As he starts a second term, we look at how he's addressed eco-hazards in poor and minority areas.
(The Root) -- Until the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: environmental justice. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: Environmental justice -- the notion that Americans who live in poor and minority communities should not be overburdened by pollution and other environmental hazards -- has been an official priority of the federal government since 1994. That's when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to develop strategies to address the disproportionately high, adverse human-health or environmental effects of their programs on vulnerable populations.
President Obama emphasized his own commitment to the issue as early as his 2008 campaign, promising that, if elected, he would strengthen the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, expand the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program and empower low-income and minority communities to respond to threats to their environmental health.
First-term accomplishments: Obama made good on his commitment to strengthen the EPA when he appointed Lisa Garcia as associate assistant administrator for environmental justice and arranged for her to report directly to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instead of to a lower-level official.
Jackson tasked Garcia with integrating environmental policy into the agency's rulemaking and actions. Under Jackson's leadership, the EPA took the lead on the government's environmental-justice goals, with Garcia heading up the Interagency Working Group -- including representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce -- that's dedicated to the issue.
That group had lapsed under President George W. Bush but began meeting again in September 2010, Garcia told The Root. Reinvigorated, it began its work in earnest by holding 18 listening sessions around the country "to hear directly from the communities of color and poor communities whose environments posed the worst risks," she said.
From that feedback, the EPA created Plan EJ 2014, which Garcia called "EPA's road map to integrating environmental justice." Its goals, she says, are to "protect communities overburdened by pollution, to empower them to take action to improve the health and their environments and to build healthy, sustainable communities." In February 2011, each agency issued an environmental-justice plan for improving the quality of life for people in minority and tribal areas.
When it came to the promise to expand the Environmental Small Justice Grants Program -- whose funds go to help community-based programs in "overburdened and vulnerable communities" address environmental risks -- Politifact couldn't locate the year-by-year data on grant money awarded, but it did find that overall environmental-justice funding at the EPA in 2012 exceeded the amount Obama had inherited by about 25 percent, which it called "a healthy increase over four years."
The EPA's commitment to provide low-income communities with the legal ability to challenge policies was less successful. Although communities have the power to petition the federal agencies under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating on the basis of race, a 2011 report provided by the EPA from an outside consulting firm found that the agency had "not adequately adjudicated" these complaints, pointing to backlogs of cases, with some waiting as eight years. It's been accused of "poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness."
Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, a national environmental-justice organization, said that when it comes to this area, he's been gravely disappointed. "The agency has been just horrible when it comes to implementing and enforcing Title IV -- that is, ensuring recipients of federal money don't discriminate when it comes to environmental exposures," he told The Root.
An example, he says, is the agency's settlement in the widely reported Angelita v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation case, in which his organization represented the complainants. The EPA found that Latino children's exposure to pesticide pollution was disproportionate to what white children faced. But when it came to the settlement, "the agency lacked the political will to provide a meaningful remedy," he says, lamenting that it provided for little more than continued monitoring.
Newell wasn't alone. Sierra Club President Allison Chin called the settlement "a major blow to the cause of environmental justice."
Politifact concluded in November that overall, the administration had shown mixed progress and characterized its efforts to address environmental justice as "a compromise."
Second-term expectations: The agencies in the Interagency Working Group are due to publish progress reports on their environmental-justice strategies in 2013. The plan, Garcia said, is to "continue with our commitments" and "to be accountable and continue the work."
"We still think that if you focus on some of the vulnerable populations or areas that are overburdened, you can really make plosive movement and [have a] healthy impact, reduce asthma rates and really improve quality of life in communities," she told The Root.
Outside the agency, Newell says that advocates aren't as hopeful about seeing concrete actions and sanctions for environmental discrimination in the next term. His fear is that the second term will be like the first, characterized by, as he puts it, "a lot of talk and little action."
"If the Obama administration is going to make environmental justice a reality, it has to change the environmental injustice that is occurring on the ground ... We can't continue to talk about 'initiatives.' That's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Newell said. "And giving communities a voice isn't [enough], either, if the process is discriminatory. What good is being at the table if you're going to be on the menu?"
As his second term nears, we look at his record on gay rights and make predictions.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: LGBT rights. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: According to polls, attitudes about gay Americans have shifted dramatically over the last two decades. In 1974, 74 percent of Americans said they would not elect a qualified gay person as president. By 1999 that number had fallen to 37 percent. In 2001, 57 percent opposed same-sex marriage. Today 48 percent support it. Since it first became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, nine other U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage. There have been other noticeable shifts.
In 1997, comedian Ellen Degeneres' announcement that she was gay was deemed newsworthy enough to land her on the cover of Time magazine, and proved detrimental to her career. Her eponymous sitcom was canceled shortly after. Today Degeneres is one of the most successful talk show hosts in the country and popular enough to have landed an endorsement deal with cosmetics powerhouse CoverGirl. She is among a number of celebrities who have felt comfortable enough to publicly acknowledge being gay in the last decade, something that would have been unthinkable for many of them years ago.
President Obama's own evolution on this issue has mirrored the nation's -- to some degree. According to a campaign questionnaire from 1996, he supported same-sex marriage early in his career before telling mega-church Pastor Rick Warren in 2008, "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian ... it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix." In the same interview, he expressed support for civil unions.
First-term accomplishments: Next to student loans, LGBT rights has turned out to be an issue on which the Obama administration has enjoyed one of its most significant list of accomplishments.
As I have written before, the president has appointed more openly gay elected officials than any of his predecessors. He instructed the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) -- calling it unconstitutional -- signed the repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, pushed for greater protections for gays and lesbians abroad and directed the Department of Health and Human Services to order hospitals to permit visitation and decision-making rights for gay and lesbian couples, one of the primary concerns of LGBT couples unable to marry. But perhaps most significantly, last year he became the first sitting president to express support for same-sex marriage. (The White House recently served as the backdrop to its first public same-sex marriage proposal.)
Second-term hopes: The case can be and has been made that the president has actually accomplished more in his first term for the LGBT community than he has for any other minority group, including black Americans. That being said, as previously noted in this series, his nominations of a number of openly gay men and women to the federal bench have given some hope that he could appoint the first openly gay Supreme Court Justice. But before that, as the high court is poised to hear one of its first cases addressing same-sex marriage, some are wondering if the president may put the judicial power of the White House behind the issue, the way he has on issues such as affirmative action. (Read more here.) Whether he does or not, the president has already insured that his work on LGBT rights will likely be among the most memorable aspects of his presidential legacy, and in years to come many LGBT Americans may credit this president in the same way many black Americans look back and credit President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights today.
As we count down to a second term, a look at his family-assistance efforts.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: addressing the challenges faced by single parents. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: It's widely known that nearly 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, and a similar share are raised in single-parent households (which can also result from divorce or the death of a spouse). Many of these kids are doing fine, but as the National Fatherhood Initiative has noted, children living in single-parent homes are more likely to be poor, have emotional and behavioral problems, drop out of school, become teen parents and be incarcerated. They live in households with a median income that is one-quarter that of traditional two-parent households. Women head the majority of single-parent households.
Stacey F. Johnson remembers struggling as a single mother to raise three children -- a girl and two boys. She worked two jobs, including one as a security guard, to bring in extra money. She couldn't afford child care and sometimes had her 6-year-old daughter take care of her two younger sons, ages 4 and 1, while Johnson went to work.
"I was blessed by the grace of God that nothing [bad] ever happened," said Johnson, 48.
Johnson started the Association of African American Single Mothers in Sacramento, Calif., 17 years ago. The nonprofit focuses on education opportunities for single mothers and teaches them financial stability and life skills. Her children are now adults, ages 25, 22 and 20. But Johnson still remembers what she faced as a single parent.
"It was a challenge," said Johnson. "I had to go the extra mile when it came to being a single mom."
First-term accomplishments: The government has a number of safety net programs that help families with housing, food and child care -- assistance that single-parent households need disproportionately. For example, using funds from the Recovery Act, the Obama administration expanded the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, to help families with food crises and invested in jobs for disadvantaged youths and low-income individuals. And the administration's Promise Neighborhoods give cradle-to-college services to high-poverty communities.
But as the child of a single mother, Obama also knew firsthand the importance of a strong male figure in a child's life. During his first term, President Obama visited churches on Father's Day and talked about the joy of being a father and the impact that dads can have on their children's lives.
"The National Fatherhood Initiative comes from the president's own personal experience. It's an issue that's important to him and personal to him," said Michael Strautmanis, deputy assistant to the president and counselor for strategic engagement to White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett. "He grew up without a father in his life. He knows the impact that can have on a child. He's also working to be the best dad he can be to his two girls."
Last summer the Obama administration launched a new program under his Fatherhood Initiative called Fatherhood Buzz, an outreach effort on responsible fatherhood using local barbershops throughout the country. Barbershop patrons can receive parenting tips as well as information about job training and healthy living.
"It's a way to really connect with fathers and give them access to information that they might need to be better connected with their children," said Strautmanis.
In addition, the administration provides grants to help strengthen grassroots organizations with a proven record of having a positive impact on fathers and, through its Fatherhood Champions of Change program, recognizes community leaders who are making a difference in the lives of fathers.
"We've seen the impact that the absence of fathers has had on children's lives and on their communities, so we want to make a difference every place we can," said Strautmanis.
Second-term hopes: As the economy turns upward, the Obama administration has been working to make sure that the most vulnerable families, including those headed by single parents, have an opportunity to participate in the job market. It has used the Recovery Act to put resources into states that allow them to help single parents find jobs.
Last year an estimated 260,000 families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, got jobs -- half of which were summer jobs for youths, said Earl Johnson, director of the Office of Family Assistance at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families. "We believe jobs are an important component of being able to stabilize single-parent households," Johnson told The Root.
The Health Profession Opportunity Grants are an important program that was implemented last year. Low-income women -- predominantly single mothers with children -- receive funding to attend classes in the health field at local community colleges. Last year the grants, which are in 23 states, helped more than 10,000 participants become part of the health industry. Johnson says that the goal is to reach more than 30,000 people in the next two years.
"We've been aggressively trying to deal with single parents and their children, trying to focus our work so that we improve both the parent's and the child's outcomes," said Johnson. "The mission of the administration is to make sure that the whole family is well and taken care of and also is responsible for its own well-being."
Last year the Obama administration implemented the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative. The program was created with funding from the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which provided $150 million in grants to community organizations that help couples and fathers.
There are 120 grantees, including groups that prepare young people for parenthood. Five grants are awarded specifically to organizations that help formerly incarcerated fathers reconnect with their families and communities. Other grantees focus on job development and education.
The goal of the Administration for Children and Families, Johnson said, is to address those challenges within communities that may lead to negative outcomes, such as incarceration, teen pregnancy and school dropouts. "We really are trying to make sure that our programs deal with the single parent who is economically and socially challenged to raise their child," said Johnson. "We're trying to put together a holistic package where our programs can become better integrated in serving them and their needs."
As we count down to his second term, we take a look at minorities on his team.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: cabinet appointments. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: It is arguable that whom he appoints to his cabinet is the most important decision a president can make, since his cabinet ends up shaping his most significant policy decisions. For instance, it is unlikely that there would have been a war in Iraq had President George W. Bush not had the fervent support of cabinet members like his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
Since Robert C. Weaver became the first African-American cabinet member when he served as President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of housing and urban development, and Patricia Roberts Harris served in the same role in the Carter administration, presidents have been judged not only for their cabinets' policy positions but also by their ethnic, racial and gender diversity. (It's worth noting that much earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt consulted African-American advisers, including Weaver and Mary McLeod Bethune, on a regular basis as part of what was dubbed the "Black Cabinet.") When asked about his plans for diversity within his own cabinet should he win the presidency, then-candidate Barack Obama said in 2007 that he would look for political diversity as well, naming Republicans like Sen. Dick Lugar and even Arnold Schwarzenegger as possible cabinet nominees.
First-term accomplishments: One of the president's most surprising, yet politically deft early moves was to nominate his former rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of state. The move, combined with his selection of former opponent Joe Biden as his vice president, led many pundits to compare Obama to a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, remembered for stocking his own cabinet with former opponents, known as his "team of rivals."
Additionally, the president's first cabinet reflected the nation's diversity, with four women, two Latinos and an Asian American in addition to white males. His secondary cabinet posts were diverse as well, with Lisa Jackson serving as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Rice serving as ambassador to the United Nations and Ron Kirk serving as U.S. trade representative. They are all African American.
Second-term hopes: Unfortunately, the president's second-term cabinet nominations have not yet reflected the diversity of his first. Even more disturbing to some, they have not reflected the diversity of his Republican predecessor's. George W. Bush nominated four African Americans to cabinet posts. The president's most recent nominees -- Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew -- are white men.
"It's embarrassing as hell," Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said about the criticism of the president's cabinet diversity. "We've been through all of this with Mitt Romney. And we were very hard on Mitt Romney with his 'women binder' and a variety of things. And I kind of think there's no excuse when it's the second term." In the president's defense, it was widely reported that he was poised to nominate Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. That nomination was thwarted by conservatives before it could even officially be made, in what will widely be remembered by history as a witch hunt.
But in the eyes of a number of progressive critics, although Rice withdrew from consideration, the perception is that the president may not have signaled that he was willing to fight for her the way he has been willing to fight for Hagel. (Hagel was actually one of the Republicans he mentioned for cabinet consideration when he was asked about it during the 2008 presidential campaign.) Also, the fact that Rice was one of the few black women at a high-enough level within his administration to choose from was troubling to many, and signaled that his diversity problem might not be limited to his appointments but might also extend to his staff.
This sentiment was only furthered after the New York Times published a photo of the president with several of his key advisers -- all of them men. (Click here to see a list of some of the most powerful black men and women serving within the Obama administration and beyond.) In a letter to the president, Rep. Marcia Fudge, the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, suggested qualified women and men of color for consideration for administration nominations, including Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) for commerce secretary and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) for labor secretary.
The president responded to the criticism, saying in a White House press conference, "I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all my appointments, who is in the White House staff and who is in my cabinet, before they rush to judgment. Until you've seen what my overall team looks like, it's premature to assume that somehow we're going backwards. We're not going backwards; we're going forward."
Only time will tell if that promise proves true in the diversity of his second-term cabinet.
As we count down to a second term, a look at his record on addressing racial health disparities.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: Addressing health disparities and African Americans' health care needs. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: In 2004, the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce found that "the civil rights movement of the 1960s ended the more visible racial and ethnic barriers, but it did not eliminate entrenched patterns of inequality in healthcare, which remain the unfinished business of the civil rights movement." Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher told Crisis magazine at the time that the health disparities that existed were a matter of life and death and a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.
Fast-forward a decade and not much has changed.
Nearly 50 percent of African Americans suffer from some type of chronic disease -- including diabetes and certain cancers -- compared to 39 percent of the general population. The life expectancy of African Americans is five years less than that of whites due to conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Blacks have a higher prevalence of high blood pressure or hypertension than any other group. African Americans are twice as likely to have diabetes than whites and more likely to be overweight and obese than their white counterparts.
Even the nation's first black president has taken note of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as the striking health disparities between African Americans and other racial groups.
"We know that even as spiraling health care costs crush families of all races, African Americans are more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anyone else," President Obama said in July 2009.
Currently an estimated 20 percent of African Americans are uninsured (pdf), contributing to the growing health disparities that exist in America's communities. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) introduced legislation to create an annual report on health disparities.
"Every person," said Davis, "should have access to high quality comprehensive health care that is affordable to them without regard to their ability to pay."
First-term accomplishments: President Obama signed the historic Affordable Health Care Act in 2010, which extended health care coverage to 7 million African Americans.
"There's a lot in this law for people of color," said Brian Smedley, vice president and director of the health policy institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in an interview with The Root.
Smedley pointed to many provisions that are already in effect. For example, insurance companies can no longer deny claims based on pre-existing conditions, and young adults can now stay on their parents' health care plan until they reach age 26. That means 230,000 black women and 180,000 black men between the ages of 19 and 25 can continue to have health insurance under their parents' plan. The legislation also raised the eligibility requirements for Medicaid, providing 4 million more African Americans access to health insurance coverage. Seniors will now be able to get annual wellness exams, diabetes screenings and colorectal cancer screenings.
But even more importantly, said Smedley, the Affordable Care Act tackles the structural inequalities that disproportionately hurt highly segregated communities of color, the conditions in neighborhoods that lead people of color to be sicker in the first place. He points to the inequality in education, employment and housing in segregated communities where neighborhoods are food deserts, overrun by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that sell unhealthy deli and junk food.
The Affordable Care Act addresses these issues with the Prevention in Public Health Fund and Community Transformation Grant. In 2011, the new Prevention and Public Health Fund distributed $300 million to states and communities to increase preventive care. The administration notes that 5.5 million African Americans can now get blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, screenings for breast and cervical cancer, annual mammograms for women over 40 and colon cancer screenings for people over 50 -- at no cost.
The Community Transformation Grant provides support for community initiatives that reduce health disparities. For example, the grant provides resources for programs that improve nutrition and increase physical activity. In addition, the legislation provided $11 billion for infrastructure enhancements to community health centers, which are often the first stops to preventive care. The Office of Minority Health will be charged with monitoring and evaluating the success of these programs at the state and federal level.
"For the first time there's a dedicated source of federal investment into things like community-based primary prevention," Smedley said. "In public health we call these 'upstream interventions' that allow us to hopefully tackle some of the very community conditions which lead people of color to be at risk for poor health in the first place."
Second-term hopes: As the administration looks ahead, it hopes that the Affordable Care Act will be able to provide health insurance coverage to an estimated 3.8 million African Americans who otherwise would not have any by the year 2016, said Anton Gunn, director of external affairs in the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"That's what we know we're working towards going forward," Gunn told The Root.
The Affordable Care Act also calls for more diversity in the health care workforce, said Gunn. The legislation triples the number of people in the National Service Health Corps. The administration hopes that growth will lead to an increase in the number of physicians of color in the nation. Currently African-American physicians are about 18 percent of the National Service Health Services Corp, compared with only being 6 percent of all providers in the workforce.
"So that's three times as many African Americans in the National Health Service Corp being trained, getting their loans repaid and getting scholarship money to go to school to become doctors because of the Affordable Care Act," said Gunn.
Gunn also notes that about 4 million African Americans will no longer have a lifetime limit on health care coverage.
"Let's say you have a health insurance policy, and when you signed up for the policy, the policy said you have $1 million in coverage," said Gunn. "God forbid you got breast cancer, and you're in the middle of chemotherapy and you get a letter from your insurance company telling you you've reached the maximum lifetime limit on your coverage, and so they stop covering your chemotherapy for your breast cancer. So there are many people who are caught in that bad place where they had a lifetime limit of a million dollars or $2 million, and they had a really bad illness during that time and their coverage was yanked away from them when they needed it the most. That can't happen anymore, thanks to the Affordable Care Act."
Gunn says there are tremendous benefits that are available to communities of color through the Affordable Care Act and hopes African Americans will take full advantage of them.
Smedley called the law an important first step that addresses many of the needs of communities of color. But it cannot be the only step. "We've got to keep pressing forward for more comprehensive strategies, including strategies that address inequality in many sectors of American life outside of health care."