijenpoo).
Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice.