This week, President Barack Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget that outlined a detailed agenda to create good jobs, expand educational access, and promote economic opportunity for millions of young people throughout the country. The budget itself is a long wish-list for Congress that according to the President, “replaces mindless austerity with smart investments that strengthen America.”
The president’s budget request comes at a time when the federal deficit as a percent of Gross Domestic Product is at its lowest level since 2007—just 2.8 percent of GDP compared to the 9.8 percent when President Obama took office in 2009. The budget takes advantage of the improving fiscal situation to call for a greater loosening of austerity and to invest in programs that create jobs and diminish the wealth gap that has grown since the end of the Great Recession.
Although a hostile Republican-led Congress has already decried the $4 trillion budget, there are clear seeds of opportunity in the budget that are supported by young people throughout the country. The following is a roundup of budget priorities that would have clear benefits for millions of young people. Moving forward, the president and Congress should work together to turn these priorities into tangible change for the country.
President Obama’s FY 2016 budget request prioritizes student’s access to a quality education. The budget includes four focus areas for K-12 and higher education: (a) increasing equity and opportunity for all students; (b) expanding high-quality early learning programs; (c) supporting teachers and school leaders; (d) and improving access, affordability, and student outcomes in post-secondary education.
In terms of higher education, the proposed budget requests $1.3 billion in 2016 and $60.3 billion over the next ten years to invest in America’s College Promise. These funds would be used to eliminate two years’ worth of tuition and fees at community colleges for students who attend at least half-time, make steady progress towards completing their program, and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA while in college. As an attempt to focus these funds, a provision was added to the budget request that students with an Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of $200,000 and above will not be eligible for this program.
Furthermore, $29.7 billion is requested to fund Pell Grants. The $29.7 billion would ensure that this program—in accords to the Consumer Price Index—adjusts and maintains its value for students and their families after 2017. Third, the president’s budget proposes adding the Department of Defense Tuition Assistance and GI Bill benefits to the 90 portion of the 90/10 rule. This 90/10 rule states that a maximum of 90 percent revenue can come from federal student loans and grants for institutions participating in student aid programs. Currently, GI Bill benefits and Department of Defense Tuition Assistance are considered private funds; as a result, veterans, service members, and their families are targeted by for-profit colleges and, under false pretenses, are enrolling in expensive, low-quality programs.
Also, the administration asks for $200 million for an American Technical Training Fund that works with the Department of Labor to expand job opportunities. In addition to monetary requests, a bipartisan effort will be made to allocate a portion of funds to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit puts money into the pockets of young people
Over the past two years, bipartisan tax reform proposals have centered on tweaking the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to more accurately reflect the current population. The EITC is a refundable tax credit for low- and middle- income working individuals and couples that is delivered in a lump sum during tax season. Currently, the EITC is based on a recipient’s income and number of children—with single, childless households receiving small tax credits while workers under the age of 25 with no children remaining ineligible for the credit. However, as multiple studies have shown, the EITC has successfully led to large decreases in poverty and has wide support among the public—especially among young people.
The new budget includes provisions to address some of the shortages of the EITC by expanding the credit for workers without children and non-custodial parents. Under the plan, the tax credit for childless workers would double and the credit would be available to workers with earnings up to about 150 percent of the poverty line. The proposal would expand eligibility to workers age 21 to 24. The White House estimates that the changes could help more than 13 million low-income workers get out of poverty. As we have noted, however, the benefits of the EITC could be further deepened if the age of eligibility were lowered to 18 instead of 21. This can ensure that all young people who are working have a chance to benefit.
Push for investments in Native American education
In December 2014, the White House released a report that acknowledged that the state of Native American education is in a “state of emergency.” This led to the creation of a new initiative called Generation Indigenous that would be tasked with finding ways to increase opportunities for Native American youth–particularly surrounding access to higher education and career-training programs.
The new budget continues the administration’s push by calling for $1 billion in funding for Native American students. The request adds an additional $150 million to current funds for the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) which oversees nearly 200 schools serving more than 40,000 children across 23 states, to address crumbling buildings and facilities in Native American schools–many of which fall short of health and safety standards.
Additionally, the budget adds $50 million for the Native Youth Community Project, a grant program designed to support community driven strategies to improve college–and career–readiness for Native American youth. The extra funding would seek to address the most pressing problems for Native American youth both inside and outside of school.
The push for more investment in Native American education is unprecedented since, as the National Indian Education Association reports, no sitting president has brought up the topic since John F. Kennedy. However, Native American youth face the highest levels of poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse in the country.
More resources to combat campus sexual assault
Continuing his commitment to end the epidemic of sexual assault in higher education, the president’s budget included more than $30 million in new resources for the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. OCR is tasked with investigating and enforcing sexual assault laws at colleges and universities.
The additional funding will help add an additional 200 full-time staff members at OCR, which handles more than 10,000 complaints against schools for failing to properly investigate cases of sexual assault. OCR is currently investigating 95 colleges and universities for potential violations of Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to adequately respond to cases of sexual assault on campus. Currently, OCR handles all complaints and investigations with half the staff it did in 1980, when it received a third of the amount of complaints as today.
The increased resources to OCR are critical to fully combat the epidemic of campus sexual assault which currently impacts one in five women on college campuses. For years, student activists have tackled campus culture head-on, and it’s time for the Department of Education to have the tools it needs to support this work.
Provides new investments in education and training
During his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress to make new investments in job-training programs to improve the skills and credentials of millions of students and workers. The budget followed up with a commitment to expand key programs that have given millions of young people across the country the opportunity to get high paying jobs.
The budget called for $16 billion for a ten-year program at the Department of Labor that would fund regional partnerships to create training programs that align to in-demand jobs. Additionally, the budget would make $3 billion available over four years to create education and employment opportunities for disconnected youth ages 16 to 24 through a new program called Connecting for Opportunity Initiative. The Initiative would make summer and year-round job opportunities more widely available and offer competitive grants to create educational and workforce opportunities for at-risk youth.
In addition to these changes, the budget called for more investment in a key area of workforce development: apprenticeships. Numerous studies have shown the need for the U.S. to invest in apprenticeship programs to help young workers get the tools they need to thrive in the workplace. The budget would add $2.2 billion in mandatory funds for the Apprenticeship Training Fund that would provide $1.5 billion in funding to states to increase employer participation in registered apprenticeship programs, and $500 million in competitive grants to help states link apprenticeships to other educational pathways.
Solidifies support for LGBT rights at home and abroad
The budget takes active steps towards addressing the geographic disparities felt by same-sex married couples. Currently, same-sex married couples in states where their marriage is unrecognized cannot receive spousal benefits. This means that couples that move from one of the 36 states that recognize same-sex marriages to one that does not would lose their Social Security benefits. The budget eliminates this disparity by changing key parts of the Social Security Act.
In addition to these changes, the budget this year, like last year, includes LGBT people as a protected population. This change would allow LGBT people around the world to benefit from the Department of State’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund. The Fund helps groups monitor and promote human rights worldwide. The change comes at a time when millions of LGBT people worldwide continue to face criminalization by their own governments for living their true lives.
Many of the policies highlighted above can assist national goals of reducing inequality and building an economy that gives everyone top notch opportunities while addressing challenges faced by Millennials, including high rates of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. It is highly unlikely that the president’s budget proposal will pass; yet, despite the odds, his budget provides a strong statement regarding his commitment to young people and the issues that matter to us. It will be up to Congress and the president to compromise and agree upon a FY 2016 budget that stands with our issues and improves our day to day lives.