Reading Obama's Budget

As is the case with pretty much everything that happens in an election year, President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal is more political statement than actual policy. Much of what is included in the 220 page, $3.8 trillion proposal is a rehash of what appeared in the American Jobs Act he sent to Congress in the fall of 2011. Like that bill, this budget is not likely to pass. Still it’s worth investing to see the specifics of the president’s priorities during his re-election campaign.

Building on the main thrust of his State of the Union address, Obama’s budget focuses on fairness in taxation, seeking to implement the “Buffett rule” for millionaires that would impose a 30% tax on those making $1 million or more, a measure that has been a non-negotiable with his Republican opposition. The other major point is to the create jobs. After 23 months of continuous job growth, amounting to 3.7 million private sector jobs created, and a recent dip to an 8.3% national unemployment rate, the economy looks to finally be in recovery with a economists more optimistic about the future. There still isn’t full-employment, and millions of those falling in the 8.3% are long-term unemployed. Obama’s budget addresses the need for jobs through investment in infrastructure, calling for $50 billion in spending in 2012 as well as an additional $476 billion to improve U.S. highway, transit, rail, airport, and air traffic control systems in the future.

Also a major proponent of this budget proposal is spending on education. The Obama administration proposes to prime the pump on their controversial Race to the Top program with $850 million. The program has come under fire for awarding grants based on performance, which may then leave lesser performing schools behind and also creates a competition for what, many view as, a basic right. Obama is also focusing on expanding access and reducing the cost of college education, in part by making permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a “partially refundable tax credit worth up to $10,000 per student over four years of college.”

Though most of the budget fits Obama’s “a rising tide lifts all boats” mantra for economic recovery, there are some proposals for spending that would directly impact Black people. Included in the budget is a 4% increase for the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in order to strengthen anti-discrimination enforcement. There is also $831 million for the Department of Justice’s prisoner re-entry program. As Black people are over-represented in the prison population, this would most certainly be a boon for the Black community. In a more ceremonial proposal, Obama has called for $85 million to continue construction of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

What isn’t addressed is the loss of public sector jobs that has hit Black people the hardest. Black women, the group hardest hit during the recession, have not fared better during the recovery, losing more jobs (258,000) during the time of recovery than they did over the course of the recession (233,000). Black unemployment saw an unexpected and sharp decrease in February, going from close to 16% to just under 14%, but it still hovers far above the national average. Cuts intended to shrink the size of government could wind up hurting Black people disproportionately.

There are other provisions that provide for revitalization of urban neighborhoods, affordable rent, home ownership, and improving nutrition and access to healthy foods that are desperately needed in Black communities. While it is still unlikely that Obama will mention race explicitly on the campaign trail, as it would not be politically expedient, his budget proposal at least recognizes he understands issues facing Black America and will put them on the table in his quest for a second term.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter