By Desiree Hoffman
Director of Advocacy, YWCA USA
Last night, after I put my one-year-old son to sleep, I got ready to listen to the President’s State of the Union (SOTU) address. Many of us watch the SOTU to see how it may potentially impact our own lives, or the communities we serve. But there are millions of Americans out there who angrily change their TV channels to find something else to watch. They are sick of the partisanship, the laundry list of things that won’t get accomplished, and the broken promises.
As an experiment, I polled my friends and family members on Facebook to see if they planned on tuning in. Many were busy putting babies to sleep, like myself, but they planned on watching it online the next day or reading a transcript. My sister, a self-proclaimed “Stay-at-home CEO,” said she would tune in because her husband works for the Postal Service and his job is vulnerable to cuts; she also wanted to hear if Congress planned more funding for autism research. Margarita, a nurse from PA, said, “I want to see what is happening to health care,” and my friend Daniela, a lawyer from VA, said that she wanted to hear about the President’s plan for the next four years. A friend from high school said, “Totally not interested. Just gets me all irritated over stuff I can’t change. Honestly, didn’t even know it was on.”
As a young, single mom and an advocate for the YWCA, there were points in the speech that made me hopeful: hearing the President talk about strengthening the middle class; making sure that Congress takes a fair and balanced approach to deficit reduction; making high-quality preschool available to every child in America; ensuring that higher education is not out of reach for the next generation; raising the federal minimum wage by indexing it to inflation; calling for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform; and, finally, stronger gun control laws to prevent needless acts of violence. The President praised the Senate for passing the bi-partisan Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and urged the House to follow suit. This is an ambitious agenda to accomplish in the President’s last term.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear the President’s emphasis on education: ensuring that quality, affordable pre-school will be provided to all, especially middle class families, and working to make higher education affordable. Education is a way to reduce the racial and gender inequities that persist in our country. I myself grew up in a working class community in Pennsylvania, and I attribute much of my success to solid education – from the time I was in enrolled in Head Start, through graduate school. Boys and girls from all backgrounds, but especially low-income, minority communities, need to able to access those same opportunities.
The President’s speech included minimal (but notable) references to immigration reform. He said, “Real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.” I would have liked to hear more about how immigration reform will reunite families, ensure that students who come to this country and serve in the military or pursue education can earn a pathway to citizenship, or how immigrant women who are victims of violence will be protected. All of us have a stake in this – it is the next frontier for securing civil and human rights for all. And it is the fair and right thing to create a roadmap towards citizenship, as many have forgotten that immigrants have and do contribute to the cultural, political, economic, and social fabric of our country.
Medicare and Social Security were two key entitlement programs that were highlighted in the speech. I worry about the future of Medicaid, which was notably absent. As Congress tackles the deficit, I hope that Medicaid will be preserved, as it provides health care coverage to seniors, the disabled, and women and children. I agree with that President that there are ways to raise revenue by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected – an approach that can benefit both our generation and generations to come.
The President’s SOTU avowed many promising opportunities for an organization dedicated to empowering women and eliminating racism. Raising the minimum wage and passing equal pay laws are issues that YWCAs rally behind. We are eager to take on the tough issues outlined above that impact our communities, like national immigration reform and deficit reduction that will protect human needs.
I can understand why some people get frustrated, like my high school friend who feels like she can’t change things. In a follow-up exchange she shared with me that she stays away from politics because she likes peace, but appreciates those who are active and seek change. It is possible to take action while staying out of the fray, through organizations like the YWCA that can provide the space for dialogue, action and giving back to the community. I hope my friend (and you) will join us as the 113th Congress takes on these priorities.