The Progress Our States and Communities Are Making

On their own and in partnership with the White House, they have been giving us hope for the future, a top presidential adviser writes.
January 9, 2017
By Valerie B. Jarrett  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to President Obama

When President Obama took office in 2008, the world looked completely different from the way it looks today. We were in the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. The auto industry was on the brink of collapse, and 11 million people were unemployed and fearful of losing their homes. Eight years later, we've seen the tremendous promise and opportunity that President Obama's election represented in our states and cities. But state and local leaders never waited for a green light from Washington to move their communities -- and our country -- forward. By partnering with them along the way, we were able to make our country stronger, safer and fairer, elevating my hope for what the future holds for our country.

In Georgia, for example, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams worked across the aisle with her governor and colleagues to help those with criminal records more easily obtain occupational licenses. She gives me hope, and she's not alone. Since the president announced in 2015 that the federal government would "ban the box" for federal job applicants, giving formerly incarcerated Americans a fairer shot at a job after they've served their time, eight states have adopted the "second-chance" initiative -- six of them through executive action -- that provides a mechanism for reduced sentences for first-time offenders. Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia and more than 100 cities and counties now have fair-chance hiring practices in place for people who have paid their debts to society.

And in an effort to address persistent opportunity gaps and expand opportunity for all young people, the president launched the My Brother's Keeper Community Challenge in 2014. More than 250 communities in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, along with Washington, D.C., have taken the challenge. Most have hosted local action summits, and about 100 have drafted or released local action plans with specific recommendations and timelines to reduce disparities. Last year, New York became the first state to enact its own version of My Brother's Keeper, budgeting $20 million to support its efforts.

Public safety is another area where much progress has been made. We have seen law-enforcement agencies in every state implement recommendations from the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing to improve police-community relations. Included in this are the more than 130 local law-enforcement agencies that have committed to becoming more transparent by providing their communities with additional policing data as part of the White House Police Data Initiative. In addition, as part of the White House Data-Driven Justice Initiative, more than 130 jurisdictions -- cities, counties and states -- have committed to pursue data-driven strategies to address unnecessary, unhelpful and expensive incarceration, including working to move individuals struggling with mental illness or substance abuse (or both) who regularly cycle between jails and hospitals out of the criminal justice system and into more sustained and effective treatment programs.

State and local elected officials also have taken steps to address the tragic epidemic of gun violence, even as Congress has repeatedly and regrettably failed to act. In recent years, the governors of Connecticut, Virginia, Washington state and New York have proactively taken steps to address gun violence through executive action, and significant progress has been made in legislatures across the country. In 2015 and 2016, six states passed laws requiring background checks for private gun sales, while 14 enacted legislation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Connecticut, for example, passed a first-of-its-kind law that requires gun owners to surrender their firearms within 24 hours of being served with a temporary restraining order in domestic-violence cases. California enacted six gun-violence prevention bills last year alone. And just a few weeks ago, voters in California, Nevada and Washington state approved ballot measures to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

We're also seeing significant efforts to help working families. Mayor Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe, N.M., for example, raised his city's minimum wage, joining more than 60 local jurisdictions and 22 states, along with the District of Columbia, in answering the president's 2013 call to action to raise the wage. Among those states were four where voters raised the minimum wage via ballot measures in November's elections.

Giving all workers the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity also means ensuring that no one has to choose between caring for themselves or a sick family member and losing their job. Following the president's remarks at the White House Working Families Conference in 2014, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Washington state and the District of Columbia enacted paid sick days, either through legislation or ballot measures. In addition, 28 cities and counties have taken action on paid sick days, and 25 cities and counties have taken action on paid family leave. That's not all: Following a July 2015 White House report on the burdens of unnecessary occupational licenses -- such as a regulation in New Jersey requiring a license to shovel snow -- 10 states have proposed or enacted licensing legislation.

And since the president's announcement of America's College Promise, a program aimed at making two years of community college free for responsible students, Minnesota and Oregon have joined Tennessee in passing tuition-free community college programs, while legislators in 17 other states have proposed similar legislation. In total, at least 38 states, counties and cities have launched their own free community college programs.

Also giving me the hope is progress on climate change, as shown by the determination of more than 135 leaders who have signed on to the Compact of Mayors, committing to set goals for more ambitious pollution targets and to put forward transparent climate mitigation and resilience plans in their communities.

That's what change looks like. It has always come not just from Washington but from citizens and elected leaders around the country who have stood up and demanded it. President Obama has always believed in unleashing the innovative power of our communities to be "laboratories of democracy," and over the last eight years we have seen what's possible when the federal government partners with and learns from local leaders who insist on progress. They ensure that America's future will remain bright.

Valerie B. Jarrett | Contributor  |  @VJ44