Why Black Folks Should Care About the President’s 2016 Budget

Charles D. Ellison
President Barack Obama
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

In case you missed it, friends, it’s that time of the year again: when the dramatic unveiling of the president’s $4 trillion federal budget is—real talk—worthy of a cable miniseries or, at the very least, a House of Cards director’s cut.

This particular year is important because it’s the second-to-last fiscal cycle during which President Barack Obama will be in charge, and the budget is perhaps the most unapologetic policy proposal to date, considering that he has the luxury of no more campaigns.


Still, Obama can’t just coast through budget negotiations, since he has an obligation to get it passed. With the current tense and unpredictable political climate, there’s no guarantee he’ll get everything he wants. But in the meantime, The Root has burned a few candles for you to list what we think is hot and, well, not so hot in Obama’s controversial fiscal 2016 budget:

What’s Hot: Throw Some Money at It

The federal deficit is now down to only 2.8 percent of gross domestic product—pretty much the measure for the national economy. The last president—a Republican—left it at nearly 10 percent of GDP. So now President Obama feels good about a 7 percent, $74 billion, increase in federal spending. Even Pentagon generals, who have actively thrown shade on the president, love this budget because defense gets an $86 billion boost. Republicans, as expected, are balking, especially at that part where capital gains and corporate tax rates increase.

What’s Not: Leave Our Kids With the Tab

While increased federal spending naturally funnels needed federal dollars into the economy, it also always ends up going back to being a drag on the budget. The deficit will go down to $463 billion in 2017. But by 2025 the deficit spikes back up to $687 billion. And there’s always that risk that corporations, fearful of burdensome tax rates at home, will move jobs (which we need) and critical investments overseas. Still, we’re not feeling sorry for these cats when they’re enjoying the benefits of American privilege. Someone has to pay for that.


What’s Hot: Increased Funding for Civil Rights

In an apparent nod to a burgeoning “second” civil rights movement, the White House proposed enhancements to its civil rights enforcement activities, including an additional $103 million that will beef up litigation in the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Voting-rights enforcement will be a priority, along with vigorous focus on campus sexual assaults, hate crimes, human trafficking and sorely needed legal assistance for underserved populations. Aside from that, there’s $50 million in the budget to restore historic national park sites “associated with the civil rights movement” at Selma, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.


What’s Not: Increased Unconditional Funding for More Cops and Bigger Prisons

Still, while civil rights gets some bells and whistles, we couldn’t help noticing a few inconsistencies. We’ve got nothing against police—good, law-abiding, not-killing-unarmed-black-people police, that is. These days, we’re finding an uptick in the number of bad, trigger-happy cops, a matter that should attract greater scrutiny and action from the Obama administration beyond just fashionable body cameras. Instead, as predicted in an earlier column, the president calls for more cops by increasing funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program to $250 million—with no known or aggressive monitoring and civil rights enforcement strings attached for law-enforcement agencies. And the nearly $220 million increase for prisons and detention centers, along with increased staffing at 17 facilities, doesn’t sound like the priorities of an attorney general who openly worries about the disproportionate number of black folks in prisons.


What’s Hot: More Research and Development

A 6 percent increase in funding for research and development, especially when it comes to chronic disease, is always a good thing considering the myriad public health challenges faced by African Americans.


What’s Not: Cutting Health-Disparity and Vaccine Programs

But optically, what’s not a good look is when the administration cuts $260 million from public-health-disparity programs such as Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health and the Preventive Health and Health Services block grant, as well as a $50 million cut to the successful 317 immunization program for the underinsured. The administration has tried to explain that the expansion of the Affordable Care Act diminishes the need for these programs.


What’s Hot: Educational and Wage Tickets to the Middle Class

A sadly underreported fact: More than a quarter of the black middle class was obliterated during the recession. That is why many were elated by the president’s focus on postrecession entry points to the middle class: from minimum wage increases to expanded Earned Income Tax Credits and the creation of a national fund for paid parental leave. Also noticed are desperately needed reforms for unemployment insurance. And we’ve heard about $60 billion over 10 years for free community college.


There are also big plans for education, with a $3.6 billion increase for the Department of Education, which will include enhanced funding for Head Start and Title I programs for disadvantaged students, who are disproportionately of color. There’s a modest 2 percent increase in funding for HBCUs, as well as a nearly 5 percent increase for “strengthening black institutions.” Pell Grants, under this budget, would also increase to more than $5,900 per student in the 2016-2017 school year.

What’s Not: Small-Business Cuts and High Tuition

Yet it’s clear that small Pell Grant increases won’t keep up with inflated college-tuition costs. In addition, while free community college sounds great, there’s still a lot of uncertainty over whether that takes students away from four-year HBCUs or if it will encourage transfer-credit agreements between the two sets of institutions. And while HBCUs get some increased funding, black graduate schools get none, along with the strapped and federally funded Howard University.


And at a time when minority businesses make up about 15 percent of the nearly 30 million small businesses in the U.S., employing 6 million workers (reflecting a trend of recession-battered people of color transitioning into self-employment), there’s no solid explanation for why the Obama administration cut the Small Business Administration budget by 22 percent.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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