Along with the Obama family and the rest of the current administration, Cecilia Muñoz is preparing to leave the White House, ending her eight years as the top-ranking Latina in the U.S. government.
Muñoz acted as a top adviser to Obama on immigration, but her work expanded far beyond that ]issue. She was also the president’s policy advisor, director of the Domestic Policy Council, and head of Intergovernmental Affairs. She strived to enact policies and proposals at state and local levels and advised the president on policies, including the Affordable Care Act.
In an interview with NBC Latino, Muñoz praised the work of the administration, saying that it “has been extraordinarily consequential for the Latino community … even though we would have like to have accomplished immigration reform.”
Muñoz, who previously oversaw the policy staff for the National Council of La Raza — an organization that advocates for Latinos in civic engagement, civil rights, education, and other important issues affecting Latinos in the U.S. — pointed to “education, access to health care, jobs and the economy” as the “primary issues in the Latino community.”
As evidence of the effectiveness of the Obama administration, the Census Bureau recently released data showing that, in addition to raising the median income by a greater margin than has ever been reached in the past 40 years, policy makers under Obama have also been successful in closing income gaps and raising graduation rates among Latinos.
“So it’s not just that we lifted the economy for everybody, it’s that we were trying to be deliberate about making more progression the communities that needed it the most, and it worked,” said Muñoz. “What that demonstrates is that kind of change is possible. We can close the gaps we’ve been fighting (to close) for so long and I take enormous pride in that.”
While nearly one in five Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 consider themselves as being in “debt hardship,” it is minority communities that have historically been hit the hardest. Between 2014 and 2015, the median income of Hispanic-origin households increased 6.1%.
Muñoz also cited a breakthrough in efforts to increase graduation rates for Americans of all socioeconomic statuses. In his 2013 State of the Union address, the president called for efforts to make preschool available for every four-year-old in the country. Muñoz told NBC Latino that the administration had come up with a plan and figured out how to afford it, but it didn’t get past Congress.
“We didn’t get Congress to get there, but we made progress in 34 states and for the Latino community the preschool development grants we invested in — this is money we fought for (and) won, we got out of Congress multiple years in a row — half of the Latino children under the age of five benefit from those grants. That’s extraordinary,” said Muñoz.
Studies show that kids who attend a preschool program do 21% better on math and reading tests in kindergarten than children who do not attend. Students who receive a quality preschool education are also less likely to drop out of high school, which may be a primary factor contributing to the increased graduation rates among Latinos.
Finally, Muñoz expressed a hope that in coming years, young people and the public, in general, remain engaged.
“The public’s engagement is paramount in a democracy,” she stated. “If we don’t stay engaged, then bad things happen.”