As we look toward tonight’s State of the Union speech, Oxfam’s policy experts weigh in with our perspective on the state of things for people living in poverty.
Tonight President Trump will deliver his second State of the Union speech. While we don’t know the exact content of his address, we have our own perspective on the state of things – and the US’s role – when it comes to fighting the injustice of poverty here and abroad.
The state of America’s fight against global poverty: Diminished & confused
Throughout his first year in office, the Trump administration has undermined and attempted to severely cut the amount of federal dollars spent abroad to fight global poverty. It has also sent mixed messages about the role and value of US foreign assistance. On the one hand, Trump’s ‘America First’ budget request to Congress proposed a devastating 32 percent cut to this year’s foreign assistance budget, suggesting that US foreign assistance can and should be used for political aims, and using appalling rhetoric to describe developing countries. On the other hand, USAID Administrator Mark Green has outlined a vision for US foreign assistance reform centered around creating plans and tools to invest in sustainable solutions that enable countries to take charge of their own development over time. Though early, such an effort holds promise for those of us who have long called for US foreign assistance to be more transparent, accountable, and locally-owned — but not if it’s not resourced or if it ends up being a masked effort to justify further cuts to foreign assistance.
Rather than abandon US development efforts, the administration should double down on reforming US assistance programs to be more effective tools to fight poverty. The precipitous retreat of the United States from the international stage puts the fight against poverty and the encouraging initiatives at USAID in jeopardy. The administration would be wise to follow the lead of the development professionals in the ranks of its foreign aid agencies and ensure that US foreign assistance becomes smarter, not smaller. Doing anything else puts too much at risk.
The state of America’s commitment to refugees and immigrants: Disastrous
When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in the US and around the world, this year has been a harrowing one. The Trump administration has taken a cruel, adversarial, and truly un-American approach to hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants already in the US and those hoping to be able to rebuild their lives here.
A year ago, we began our fight against the Trump administration’s Muslim and Refugee Travel Ban, the first of many efforts by the administration to keep immigrants and refugees out of the United States. We have pushed back in the courts and in the streets ever since. At a time when there are more refugees in need than ever before, the administration’s policies have dramatically slowed the US’s refugee resettlement program, with the administration cutting the refugee admissions cap from 110,000 to 45,000, a disastrously low target we’re not on track to meet. Together with our allies, Oxfam will not waver in our commitment and defense of the American tradition of welcoming refugees and immigrants with open arms. The ban is expected to have its final hearing in the Supreme Court in April, and we will be watching.
The administration has also taken aim at the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, cancelling eligibility for hundreds of thousands of people from Haiti, El Salvador, and Nicaragua – many of whom have lived here for decades – in order to deport them back to countries still consumed with violence, dire economic conditions, and more. This was an inhumane and heartless move against people who are core and contributing members of their communities in the US. We will continue to make our voice heard on behalf of all TPS holders, urge Congress to reject the president’s actions, and focus on finding solutions and permanent paths to citizenship for those stuck in limbo.
The state of recovery in Puerto Rico: Painful & slow
More than four months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, there are still hundreds of thousands of American citizens on the island struggling to live day to day without electricity, thousands still trying to get tarps for shelter, and tens of thousands without running water. Puerto Rico should be a shining example of how the wealthiest country on earth can rebuild after an unprecedented disaster. Instead, the inexplicably slow rate of the disaster response has been as catastrophic as the hurricane itself. All over the island, electricity posts lean crookedly along the road or are completely down.
The situation in San Juan has improved gradually as debris has been cleared from the roads and about 60 percent of people have recovered access to electricity in their homes, even as street lights remain dark. But there is a growing gap between the people in San Juan and the rest of the island. Rural communities remain mostly in the dark. In these areas, people are surviving because of the strong support they offer to each other, through daily acts of kindness and solidarity. But make no mistake, Puerto Rico is very much still in disaster mode. The effort to address emergency needs and to build back better in the face of an “all systems failure” brings immense and overwhelming challenges and will require billions dollars and a prolonged effort.
We will continue to push for effective locally led and equitable emergency assistance and recovery plans that are accountable and transparent, and ensure that Puerto Ricans can emerge stronger, more resilient and better prepared for any future challenge.
The state of America’s workers: Grim
When President Trump announced at Mar-a-Lago, “You all just got a lot richer,” he was NOT referring to the workers serving food or busing tables. The tax bill passed in late 2017 only further riggs the system in favor of the powerful elite. It punishes workers and rewards billionaires and the wealthy (82 percent of the wealth created last year went to the top 1 percent).
In fact, Trump has betrayed many promises he made to America’s workers since he took office. Yes, the economy is booming (even IF you question who’s responsible). The stock market is reaching new heights; the economy is predicted to grow by 2.7 percent; unemployment is at 4.1 percent. But who is really benefiting? Shareholders and billionaires – not the average Americans who need it most.
While 2,000,000 (or so) jobs have been created since Trump took office, this is the lowest level of annual job creation since 2010; it’s far short of his promise of 2.5 million per year; and labor force participation has been steadily declining.
It wasn’t so much that there weren’t enough jobs before the Trump presidency; it was that there weren’t enough GOOD JOBS. And it’s getting worse. The federal minimum wage is stuck at the poverty wage of $7.25; benefits are scarce, schedules are overwhelming, conditions are hazardous: even while profits and productivity climb upward.
Just two examples: The Trump Department of Labor failed to defend a 2016 rule that updated overtime protections for workers; and the DOL is working hard to gut regulations that protect servers from having their tips taken by their employers.
The sad reality is that much of the “economic boom” is built squarely on the backs of workers: the economic gains flow up from workers—who are ever more effectively building houses and cooking meals and processing chickens—into the hands of stockholders and executives. With less regulation and the new tax law, businesses are freer to make more money by squeezing workers ever harder, faster.
The state of our fight against climate change: Gaining strength despite the president
From Texas to Puerto Rico, Bangladesh to Barbuda, we have all witnessed the shocking examples of our new climate reality in 2017. Rising global temperatures mean erratic weather patterns – droughts, heat waves, hurricanes and flooding – will only become more frequent and more devastating. And people living in poverty are bearing the biggest burden.
But instead of highlighting efforts or commitments to address the climate crisis in his speech, we’re not likely to hear much at all from the President on climate change. Instead, look for the president to tout his efforts to reverse the (nonexistent) war on coal, which of course started with his pledge to withdraw the US from the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate last June. What the president won’t mention is that he can’t actually withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement until late 2020 – and that his withdrawal announcement united the rest of the world in their support for the pact. President Trump is also unlikely to mention that American businesses, municipalities, states, and others have banded together to form the “We Are Still In” coalition to reaffirm American support for the Paris agreement– making clear that President Trump doesn’t speak for America when it comes to climate change. In the end, President Trump’s rejection of the global effort to address climate won’t create jobs or re-open coal plants – it just proves his failure as a leader at home and on the global stage.
The state of the fight against corruption in oil, gas, and mining: Eroding
Big oil’s wins under President Trump further prove that the allegiances of his corporate Administration are to companies rather than American citizens.
In February, President Trump signed his first significant law—a resolution rammed through Congress by GOP leadership in Congress satisfying the demands of big oil and the most powerful fossil fuel lobbyists in Washington. Immediately, the US went from leader to lagger in fighting corruption.
With this action, Trump voided an important anti-corruption rule that would give Americans and citizens around the world access to critical oil, gas and mining company payment information. Without this information citizens can’t hold their governments accountable for fossil fuel and mining revenues to ensure they are invested in schools, roads and hospitals instead of stolen by corrupt officials.
Less than a month later, Trump’s Department of Interior began dismantling the United States’ participation in another important anti-corruption and transparency effort – the global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – which mandates a degree of payment transparency from governments in their domestic oil, gas, and mining industries. Within weeks of voiding the rule, the Department of Interior cancelled EITI meetings, and then officially withdrew from the EITI in November.
If that wasn’t enough, big oil secured big wins in the new tax law. On top of the already controversial subsidies the sector receives, oil companies rigged the system further in favor of fossil fuels with new tax breaks included in the bill — making it a landslide victory for oil and gas.
This is why companies don’t want their payments known in the US – they don’t want us to know details of the outrageous deals they have been granted, and how little tax they are really paying. The House GOP recently targeted the same oil and mining transparency law again, and is trying to repeal the milestone legislation for good. It is clear that Trump and a GOP Congress is handing big oil huge wins at the expense of American taxpayers and people living in poverty around the world.
The state of America’s leadership in the world: Weak & compromised
There is probably no more hackneyed cliché in Washington than “American leadership.” Democrats and Republicans alike have appealed to the principles of American leadership for decades, often in stark disagreement with one another. Over the past year, the Trump administration’s America First rhetoric and policies have pushed forth the incredible view that international cooperation for prosperity and security are alternatively irrelevant or inimical to American interests. The only good news is that the untenable Trump approach has forged a bipartisan consensus in Congress around the importance of American leadership in the world. That is no small feat.
Despite broad agreement that development and diplomacy are key, underfunded pillars of US national security, the Trump administration proposed massive funding cuts for the State Department and USAID. It has boasted of cutting key peacekeeping missions that save lives. It is withdrawing the US from a global climate agreement that imposed no binding requirements on states. It has fueled the war in Yemen, leading to the world’s largest and most urgent humanitarian crisis. And rather than build on America’s reputation as a country built by and open to immigrants, the Trump administration called for a ban on Muslims and refugees, the expulsion of law-abiding members of our communities, and an end to immigration from sh*thole countries. If the US thinks it is still leading the way to a better safer world, we doubt anyone wants to follow.
We’re likely to hear a lot tonight about how President Trump has finally put America First. We’re likely to hear about his defense of us, real Americans, against globalists and immigrants who have been fleecing us for a generation. As Americans, we know better, because we have a sense of history and we know how we got here. We won’t forget that the United States enjoyed unprecedented middle class growth by welcoming enterprising immigrants and laying the cornerstone for a global community that lifts up women, the poor, and the vulnerable. It’s our inconsistent application of these ideals, rather than our commitment to them, that has set back our progress as a nation.
This year, we will continue to challenge the threat that the America First agenda poses to our national identity and character, as well as global progress and stability. We will put women first and refugees first. We will put vulnerable immigrants and the poor first. We will put the most impoverished and vulnerable people all over the world first. We will take a critical eye to global institutions, but with a view to building them up and holding them accountable rather to all of us than tearing them down or cannibalizing them to enrich the wealthiest among us. Because we know that Americans and all people everywhere will prosper together or suffer apart.