Amber Clay ticked off all the things she could buy with an additional $2,000 that President Barack Obama wants to give her each year: clothes, diapers, wipes, gas to drive to work and, most of all, day-care expenses for her 19-month-old daughter.
“It would help make ends meet,” Clay said Monday while picking up her child at the Parent’s Choice Learning Center in Biloxi, which charges $122 a week for toddlers. “It’s the most stress in the world, wondering if I’ll have enough to pay for day care this week.”
Tripling the current $1,000 tax credit for child care is just the start. Obama’s $4 trillion budget also calls for a $500 tax credit for low-income families with two wage earners, a $1.4 billion launch of a program aimed at letting every “responsible” student in the nation attend community college for free, and major expansions in pre-school programs.
The president’s budget proposal, which was declared dead on arrival by Republican congressional leaders even before it was laid out Monday, seemed a determined attempt to restore the dream of upward mobility to America’s lower- and middle-income classes.
It would offer a belated Christmas tree of funding for education programs, work incentives and social services that might appear tailor-made for Mississippi, which had the nation’s lowest median household income over the last three years. Seven other southern states also on rungs near the bottom would benefit as well, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.
Republicans hold nearly all the top political jobs in those eight states, underscoring a fascinating dynamic as the president and the most conservative Congress that he’s faced square off for what promises to be a fierce annual duel over the budget.
Whether calculated or not, Obama’s plan offers to help poorer states – from Mississippi and Louisiana to North Carolina – whose leaders vow to block him on grounds the nation can’t afford his vision of big government.
In South Mississippi, officials of social service agencies greeted Obama’s proposals as desperately needed, while the state’s two Republican senators made clear the provisions have little chance of passage.
Families of only 18,000 of the state’s 150,000 day care-aged children receive state support. Obama’s proposal to increase the tax credit to $3,000 would “make a huge difference,” said Carol Burnett, the executive director of the Biloxi-based Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.
The benefits not only would give more children access to early childhood education, Burnett said, but they also would allow more parents to work without worrying about who would watch their kids.
“The need is enormous,” Burnett said. “It’s not a public assistance program. It’s really a work-support program. It’s a very important priority, in my opinion.”
Monet Santos, also mom to a 19-month-old girl at Parent’s Choice Learning Center, was also yearning for a president’s vision to turn to reality.
“With me going to school I don’t have much time to work,” she said. “A lot of it would go to day care because I have to be in school so I can get a better life for us.”
Officials at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College weren’t available Monday, but its eight centers would benefit in a big way if Obama’s plan ever gained traction.
David Baime, senior vice president of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said that it costs about $20 billion annually for nearly 11 million full- and part-time students to attend two-year colleges, with an average tuition of $3,347 for full-time students. Federal Pell Grants cover about $11 billion of the costs, though not all of that money goes for tuition, he said.
He said that Obama’s plan, “even just proposed, would mark a step towards universal post-secondary access to education in this country. What that means for people is opportunity, with more people being able to support their families.”
About 50 percent of Biloxi high school graduates each year end up at a community college, said Libby Berkshire, the head counselor at Biloxi High School.
Some use the schools as a springboard to four-year universities while others enter the job market.
While Obama’s plan might spark hope, she said, “there’s the assumption it won’t happen in time for this group of seniors.”
Such spending programs, even offset by $14 billion in cuts in programs such as federal crop insurance and even homeland security grants, appear to be a nonstarter with Mississippi Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker.
As if to underscore that point, Cochran issued a statement Monday making it clear that the “Republican-led Congress will insist on greater budget discipline.”
“Our country remains in a perilous fiscal situation, with debt levels projected to continue to rise to historic highs” said Cochran, the newly anointed chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The president’s budget does not address that fact and would actually increase our debt by trillions of dollars over the next 10 years.”
Wicker said that “Americans know that the administration’s top-down approach” has “stifled the middle-class and led to the weakest economic recovery in decades,” promising that the new Congress would “begin turning the page.”
Gordon reported from Washington. Zilbermints reports for the Sun Herald in Biloxi.