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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, today, I wish to join my good friend, Senator Bayh, in introducing the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2006. This bill addresses a crisis afflicting too many communities and shortchanging the opportunities of too many kids in America: the absence of supportive fathers.

If we are serious about breaking the cycle of poverty in America and raising healthy kids, we have to get serious about the breakdown of families. We can do that without blame or fingerpointing. We can do it an openness to new ideas.

It is the same story all across America. More than a quarter of all families with children have only one parent present, and more than a third live without their father. And 40 percent of children who live without their father have not seen him their father in over a year.

Many single mothers are doing a heroic job raising their kids. They are working two and three jobs, dropping the kids off at school and daycare, and, quite simply, being both a mother and a father to their children. I appreciate the work of single mothers, because my own father was not around during my life, and my mother and grandparents had to step up to the plate to fill my father's role. But most people would agree that children are almost always better off with a father contributing his fair share, and the data shows this. Children are more likely to be poor and to do worse in school without a father in their life. And a healthy relationship between children and their father is important to healthy growth and development.

The Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act addresses these problems by removing government barriers to healthy relationships and responsible fatherhood. It improves the economic stability of parents who accept their parenting responsibility. Our bill sets a high standard for parents and helps them to reach it with incentives, support, and tougher enforcement of child support obligations.

We can't simply legislate healthy families and expect all parents to get and stay married. We can't legislate good parenting skills or good behavior role models. We can't legislate economic success for all families. But we can eliminate some of the roadblocks that parents face, roadblocks often created by the government. And we can provide some tools to help these parents succeed.

The first way this act removes governmental roadblocks is by eliminating a perverse disincentive to marriage in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program. Congress is now telling States that they may be penalized for serving married couples. That is the wrong message to send. There should be equality for two-parent families receiving TANF, and States should not be required to meet a separate work participation rate for the two-parent families in their caseload.

Second, this act makes important improvements to the child support system which affects noncustodial fathers as much or more than any other government program. We restore funding for child support enforcement and we require States to pass the full amount of child support collected along to the family. A father is more likely to pay child support if he knows that the money is going to his kids. Research from States that have implemented a ``full pass through'' confirm this.

We also require States to review the amount of child support arrears that are owed to the State and we clarify existing State authority to forgive such arrearages. A father who earns only $10,000 per year, and who has $20,000 of child support debt because the State billed him for the Medicaid birthing costs of his child, is probably going to work underground and avoid paying child support altogether. He needs an incentive to get a legitimate job and to begin taking care of his family. It is in everybody's best interest.

States are also providing funding to assess any other barriers to healthy family formation or sustainable employment created by their child support and criminal justice systems. They are encouraged to establish commissions to propose State law changes that would be in the best interest of children.

Another important aspect of this act is fostering economic stability for fathers and their families. This act establishes three employment demonstration programs. One program is supervised by courts or State child support agencies that serve parents who are determined to be in need of employment services in order to pay child support obligations. The court can arrange temporary employment services for the father rather than throwing him in jail for nonpayment of support. The second is a transitional jobs program that combines temporary subsidized employment with activities that help fathers develop skills and remove barriers to employment. The third program establishes public-private partnerships to provide fathers with ``career pathways'' that help them advance from jobs at low skill levels to jobs that require greater skills and provide family-sustaining wages and benefits.

These programs are modeled on successful initiatives in Indiana and Illinois and will be subject to rigorous evaluations to ensure the goals are being achieved.

This bill fixes the earned-income tax credit to increase the incentive for fathers to engage in full-time work and paying child support obligations. The EITC is one of the most successful anti-poverty programs because it rewards work and supplements wages that may be too low to support a family. Our bill ensures that the work incentives under the EITC also apply to noncustodial parents who pay child support. To be eligible for the enhanced credit, a low-income parent must be working and current on all child support obligations. We also accelerate marriage penalty relief for families who receive the earned-income tax credit. Perversely under the U.S. Tax Code, these families have been the last to get such relief.

Finally, this bill improves the Responsible Fatherhood and Marriage Promotion Programs that were funded by the Deficit Reduction Act. Funding is increased and all fatherhood and marriage programs are required to coordinate with domestic violence prevention services to reduce instances of domestic violence and promote healthy, nonviolent relationships.

This bill takes these steps because Congress needs to get serious about the problem of family breakdown. This is a problem that cuts across all income levels, religions, races and ethnicities, and communities across this country. There is no segment of our population that is immune to these challenges.

But some segments of the population are worse off than others. I would like to speak specifically, for a moment, about family breakdown in the African-American community--and not just because I, myself, am an African American. I am addressing this because I know, as Senator Bayh knows, and as most of my colleagues know, that a problem for one community is a problem for all of America. Hope deferred for one group is hope delayed for us all.

Around 70 percent of Black children are born outside of marriage. Of the 30 percent born to married parents, more than half experience a divorce. That means that about 85 percent of Black children spend some or all of their childhood in a home without their father. Fewer than 6 of every 10 young Black men are employed, and in some of our urban and rural areas the rate of unemployment is over 50 percent. Roughly one-third of young Black men are involved in some way with the criminal justice system. And young Black men have the lowest educational attainment among Black and White men and women.

These factors contribute to low marriage rates among African-American men. But by age 34, nearly half of Black men are fathers. And roughly two-thirds of all Black men leaving prison are fathers. I could quote statistics all day, but the bottom line is, as hard as some of these men try, it is likely that their children will also be denied the advantages of healthy parental relationships and married families. Their children will be more likely to live in poverty and to become young, unmarried parents themselves. Their children's life chances will be limited. The cycle of despair will continue.

But there is reason for hope. At the time of the birth of the child, most fathers are close to both the mother and their child. The challenge is to maintain healthy relationships between parents and to strengthen the early bonds between fathers and their children. The challenge is to improve economic opportunity for all parents so they can support themselves and their families. The challenge is to break the cycle by strengthening America's most vulnerable and fragile families.

That is what this bill does, and it is fully paid for by revenue raised by closing abusive corporate tax loopholes and blocking the exploitation of tax havens. This is a solid first step forward in removing government barriers to healthy family formation, and addressing the crisis of fatherhood among our Nation's low-income populations. I urge you to support the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act of 2006.



S. 3627. A bill to prohibit the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy from selling, distributing, or transferring elemental mercury, to prohibit the export of elemental mercury, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, last December, the Chicago Tribune published an in-depth report on the extent of mercury contamination in the fish eaten by the American people.

As I am sure my colleagues know, mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause serious developmental problems in children, ranging from severe birth defects to mental retardation. As many as 630,000 children born annually in the U.S. are at risk of neurological problems related to mercury.

In adults, mercury can cause major neurological problems affecting vision, motor skills, blood pressure and fertility. As many as 10 percent of women in the U.S. of childbearing age have mercury in their blood at a level that could put a baby at risk.

Mercury, in short, is a poison, and it often reaches humans through the fish that we eat.

Sampling conducted by the Tribune showed surprisingly high levels of mercury concentrations in freshwater and saltwater fish purchased by Chicago area consumers--fish like tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, and walleye. The Tribune series also reported on how existing programs at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have failed to adequately test and evaluate mercury levels in fish.

As someone who regularly eats fish, I was surprised at the range of species with high mercury levels in the Tribune tests. Fish is an excellent source of nutrients and other compounds indispensable for good health. More of us should eat more fish. But for all Americans--and especially pregnant women and other at-risk groups--there are risks to eating fish with high mercury levels. That's why we need to work harder to get at the root causes of mercury contamination.

You see, the long-term solution isn't eating less fish, or issuing consumption advisories, or printing labels on tuna cans, or posting placards at the supermarket. If we're really serious about making fish safer to eat, we need to reduce the amount of mercury in fish, which means reducing the amount of mercury used in industry.

But, the solution can't be just a U.S. one. Half of mercury settles near where it is emitted and the other half gets transported around the globe--often settling in oceans, lakes, and rivers nowhere near mercury sources. For that reason, we need a comprehensive, global strategy, and the two bills I am introducing today are designed to be part of that strategy.

My first bill, the Mercury Market Minimization Act, or M3 Act, establisbes a ban on U.S. exports of mercury by the year 2010. Such a ban, when coupled with a European Union proposal to ban mercury exports by 2011, will constrain global supply of commercially available mercury in sufficient quantities that developing nations that still use mercury will be compelled to switch to affordable alternatives to mercury that are already widespread in industrialized nations.

My second bill, the Missing Mercury in Manufacturing Monitoring and Mitigation Act, or M5 Act, requires the remaining eight of more than 30 chlor-alkali plants in the United States to complete the transition from mercury to alternative technologies.

Chlor-alkali facilities manufacture chlorine gas and caustic soda, important chemicals that serve as the building blocks of many of the products and plastics essential to modem everyday life. For decades, mercury was a key component in the chlorine process, but today, more than 90 percent of the chlor-alkali industry has switched to an alternative catalyst. Only eight chlor-alkali plants remain in the U.S. that still use mercury. The chlorine industry has instituted voluntary policies to help capture and reduce mercury missions into the atmosphere--with laudable success. The time has come, however, to finish these upgrades and end the use of mercury in the chlor-alkali process.

The amount of mercury emitted or lost by these eight chlor-alkali plants rivals the amount of mercury emitted by all of the coal-fired plants in the United States. In 2003, the average chlor-alkali facility released 1,055 lbs. of mercury into the air--six times as much as the 183 lbs. of mercury released by the average coal-fired powerplant. And it is likely that the actual amount of mercury released by chlor-alkali plants is even higher because of emissions that escape through unmonitored ventilation systems and other leaks.

The M5 Act also solves another gap in the current system; it puts procedures in place to track and report mercury input and output statistics in the chlor-alkali industry. The evidence suggests that between 2000 and 2004, the industry could not account for more than 130 tons of mercury, in addition to the 29 tons that were released into the environment. The EPA calls this ``an enigma.'' The M5 Act puts an end to this enigma and requires documented tracking of mercury.

Although this bill deals with chlor-alkali plants, it's important to acknowledge that coal-fired powerplants are a significant contributor to the mercury in our atmosphere. We must continue to pursue balanced policies that address those emissions, but our policy approaches on mercury cannot single out coal-fired power plants alone. In truth, the largest source of global mercury contamination is the continued worldwide use of mercury in developing countries, particularly in gold mining and general industry, even thought there are proven and economically viable mercury substitutes.

Mr. President, I believe these two bills will go a long ways towards improving the health of the American people. I urge the swift enactment of these bills.


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