In her book, Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America, Dr. Keri Day of Princeton Theological Seminary argues that the unfinished work of the civil rights movement is the economic freedom of Black people with specific emphasis on Black women in this country. She researched the ways the fictitious political images of the Black welfare queen masked the daily realities of the same Black women who hold together the civic fabric of communities (and save American democracy every campaign cycle). Day, an advisor for Children’s Defense Fund’s Partnership on Theologies of Child Well-being, calls on justice-loving people to advocate for public policy to help these women build assets. This, she suggests, would help to complete the work of this storied, yet unfinished, movement.
In last night’s State of the Union, it seemed President Biden had taken one of her courses. Nearly halfway through his address, Mr. Biden shifted into the theme of “finishing the job.” His unfinished homework seemed to be the fulfillment of the American Families Plan he announced in April of 2021, focused on expanding opportunities for children and families through affordable education, economic security and expanded tax credits.
With the passing of the gavel to a new, opposing House majority, the President’s reprisal of core policy commitments from the Plan could have been wishful thinking, mea culpa, seeds of promise for a forthcoming re-election announcement, or three equal parts of each. Either way, he referenced or alluded to three priorities for children and youth which the nation cannot afford to leave undone:
- Ensuring comprehensive paid family and medical leave
- Expanding the Child Tax Credit
- Extending the educational continuum, by including universal pre-K and two years of community college
President Biden made an open-ended invitation to legislators, and every citizen, to join him completing a job and a journey toward child well-being. Essential next steps, in his words, are to “make sure working parents can afford to raise a family with sick days, paid family and medical leave, and affordable child care,” then to “restore the full Child Tax Credit, which gave tens of millions of parents some breathing room and cut child poverty in half, to the lowest level in history.”
Taking each of these steps will make a powerful difference in the lives of children and families marginalized in Congressional deliberations. But overcoming what he powerfully framed as both moral and economic challenges of educating a rising generation may be most ambitious and aspirational.
“Twelve years is not enough to win the economic competition for the 21st Century. If you want America to have the best-educated workforce, let’s finish the job by providing access to pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds…Let’s finish the job, connect students to career opportunities starting in high school and provide two years of community college, some of the best career training in America, in addition to being a pathway to a four-year degree.”
In addition to enhancing the nation’s economic competitiveness, publicly funded and supported education prepares citizens for the franchise of and protects the democracy so recently paralyzed in the chamber where the President stood to speak. Adding four more years to the kindergarten through twelfth grade pipeline – by reaching our toddlers and serving young adults – will transform the body politic, as well as our place in the world.
So, I hope the political environment on the Hill does not make this the last word on this group of policy throwbacks to the American Families Plan (bunched into the laundry list that is every State of the Union). In fact, I’m sure the President’s will not be the last words.
In addition to making an invitation, Biden also started a conversation. By this I mean more than the inappropriate decorum and jeers from some of his detractors in Congress. While the pomp and circumstance of the most consequential political speech of the year is done, the conversation about the State of the Union is ongoing. The generation who would benefit from these policies has much to say. Last night they gathered for the Youth Response to the State of the Union. Their voices must be heard as a complement to the President’s and over the vulgarities of last night’s critics. Next month, CDF will publish and update of the State of America’s Children report. Its data on measures of child well-being should be part of our assessment of the country.
Until we answer the question, “How are the children?” and advance the policies that help them thrive, the State of the Union is Unfinished.