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Public Statements

Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act of 2014

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. President, I rise to talk about a whole series of issues--including unemployment insurance and the minimum wage--that are designed to help Americans attain economic mobility and get a fair shot to move up in the way our economy is designed to work.

This morning the Budget Committee had a hearing entitled ``Opportunity, Mobility, and Inequality in Today's Economy.'' We heard from three very strong witnesses, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. We talked about important topics central to understanding the long-held American dream: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to support your family, provide an opportunity for your kids, and have a fair retirement. But for too many--as the Presiding Officer knows--opportunity and mobility are especially hard to find and income inequality is growing.

I am an optimist. I know the solutions are here if we work to find them, and I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about some of the solutions. First, let's try to put a human face on the problem of inequality in our economy.

Income inequality in the United States is at a record level. It is higher in the United States than virtually any other developed country. President Obama has called income equality the central challenge of our times. The Presiding Officer and I share a Roman Catholic background. Last week the President was talking to Pope Francis in the Vatican, and they talked about how this is not just an American challenge but a global challenge.

According to the CBO, the average income of a household in the richest 1 percent in this country was nearly 180 percent higher in 2010 than it was in 1979 in real dollars. By comparison, the average income for a household in the middle 20 percent of the income distribution had only grown by about 25 percent--about one in seven--of what the households in the highest income levels had grown.

Since 1979, the top 1 percent of our population's share of national income grew from 8.9 percent to 14.9 percent. So 1 percent has 15 percent of the national income by 2010, but at the same time the bottom 80 percent of our American population saw their share of national income significantly shrink.

For me the issue is not just inequality because there will always be some inequality. Fate, luck, and health will produce some unequal outcomes. But what I think is great about this country is that while we can see inequality and tolerate some degree of it, what we will not tolerate is people being locked into unequal situations.

We want to have a society where people may be born poor or may have an accident or a fate that will have them in a lower economic status but they can still raise their ceiling and achieve all they can. But in the case of social mobility, the United States is now one of the poorest performing of the developed countries.

Today a child born into the bottom quintile in the American economic life only has a 7.5-percent chance of ever being in the top quintile. In a country such as Denmark in Europe--and we think of Europe as a more stratified society--that number is nearly double what the number is in the United States.

It is not just inequality, it is mobility. We are not giving people a fair shot, to use the words of the great American singer Curtis Mayfield, ``to move on up'' to their destination and that place where their dreams can take them if they work hard enough.

What we need to do is embrace strategies that let people move on up and have a fair shot to achieve. We don't only need to embrace strategies for success, we have to eliminate structures and eliminate barriers that lock people out of economic opportunities that they should be able to achieve similar to anyone else.

One solution is the minimum wage bill that we will start to talk about soon. It is about working Americans who are earning minimum wage or just above minimum wage and how this will affect them.

I think I can safely say the vast majority of Virginians would agree with this proposition: No one who works full time--8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year--should live in poverty. But today someone making the minimum wage earns about $15,000 a year, which is $3,000 below the poverty level for a family of three. If you are a single mom with a couple of kids--and so many people are raising children on their own--and work full time at the minimum wage, you are below the poverty level.

The minimum wage today is at a historic low. The minimum wage has lost 33 percent of its buying power since its peak in 1968. If the minimum wage in 1968 had just kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.71 per hour today and not in the $7 range.

Workers who regularly receive tips are treated even worse. They get paid a subminimum wage--what is called a tipped minimum wage--of $2.13 an hour. As long as you make $30 in tips a month, your company can pay you $2.13 an hour. Overwhelmingly these workers work in restaurants but not exclusively, and similar to other minimum wage workers they are predominately women.

Twenty-eight million Americans will receive an increase in pay if we raise the minimum wage under the bill that is currently before the Senate. It has been reported out of the HELP Committee, and we will take it up soon. More than half of those who will receive a raise are women. The vast majority are adult workers. Over 14 million American children have a parent who will receive a raise if we increase the minimum wage.

The Minimum Wage Fairness Act will boost the minimum wage to about $21,000, lifting families above the poverty line. In total--get this--the bill we will hopefully debate and vote on soon is estimated to lift nearly 7 million Americans out of poverty and above the poverty level. What could we do, as we debate, that would have more effect on people's lives than lifting 7 million people above the poverty level, which we would do if we pass the bill.

Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will increase GDP by nearly $22 billion as workers spend their raises in local businesses and communities. In Virginia about 744,000 of my fellow citizens will receive a raise. For this reason, business owners whom I talk to--not all but a huge number and especially small business owners--know that the minimum wage increase makes good business sense.

Yesterday I visited a supermarket just across the Potomac in Alexandria. It is called MOM's Organic Market. They have 11 locations in the DC metropolitan area and Philadelphia. They are contemplating opening another store in New York City. I met with the owner Scott Nash, and I talked to his employees. I asked the employees: How long have you worked here? The answer I got back was 7 years, 8 years, 10 years. They made it their practice to pay their employees a $10 minimum wage now, and they are going to increase it. They fully support the bill currently pending before the Senate to increase the minimum wage.

Scott Nash is not alone. We are celebrating a very important centennial this year. It is a centennial of one of the smartest things an American employer ever did. I will read a quote.

After the success of the moving assembly line, Henry Ford had another transformative idea. In January of 1914, he startled the world by announcing that the Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers. The pay increase would be accompanied with a shorter workday--from 9 to 8 hours. While this rate did not automatically apply to every worker, it more than doubled the average autoworker's wage. While Henry's primary objective was to reduce worker attrition, newspapers from all over the world reported the story as an extraordinary gesture of good will.

Here is the important part:

Henry Ford had reasoned that since it was now possible to build inexpensive cars in volume, more of them could be sold if employees could afford to buy them. The $5 day helped better the lot of all American workers and contributed to the emergence of the American middle class. In the process, Henry Ford had changed manufacturing forever.

This quote is not from some Democratic talking point. This quote is from the Web site of the Ford Motor Company--a press release they issued in January to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Henry Ford's novel decision.

There was an employer who knew the American economy was based on consumer demand and if workers could be paid more, they would buy more, it would help his company, and it would help America. The Senate can take action in this way, and the Senate can take action in other ways to give people a fair shot to move on up in American society.

In fact, we have already acted on a couple of bills I hope the House will pick up. We acted on immigration reform, which strengthens border security, creates a pathway to legal status and citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, and helps businesses and families. This eliminates a barrier that keeps people from moving up, and the CBO estimates it will significantly improve the American economy. Immigration reform is about a fair shot. Immigration reform is about moving up.

We also acted on ENDA, legislation to end discrimination in the workplace against folks based on sexual orientation. A person can't move on up and achieve their economic dreams if folks can fire someone at will if they don't like the kind of person someone is or who they love. So ENDA, which awaits action in the House, is also a bill about making sure people have a fair shot and can move on up.

We can act this week. We are now on the bill to provide unemployment insurance to those who are still struggling in the economy. Soon we will consider paycheck fairness for women. A person can't achieve all they can if they are going to be paid significantly less than their colleagues just because of gender.

In coming weeks we will also consider jobs skills and education legislation, which are real keys to economic opportunity for so many.

What we need to do is pretty simple. What the Presiding Officer did and what so many others in this Chamber did when we were Governors was to try to give individuals the tools to create their own opportunity, to create their own mobility, as well as to take the steps we could when there were barriers or structures in the way to move those out of the way so people had a fair shot to succeed.

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