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Kennedy Delivers Remarks On Poverty In America At The Center For American Progress

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I commend the Task Force for its exceptional work shedding new light on the problem of poverty. This report raises a number of interesting issues and is a wake-up call to both Congress and the President.

The release of the report is especially timely. Hurricane Katrina brought the problem of poverty into America's living rooms, but as the immense hardships have faded from our TV screens, they've faded from the public conscience as well. None of us can ignore the fact, however, millions of our friends and neighbors continue to struggle to survive.

The official number in poverty is 37 million - 37 million men, women, and children who can't put food on the table or meet the basic needs of their families. It's an appalling number - and there's ample evidence that the actual number is much more widespread. 37 million may just be the tip of the iceberg.

We have a responsibility to tackle this problem more effectively. We must make work pay, provide both security and opportunity, and protect the most vulnerable in our society — America's children.

We know that families living in poverty are now increasingly likely to be working families. Since the 1970s, the number of full-time workers in poverty has more than doubled - from 1.3 million then to 2.9 million today.

The fundamental promise of the American Dream is that hard work leads to success and a better life, but that dream has proved to be a nightmare for many families. We have an economy that works for Wall Street, not for Main Street. The economic growth of recent years has largely bypassed working families. Those at the bottom of the economic ladder have been left farther and farther behind.

Raising the minimum wage is a crucial first step in reform. We've been stalled for far too long in Congress trying to get our bill to the President's desk, but we've finally reached a bipartisan agreement on a fair compromise, and I'm very hopeful the President will sign it.

Raising the minimum wage is only a first step though. I strongly support the Employee Free Choice Act, which will give workers the ability to choose a union that will fight more effectively for better pay and working conditions. I'm grateful to the Task Force for supporting this important bill, and I look forward to its passage.

In addition to making work pay, we must provide greater security and opportunity to the millions who can't find work. As today's report points out, only 35 percent of the unemployed receive unemployment benefits. It's obvious that our unemployment insurance system is in dire need of reform to serve those who need it most.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must protect the most vulnerable Americans - the 13 million children living below the poverty line, an increase of 1.4 million on Bush's watch. One in five children in the United States now lives in poverty - the highest child poverty rate in the industrial world.

That's a sad reflection of our national priorities and a profoundly moral issue. As the Gospel teaches us: "Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." We are not doing nearly enough for the most vulnerable children in our country.

The Task Force calls on us to improve the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, two of the most successful programs we have to lift children and working families out of poverty.

I will also be introducing separate legislation to reduce child poverty. It calls for a 1 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans, to be used in a dedicated fund to combat child poverty and give America's poorest children better food, better health care, and better opportunities for the future. It's a sound investment for the nation as well — the cost of childhood poverty has been estimated at $500 billion a year in lost productivity, in potential earnings, and in higher health-related expenses.

In the 1960s, President Johnson led America in a "War on Poverty," and we are still fighting that war. Clearly, we have made progress over the decades, through Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, and other measures.

But it hasn't been enough. It is shameful that in the richest and the most powerful nation on Earth, nearly a fifth of all children go to bed hungry at night, because their parents are working full time and still can't make ends meet.

It is time for Congress to bring true hope, honest opportunity, and genuine fairness to those mired in poverty across the country. I look forward to continuing this battle with you in the current Congress. We have a new majority, and with hard work together, we can make real progress for the great goal we share. Thank you all very much.

• Today, 37 million people live in poverty, an increase of 5.4 million during the Bush Administration.
• 13 million children are living in poverty, an increase of 1.4 million under Bush's watch. One in five children in the United States lives in poverty - the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world.
• Since the late 1970s, the number of full-time workers in poverty has more than doubled - from 1.3 million then to 2.9 million today. One-third of welfare households have a full-time worker.
• The child poverty rate for Latino children (28.9%) is almost 3 times the rate for Caucasians (10.5%). The child poverty rate for African-Americans (33.6%) is almost three-and-a-half times the rate for Caucasians.
• 4 million elderly Americans live in poverty. An additional 2.4 million live on the brink of poverty. It is predicted that we will have a 41% increase in the number of poor or near-poor elderly Americans by 2015.
• 35 million Americans are hungry or on the verge of hunger, an increase of nearly 2 million under Bush's watch. One in six children are hungry or on the verge of hunger.
• During the 1960s and 1970s, the yearly earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker were roughly equal to the poverty level for a family of three. Today a full-time minimum wage worker earns just about $10,700 a year, almost $6,000 below the federal poverty guidelines of $16,600 for a family of three.
• To reach the poverty level for a family of three, a minimum wage worker would need to earn $7.98 per hour, that's $2.83 more than the current minimum wage.
• Great Britain implemented a minimum wage in 1999 that has had no adverse employment effects, and has lifted 1.8 million British children out of poverty.

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