Georgia Lawmaker Stacey Abrams Tells How State Policymaking Can Help Families and Kids Succeed

Posted September 13, 2016
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Stacey Abrams surrounded by children

In this episode of Cas­ey­Cast, host Lisa Hamil­ton talks with Stacey Abrams, minor­i­ty leader of the Geor­gia House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Their con­ver­sa­tion focus­es on the broad role of state pol­i­cy­mak­ing in improv­ing the lives of kids and fam­i­lies. It also explores the respon­si­bil­i­ties and oppor­tu­ni­ties that state leg­is­la­tures have in address­ing spe­cif­ic issues, such as kin­ship care, crim­i­nal jus­tice reform and racial inequity.

Oth­er dis­cus­sion points include:

  • The impor­tance of reli­able data in policymaking.
  • How advo­cates can help ensure that issues affect­ing chil­dren and fam­i­lies are a leg­isla­tive priority.
  • Which children’s issues are ripe for polit­i­cal compromise.
  • What leg­is­la­tors can do to improve the lives — and futures — of kids grow­ing up in the South.

About Stacey Abrams

Stacey Y. Abrams serves as the minor­i­ty leader of the Geor­gia House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and as a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the 89th House Dis­trict. A grad­u­ate of Yale Law School, Abrams is the first woman to lead either par­ty in the Geor­gia Gen­er­al Assem­bly and the first African-Amer­i­can to lead in the House of Representatives.

Links and Show Notes

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Lisa Hamilton: State governments establish and enforce many of the policies that directly affect the well-being of children and families. This is particularly true for the millions of children, many of them children of color, who are living in low-income families and in under-resourced communities where opportunities for healthy growth and development are often out of reach. Today's guest will offer us an important insight into policy making at the state level and how it can improve the lives of children and families. Representative Stacey Abrams was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2006 to represent the 89th House District, which includes East Atlanta and surrounding communities. In 2010, she became the House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly.

As a graduate of Yale Law School, Representative Abrams is the first woman to lead either party in the Assembly, and is the first African American to lead in the House of Representatives. In her role, she has led the caucus to promote and pass legislation to increase educational opportunity, promote economic security, and improve the quality of life for all Georgians. More recently, Georgia's governor Nathan Deal appointed Representative Abrams to the state's Criminal Justice Reform Commission. We're delighted to have her here today. Welcome, Representative Abrams.

Stacy Abrams: Thank you so much for having me.

Lisa Hamilton: As a state legislator, what is your role in helping to improve the outcomes for children and families?

Stacy Abrams: I think that's the fundamental responsibility that we all have as legislators. We are entrusted with supporting and improving the lives of our citizens, and the most vulnerable among us deserve the highest level of protection, and that certainly would be our children and their families. To that end, that means passing budgets that support human services, that guarantee strong education. It's being certain that we do not put impediments in their way, that we recognize that children are developing humans. We have to be certain that our criminal justice system is reflective of the developmental challenges that face children. We have to support their families, recognizing that a living wage, that healthcare, that economic development are all part of how you create and sustain a vibrant community.

I think, as a legislator, it's our responsibility to think broadly about policies that support these, but also to be strong advocates against legislation that would create harm or would impede their progress.

Lisa Hamilton: At the Casey Foundation, we've invested for more than twenty-five years in Kids Count, which is a network of child advocates and data experts in each state that help to inform legislators, just like you, about the needs of kids and families. As a legislator, how do you go about finding information about data, about the problems you're addressing, or effective solutions?

Stacy Abrams: Not just because I'm talking to you, but I will tell you that I am a huge proponent of Kids Count. That data provides two pieces of vital information. First, it takes the narrative out of anecdote into empiricism, being able to demonstrate in terms of fact, hear the challenges that face these families, hear the issues that confront our children, and here's where we rank. That leads to the second part, which is, too often, we console ourselves that everyone has a problem, that every state faces these challenges. The beauty of Kids Count and the effectiveness of Kids Count data and other resources is that it shows us what we could become, that we are not immune to improvement, that we can do better. I think the data points help us understand where we are, but it also serves as a load start to show us where we could move.

Lisa Hamilton: That's wonderful to hear. Thank you so much for using Kids Count. That really means a lot to us. We know that in your role as a legislative leader, you have to help the body face so many complicated issues. How would you suggest advocates work to make children and family issues a legislative priority?

Stacy Abrams: As legislators, we are trained to think about issues in terms of our own experiences. My major admonition to advocates is to meet legislators where they are, not where you would like them to be. By that, I mean advocates come in with an incredible zeal and passion about the issues they're speaking about, but there is a presumption that people understand the concerns, that they understand or have experience with the issue. I think that that's always dangerous because a legislator doesn't have a beginning point. They can't feel it in a visceral way. If they don't understand why it matters, they're not going to give it the attention it deserves.

For example, in 2015, I led a study committee looking at the issue of kinship care, and I have very personal experiences with kinship care because of my parents having adopted my niece. Instead of using that as the advocacy point, I actually spent more time talking to my colleagues on the committee about their personal experience. By giving them a space to understand it in the context of their own experiences, of their own grandmother raising a grandchild, of a niece or a nephew taken in by an aunt or an uncle, of a family friend who's had a child living with them for fifteen years, by personalizing it to start and then moving into the policy is a much stronger opportunity to engage legislators.

I would say the second part of that is that you meet people where they are, and then you tell them why it matters. Too often, advocates will come in and say, "Here's the problem, and here's the solution," but if you don't do that interstitial piece, that piece that says, "Here's why it's a problem. Here's why it matters. Here's why action is necessary," then there is no urgency [inaudible 00:07:27]. The data that comes from what the Kids Count does, the information that advocates can bring to the table has to be contextualized in terms of why it should matter to me. Why, as a legislator, should I make this a priority with all the other things that are facing?

Lisa Hamilton: That's wonderful advice. Thank you. You mentioned a priority that you've pursued around strengthening families through kinship care. Could you talk about why you believe that issue is so important to help low-income kids and families, and what you think we can do to strengthen it?

Stacy Abrams: Certainly. Kinship care, just for your listeners who may not know much about it, is when non-custodial families raise children. It's most often a grandmother raising a grandchild, but it can be a grandfather. It can be aunts and uncles. It can be family friends, who we call fictive kin. It's when a child is taken in by another family, and the most important part of kinship care is that it tends to happen before you are involved with the foster care system. That's critical because once a child's in the foster care system, the likelihood of drop-out rates or behavioral problems go up, and the likelihood of long-term success is problematic. If children are kept in a family that they know, their likelihood of success increases.

Particularly among low-income children, this is a critical phase because it means they're not being displaced simply because they've had change in their family. Often, if they're placed in foster care, they lose the entire support system that they had. Kinship care preserves that family network. It preserves that community support base, and it guarantees, to a much higher degree, that these children will have a lasting, positive outcome. The challenge, though, is that the more frequent kinship care becomes in our communities, the less likely it is that the resources are getting to those families. Georgia, in specific, we worked very hard this year to start administrative support, so making certain that these new parents, who thought they were done raising children, they know about the resources that are available.

They understand that they can access Medicaid for those children, that they can access food stamps, particularly for elderly grandparents who are taking in children or on social security. You may have planned perfectly for your retirement, but you didn't plan for a five-year-old. Being able to access the resources for which you are entitled is that child is entitled to those resources. This is an issue that's not only endemic to the state of Georgia, but to states across the country, and it is most prevalent among low-income communities because of drug use, because of poverty, and because of prison.

Lisa Hamilton: I mentioned in your introduction that you have been serving on the state's Criminal Justice Reform Commission, and you just mentioned the criminal justice system. What are some of the priorities you have coming out of this work?

Stacy Abrams: I want to give great credit to Governor Nathan Deal, who has spearheaded criminal justice reform and has made this a centerpiece of his administration since 2011. I've been privileged to work with him on a number of changes that have been made, including making reentry easier for ex-offenders, reducing sentencing on nonviolent offenders, reducing sentencing and really fundamentally restructuring how we treat juvenile offenders, which is critical because if a child is treated as an adult criminal, you are simply creating an adult criminal. If a child is treated as a child who's made a mistake, the likelihood of rehabilitation is substantially greater, and it's economically better.

Most recently, I worked very closely with the governor's office to add a provision that will allow ex-offenders to apply for jobs through licensure. In Georgia, we have some strict licensing responsibilities, and so you can't become a barber without a license. If you're an ex-offender, if you're a felon, you can't get a barbers license. What we have are people who are in prison who are being trained to come out and get jobs that they, by law, are not allowed to even apply for. Luckily, working with the governor, we were able to reduce the restrictions placed on those licenses.

I'm also pleased that this year criminal justice reform included for the first time allowing ex-offenders to qualify for food stamps. If you're an ex-offender who goes back into a community, if you're trying to reunite with your family, if you're trying to reunite with your children, if you cannot access food stamps, which often is the building block of being able to stabilize your community, to stabilize your home life, then you are more likely to re-offend. This, I think, goes beyond simply helping criminal justice reform, and is really about how do you help stabilize families that are trying to get passed one of the most traumatic experiences imaginable?

Lisa Hamilton: We often read that politics are becoming more partisan and that that can often hinder results. Where do you see opportunities for both sides of the aisle to work together on children's issues?

Stacy Abrams: I'm smiling right now because my job is to be the minority leader. By definition, I do not have a sufficient number of votes in my caucus to win a single battle. I approach my job and I approach my role as a lawmaker with the understanding that my first responsibility is collaboration. It is my job to work with the majority to reach positive ends, because Georgians do not care about whether I'm a Democrat or a Republican. They care about what will I do to help improve their lives.

My first job is to collaborate. It's to work with Governor Deal, where we can, to improve kinship care, to improve criminal justice reform. When that doesn't work, the competition part is necessary, and so my second job is to compete, but even that competition can be respectful. Partisanship should not give you an excuse for boorish behavior. It is not an excuse for becoming ideologically driven at the expense of practical and pragmatic choices. Even when I'm competitive with the majority party, I try to do so in a way that's respectful of their philosophy, but also recognizes that, in this instance, I think the approach we are advocating is the right one and creating a space for them to join me. You always want to make it possible for people to think that you're right without having to say it out loud.

I think the third responsibility is accountability. Part of the reason that it's okay to be hyper-partisan is that everyone is blamed for it, so it's a pox on both our houses, but if you hold yourself out and say, "I should be held accountable not only for who I fight with, but how well I play well with others," when I hold that as my standard and I'm asking the people I asked to elect me to hold me accountable, that makes me behave better. I can't take credit for being a bomb thrower if I've told people that I'm not going to do that. I think it's collaboration. It's respectful competition, but overall, it's accountability.

Lisa Hamilton: Are you seeing any particular policy areas that seem promising on children's issues where both parties can collaborate?

Stacy Abrams: Absolutely. I've spent the last ten years in the legislature trying to implement this and the last six years as leader doing so. We have been very successful, as I said, on kinship care. That could not have passed without bipartisan support. While I was the first signer on the bill, the second signer was a Republican. I'm working closely with Governor Deal in criminal justice reform, which is an ongoing issue, and it's going to take years to resolve all of the damage done through Georgia's "two strikes you're out" approach to law enforcement.

We've also been able to do, I think, really important work with military families. This year, we were able to make changes so that children, who were special needs children, who received Medicaid in other states, when they come to Georgia, they now, for the first time, will also qualify for Medicaid. That means that those special needs children are not disqualified from support simply because of the state that they're in. I think there are opportunities for Medicaid expansion, and that will not come about without joint work from Democrats and Republicans. Right now, it's a little harder to get Republicans to agree, but I think we can do it, because Medicaid expansion will change the lives of 478,000 Georgians, and that means you're not just changing the lives of adults, you're changing the lives of the children that they touch. I think that that is, again, a bipartisan opportunity because you're supporting rural communities. You're supporting poor families. You're supporting working families, if we can get this done.

My responsibility is to constantly look at what are the educational opportunities, what are the economic security opportunities that we can pursue, and how do we make the shared responsibility for change the belief of both parties?

Lisa Hamilton: That's wonderful to hear. We know the outcomes for children of color are often lower than their white peers. Do legislators look at issues of racial equity when they are making decisions about funding and programs?

Stacy Abrams: Unfortunately, too often the conversation about race is used as an excuse not to act. I was recently having lunch with a couple of friends, and we were talking about the conversations of poverty that are too often racialized into nonexistence. The point being that because it is happening to a black family or a brown family, that there is lesser responsibility, and I would argue that it's exactly the inverse, that when you can support those families that are the most likely to be harmed, that are the most vulnerable, that when you create a system that is supportive and that recognizes the inequities that come with race, you're creating a system that then supports everyone.

Most often, particularly in the South, it's not necessarily children of color who are the largest population. They are the most likely to be in that population, meaning, by race, the likelihood of them falling into one of the pathologies that we're concerned about is higher, but as an aggregate number, it's most often white children who are the majority of the children of poverty, but when we focus on racial inequity, when we focus on thinking about how do you serve a Latino child in Southwest Georgia who is isolated? When you solve that problem, then you've solved the problem of then how do you support rural children everywhere, because a solution to the most difficult problems often lead to the best responses for everything.

Lisa Hamilton: As the demographics in our country continue to change, and we have growing numbers of children of color, we certainly know that will be an issue that legislators have to take up. You mentioned outcomes for children in the South. The Casey Foundation will release its 2016 Kids Count data book this summer. Each year, we find that children in the South and the Southwest are falling behind kids in the rest of the country. As a legislator in Georgia, what do you think can be done to help improve outcomes for kids in the South as a whole?

Stacy Abrams: We have to invest in those children. It's as simple and as complicated as that. Unfortunately, we are penny wise and pound foolish as legislators. We spend a great deal of time and effort focusing on stealing jobs from one state to bring to another. I have a particular disposition against, too often, the economic development idea that I'm just going to take someone else's job, because you're creating unemployment somewhere else when you do so. Point being that when that is your focus, instead of how do we grow opportunities at home, how do we grow capacity at home, we make poor financial choices. The same thing is true on our investment in our children.

Right now in Georgia, more than 56% of our public school children are children of color, and they are also the most likely to be impoverished, but that means that when they are eighteen years old, when they are entering the workforce, they are also the most likely to be ill-equipped to take the jobs that we’re trying to bring to the state. If we're not thinking today about the economic impact of under-educated, poorly resourced, medically fragile children then we are making not only poor moral choices, we're making poor economic choices. It is the responsibility of the state to produce a strong and vital workforce, and we are not doing that when we ignore, at our peril, the changing demographics and the explicit needs of children of color. In the South, in particular, and the Southwest, they are most likely going to be the core of our workforce for the next generation.

Lisa Hamilton: Representative Abrams, thank you so much for that powerful statement about why we need to make sure our young people today are prepared for the future. Thank you for your work in the legislature, and thank you so much for what you do for children and for Georgians.

Stacy Abrams: Well, I am honored to be on this podcast. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, and thank you for what you do. We can't do our work without knowing what our work is about, and the data and the support provided by the Annie Casey Foundation is transformative. I'm deeply appreciative for everything you do.

Lisa Hamilton: Representative Abrams, thank you so much for joining us today, and I want to thank our listeners for joining as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, rate our podcast on iTunes to help others find us. To learn more about our podcast and for show notes, visit our website, and follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter, @AECFNews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids, and all of you, a bright future.

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