President Barack Obama's new plans to help the middle class are not sweeping initiatives. They would not create big new government programs or thousands of jobs. By Washington standards, they're fairly cheap.
But the president's moves could provide a small boost for millions of Americans struggling to pay for care for children or elderly relatives, college and retirement.
"We . . . need to reverse the overall erosion in middle-class security so that, when this economy does come back, working Americans are free to pursue their dreams again," said Obama on Monday at a meeting of the administration's Middle Class Task Force.
The White House billed the moves as a preview of an effort that will be expanded upon in the full report of the task force, set for release next month. But a fact sheet released Monday outlined some specifics about how the ideas would work:
Child care. The administration is proposing to nearly double the child-care tax credit for families whose income is less than $85,000 a year. For those folks, the percentage of child-care expenses eligible for reimbursement via the credit would rise from today's 20% to 35%.
In dollar terms, the maximum credit for a two-child family making, say, $80,000 a year, would increase from $1,200 to $2,100. That's a $900 benefit.
The administration also is proposing to increase by $1.6 billion the amount of money in the Child Care Development Fund, which pays for child care for poor families, including those receiving public assistance.
Child care for an infant can cost up to $10,000 a year, noted Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, in a conference call this week with reporters. For many families, child care costs more than housing, Bernstein noted.
"These are serious budget issues affecting millions of working families," he said.
Dependent care. The White House is proposing to add $52 million to the Caregiver Initiative, a Department of Health and Human Services program that provides temporary respite care, counseling and referrals to critical services for hard-pressed families taking care of elderly relatives. According to the administration, this extra cash means the program will serve an additional 200,000 people.
The administration is also proposing to add $50 million to programs that subsidize adult day care, transportation and aides who help seniors bathe and cook.
College expenses. In perhaps the biggest move announced ahead of the State of the Union address, the administration is proposing to limit the amount of student loan money that a borrower must repay, to 10% of the borrower's income over and above a basic living allowance.
The proposal would also cap the amount of money a borrower must pay. For borrowing students who enter a field of some kind of public service, all remaining debt would be forgiven after 10 years of payments. For others, forgiveness would follow 20 years of payments.
Retirement savings. About 40% of working heads of households don't have any kind of employer-sponsored pension or retirement plans. The administration thus is proposing to require employers who don't offer such plans to enroll their workers in automatic, direct-deposit individual retirement accounts.
The administration also wants to streamline the process by which workers enroll in 401k retirement plans. (For more on the administration's retirement savings plan, read, "Can 'opt out' IRAs help the middle class?")
After Monday's rollout of these initiatives, some Republican leaders criticized them as not addressing the most important problem now facing the middle class: unemployment.
"Where are the jobs?" said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio in a news release.
White House officials said that the president is deeply concerned about the unemployment rate -- and that child care, college expenses and retirement are areas where the middle class felt squeezed even before the recession began.
"We don't think it makes sense to wait until the unemployment level comes down to an acceptable level before tackling the budget issues these families face," said Bernstein.
The White House can carry out some of its initiatives for the middle class on its own, by executive order. In other cases -- particularly those involving money -- they would have to be approved by Congress.
"In most cases, these are new versions of programs that were under discussion or are already in place," said Bernstein.
This article was reported by Peter Grier for The Christian Science Monitor.
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