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Transportation, Treasury, the Judiciary, Housing, and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations aCt, 2006

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Location: Washington, DC


TRANSPORTATION, TREASURY, THE JUDICIARY, HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT, AND RELATED AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2006 -- (Senate - October 17, 2005)

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I look forward to the opportunity to discuss this amendment and to the opportunity for the Senate to be able to express itself on the issue of increasing the minimum wage for the working families of this country. It has not been increased now for some 9 years. We have not increased the minimum wage for some 9 years. There will be those who will ask: Why are we thinking about increasing the minimum wage on this legislation? We have tried to get stand-alone legislation so that it could be considered. We have been unable to do that. We have been unable to get another vote on an increase in the minimum wage over these period of years.

In this particular appropriations bill, there is another amendment dealing with the increase in salaries for Members of the Senate. This will be the seventh increase we have had in 9 years, but we have not had an increase in the minimum wage over that same period of time. It does seem to me that there is a certain amount of equity, a certain amount of justice, a certain amount of fairness when we are talking about an increase in the salaries or the cost of living for Members of the Senate. We certainly ought to be considerate of the interests of those who have been left behind by the failure of Congress to support the increase in the minimum wage.

Who are the minimum wage workers? The minimum wage workers are men and women of dignity, first of all. These are men and women who work hard, play by the rules, are trying to provide for their families, trying to look out for their children, and trying to look after a parent. We know these are men and women who work in nursing homes and are looking after senior citizens, men and women who have contributed so much to this Nation, who have sacrificed greatly for this Nation by more often than not subverting their own kinds of interests and their own futures to the benefit of their children. Now, during their golden years, they need some help and assistance, and many of those who work and assist the elderly people in nursing homes are men and women who earn a minimum wage.

Who else are they? They are the men and women who clean the great buildings of American commerce every evening, hard working, going around and cleaning out those buildings. They are men and women of dignity. They want to do a decent job, and they do a decent job. They need to have a decent pay.

Many of them are workers working in schools as teachers' assistants, as teachers' aides. These are men and women who are working with seniors, who have made great contributions to our Nation. They are men and women who are working with children who are attempting to get an education. They are working part time or even full time as teachers' assistants.

Primarily, this is an issue involving women because 60 percent of those who would benefit from this legislation are women. More than one third of the women who are receiving the minimum wage have children. So an increase in the minimum wage is a women's issue, and since so many of the women who receive the minimum wage have children, it is a children's issue. It is a women's issue, and it is a children's issue. It is also a civil rights issue because 35 percent of those who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage are men and women of color.

So it is a children's issue. It is a women's issue. It is a family issue. We hear a great deal in this body about family issues, about family responsibilities, family obligations. These are men and women who are earning the minimum wage and who are trying to provide for their families on that minimum wage. They know they cannot do it. So they have one or two or even three minimum wage jobs. How much time do they have with their children? They are trying to provide for their children but have no time to spend with them.

I will give real stories of what families are going through, the sacrifices they have made, the lost opportunities, the conversations they were not able to have with their children, the missed birthdays that come and go, the Christmases that come and go and they do not have that gift for that child or they do not have those pairs of skates so the children can join other children.

The fact is that hard-working men and women in this country have not gotten a raise in 9 years, and yet we in the Senate are adjusting our salaries to inflation effectively for the seventh time in the ninth year. So we have a women's issue, a children's issue, a family issue, a civil rights issue, and most of all it is a fairness issue.

Americans understand fairness. Americans understand that if a person works 40 hours a week for 52 weeks of the year, they should not have to live in poverty, and these men and women are living in poverty. All we are trying to do is what we have done many times in the past.

This has not been a partisan issue. It has only been in recent years that it has been a partisan issue. If we look at this chart, we will see that over the period of the years when there was the first minimum wage, going back to 1938, it was 25 cents. There was President Roosevelt, then Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower increased the minimum wage. Democrats and Republicans. President Kennedy increased the minimum wage. So did President Johnson increase the minimum wage. Then President Eisenhower, President Ford, then President Carter, then Bush 1, President Bush, increased the minimum wage, and then President Clinton. So Republicans as well as Democrats have fought for an increase in the minimum wage, although over the period of these last years, that has not been the case. Every time we have tried for an increase in the minimum wage, we have been opposed by a Republican administration and by the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate. That is not fair. It is time we altered and changed that.

It is appropriate that we take a moment or two to look at what has been happening in our country: Americans struggling to survive in this economy, in what we call the Bush economy. Too many Americans are living in poverty. We have 1 in every 10 families living in poverty. One out of every five children in the United States now, one out of every five Hispanic Americans, one out of every four African Americans, is now living in poverty in the United States. If we look at the overall figures from years 2000 to 2004, 5.4 million more Americans are living in poverty today than were living in poverty in the year 2000. An increase in the minimum wage is not going to solve all of these problems, but it is going to help 15 to 16 million Americans become better off in regard to their economic condition to some extent.

Let us take a look at what has happened to the minimum wage over the period of recent years. This is the 2004 Federal poverty line. This red line indicates the minimum wage. Going back to the early 1960s, we saw that the minimum wage even exceeded the poverty wage. This is constant purchasing dollars. This is in constant real dollars. We saw an increase even above the poverty line. Then it bounced around just around the poverty line, and then we have seen now what has happened in recent times where the real minimum wage has fallen so far from the poverty line. Most Americans believe if one is going to work and work hard, they should not have to live in poverty, but this is what is happening in the United States over the period of the recent years. The total number of individuals who have fallen into poverty has increased significantly because of the failure of Congress to deal with any kind of increase in the minimum wage.

The amendment I have offered is a three-phase increase. It provides for an increase of 70 cents 60 days after it is signed, 70 cents a year after, and 70 cents a year after, from $5.15 to $7.25. It will put the minimum wage up to this level, which it will still be well below what it was in the 1960s through the 1970s and even up to the 1980s. It will certainly not recover all of its purchasing power, but it will make a very serious and important difference to millions of Americans.

For anybody who is viewing this discussion this evening, this chart is self-evident. What has been happening is an increased pressure on families' pocketbooks, which has virtually soared since the year 2001.

We find gasoline has increased some 71 percent; health insurance up 59 percent; housing up 44 percent; college tuition up 35 percent. These are basics.

If they can afford a car to be able to drive, or even participate in a car pool, we see the explosion in gasoline prices in spite of an Energy bill we passed here which did virtually nothing on this issue.

We continue to see the escalation of health care costs, housing has gone up, and college tuition. All this has gone up. What has not gone up is the minimum wage.

This chart shows what an average family is up against. The average costs for a family for health insurance premiums per year now is up to $10,880. If you look at the salary of a full-time, minimum-wage worker, it is $10,700. You wonder how in the world can they even afford one coverage, which is so important to families, which is to be able to provide health coverage. Of course they cannot afford it, and so they do without it. In some States, they get some protection from some of the safety net programs, but we have seen the increasing pressure on those safety net programs in recent years.

What would $4,400 mean, which is what it would be when the minimum wage is fully implemented? What would that mean? We have been encouraged by the living wage campaigns that have taken place in communities all over this country. They have taken place in Boston. They have taken place in Cambridge, MA, and other communities in my State. They have taken place in Baltimore and in many other cities--in Los Angeles. And they have made a real difference. It has made a real difference in the quality of life for people. In many of those instances when they go to a living wage, they go up to $12 or $14 an hour. We are only increasing this to $7.25. So we are going to be well behind the living wage that has been accepted overwhelmingly.

We know when it has been on the ballot in the States of Nevada and Florida, it has been passed overwhelmingly by the people in those States. People have overwhelmingly, when they have addressed this in all parts of the country, supported an increase. The only people who have not supported it have been the Republican leadership. We are going to give them an opportunity to address this issue on this legislation.

This is what it provides. The $4,400 increase means almost 2 years of child care, full tuition for a community college, a year and a half of heat and electricity--maybe not after this winter, when we are finding out in my part of the country on the natural gas bill they expect to have an increase of some 70 percent in the cost of heating oil and natural gas, but we know it would make an important difference in those terms--and more than a year of groceries or more than 9 months of rent.

Does this sound very excessive to those who believe we are already doing what we should for some of the most hard-working Americans?

This chart is enormously important. Although it doesn't reflect the human dimension of what families are faced with or what a difference in the minimum wage will mean, what it does do is show what has happened in relation to increased productivity. What does that mean? It means the production levels workers have been able to achieve. What we have seen over a period of years--this chart goes back to the 1960s. If you look at the minimum wage even prior to that time, an increase in the minimum wage has always reflected an increase in productivity. It makes sense. That is the best way to answer people who say this is going to be inflationary. It is not when you are increasing productivity.

This is what had happened. We had always seen the minimum wage had been kept slightly higher than productivity in the 1960s and going into the 1970s. Now what we see is productivity is up 155 percent over 45 years ago. What we have seen is the decline of the minimum wage. This includes the increase in the minimum wage that we had during the 1990s. We see the extraordinary decline. We have not seen the minimum wage go up to reflect the increase in productivity. We have seen the minimum wage go down, in spite of the increase in productivity.

We have workers working longer, working harder, being more productive. They are working longer hours. They are working many more months of the year than any other worker in the world--American workers. American workers are. We will have a chance to show that tomorrow, the comparison between American workers and other workers. We have American workers working longer, working harder, being more productive, and you would think the increase in the minimum wage would reflect it, right? Wrong. We do not see that increase reflected.

This chart shows again, all of these indicators, that the purchasing power of the minimum wage has collapsed over the last 50 years. The minimum wage now is the lowest in over 50 years compared to average wages. For years the minimum wage was reflective of what the average wage was. They tried to keep it about 56 to 60 percent, that was the desire for years for the minimum wage. But look what has happened. This is another indicator. The minimum wage is now 32 percent of the average wages for American workers. Look at the decline.

We are talking about a segment of our society. We are talking about a segment of Americans. It is all reflected in this--when we had the Hurricane Katrina, when we saw so many millions of Americans who had been left behind in opportunity, and they are getting short shrift in their wages. These are millions of Americans who are left behind, and that is reflected by the fact that the number of Americans living in poverty has increased.

We have some indication of what has happened as the minimum wage remained stagnant over this period

of time. We see Members of Congress have had an increase in salary of $31,600. People will have to answer to that, whether they are going to vote themselves a pay increase and vote down an increase in the minimum wage. That will be the issue that will be before the Members. That is why this particular measure is of so much importance.

We will have a chance to go through this in greater detail. This issue is most of all about fairness for American workers. We know there will be about 7 1/2 million Americans who will be affected by the increase in the minimum wage. The ripple effect on the wages of others of low income is expected to effectively double that. We are talking about impacting more than 15 million Americans--some obviously more than others. But we are talking about whether we are going to be one country with one history and one destiny and whether this institution is going to increase the minimum wage and try to begin to catch up for so many we have left behind.

We will take the opportunity tomorrow. Some will come out and refute this with the old arguments that this will be bad for the economy. This will be bad for the economy because it will have a inflationary effect on the economy. Let me show what this is, in terms of the economy. All Americans combined earn $5.4 trillion a year. This is all Americans. Increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 is vital to workers but a drop in the bucket in the national payroll. All Americans combined earn $5.4 trillion. An increase to $7.25 would be less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the national payroll, one-fifth of 1 percent. I hope our friends on the other side who say this is going to be an inflator, we are suffering difficult economic times now--all of which are true--will let me point out that this is one-fifth of 1 percent of national payroll. They will say that this is going to be an inflator? This doesn't hold.

We have seen in Great Britain they have increased their minimum wage to $8.85 3 weeks ago. They increased it to $8.85, and they have provisionally accepted a plan to go up to $9.37 next year. If you asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the adverse impact in terms of the British economy, he said: It has been good for the economy. It has been healthy for the economy. We have moved a million children out of poverty. We have moved families out of poverty. People are spending and investing and it has strengthened our economy.

We will have an opportunity to go through the traditional arguments: We can't afford this because it is an inflator. I hope our friends on the other side will be able to respond to that. They will also say this is going to mean job losses. We have gone through that time in and time out. We will have the charts to show at the times that we have increased the minimum wage it has actually meant increasing employment. That certainly has been true in more recent times that we have done it, and we have the charts to reflect that.

Then we will hear this is a decent idea but it only goes to--we should just have a training wage. We should not. We have already had that kind of debate and discussion.

Those are all arguments we are going to hear from the other side. Basically, they are rooted in the concept they do not believe that men and women who work hard, men and women of dignity, that they are entitled even to a fair day's pay.

We are not, even with the increase of the minimum wage, able to reach the poverty line for these millions of Americans. It does seem to me with all the things we have seen in this country in the most recent times, when we peeled back the veil of the American society, as had been done in Katrina and Rita, and we saw who was out there and who was adversely impacted, Americans said, Oh, my goodness, why have so many people been left out? Why have so many people been left behind?

This increase in the minimum wage is not going to solve all of their problems. It will not. But it will make an important difference to more than 15 million Americans who are hard working, trying to make ends meet, playing by the rules, looking out after their families. They certainly deserve this increase, particularly if we intend to increase the salaries for Members of the Senate.

Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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