February 12, 2013

The State of the Union: Policy Priorities for the Next Four Years

Once a year, the nation turns its full attention to the state of public policy in America. By most accounts, tonight’s State of the Union address is of particular importance as President Obama will attempt to set the policy agenda for the next four years.

In light of this speech and the weeks of discussion that will inevitably follow, the MetroTrends staff asked some of our leading experts to comment on the direction they think public policy should take between now and 2016. They took into account political realities and proposed agenda items that are both critical and achievable. Their answers covered a range of policy topics.

Crime and safety

John Roman, Urban Institute Senior Fellow, advocates thinking creatively about the intersection between crime and neighborhood economic status: for example, how could tax code reform encourage gentrification that would reduce gun violence?

The institute’s Justice Policy Director Nancy La Vigne observes that there is bi-partisan agreement that we can no longer afford mass incarceration. States are implementing innovative methods to reduce criminal justice populations and save money. She argues that the Federal government should follow the good examples set by the states, implementing criminal justice reforms to reduce the federal prison population and relieve pressure on the federal budget.

Senior Fellow Akiva Liberman believes that high-profile discussions of criminal justice policy in the political context often lead to symbolic tough-on-crime posturing that produces bad policy. Criminal justice policy reform will be more constructive if it is bottom-up and driven by the states, especially because sentencing is mostly a state matter. On this issue, President Obama would be wise to “lead from behind.”

Employment and Economic Recovery

Institute Fellow Bob Lerman argues that a major expansion of apprenticeship training programs is the best way to build skills that enhance job quality and wages. An apprenticeship initiative requires little or no increase in government spending and can attract bipartisan support. Simply adding more funding for college will be far less cost-effective and far less progressive.

The institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center Director Greg Acs advocates for policies that nurture the recovery, create jobs, and reduce long-term unemployment. More specifically, we must avoid sequestration, invest in infrastructure, and enhance our national workforce development system.

Immigration reform has bi-partisan congressional momentum and public support. Immigration expert Erwin de Leon calls for a comprehensive immigration reform policy that provides a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, addresses the labor needs of our economy, and fixes flaws in our immigration system.

Poverty and Homelessness

Homelessness expert Mary Cunningham lauds the Obama administration’s successes combating homelessness among veterans, but says they will need to focus and boost their efforts to reach their 2015 goals. She adds that ending homelessness for all people will require a bigger investment in affordable housing programs and production.

Meanwhile, Urban Institute Neighborhoods and Youth Development Program Director Susan Popkin would like to see attention given to addressing the violence that stunts the life chances of so many children in urban communities.

Housing

Housing expert Peter Tatian describes a list of priorities to support the continued recovery of the housing market while avoiding another bubble. His top concerns: reforming the housing finance system (including the secondary market, regulation, and the tax code) and resolving outstanding troubled mortgages, promoting sustainable homeownership for more Americans, and making the most efficient use of government support to create and preserve affordable rental housing and end homelessness.

Healthcare

Urban Institute Health Policy Center co-Director Stephen Zuckerman says the big health policy priorities between now and 2016 will be implementing all portions of the Affordable Care Act, especially the coverage expansions, in as many states as possible and ensuring that people who are newly eligible for benefits are aware of their eligibility and enroll.

With some states opting out of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, Urban Institute Health Policy Center co-Director Genevieve Kenney argues that it will be important to monitor outcomes for low-income individuals and their providers across states in the coming years to assess changes in coverage, access to care, financial burdens, and well-being.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.