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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) On Senate Floor: “Working Families Need Congress To Be On Their Side”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a floor speech today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that Congress has a duty to make sure the people who do the work that makes our country run get a fair chance to aspire to the American Dream.  He highlighted support for three programs: a strong food assistance program, a richly deserved and long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, and an extension of federal unemployment insurance to help achieve that goal.

The full text of Harkin’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, is as follows.

“I am disturbed by the apparent shift in attitude by many elected leaders – some in this very body – towards the people who do the work that makes this country run.  They don’t sit behind desks.  They don’t wear costs and ties every day or wonderful clothes.  They don’t sit in air-conditioned offices.  They just do hard work.  It’s people you run into every day when you got to the local coffee shop and order your latte or who work in the restaurant where you go out to lunch.  It is the person behind the counter when you go to the department store to do your Christmas shopping.  They’re not the big wheels in our society. But they are the cogs and the inner workings that make our country run.

“There used to be fairly universal agreement that these people are the backbone of this country, and the foundation of our economy, and that our job as elected officials is to do all we can to ensure that all working Americans have a shot at the American dream.

“We used to agree that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you should be able to earn enough to support your family and keep a roof over your head, put some money away for a rainy day, and have a secure retirement.

“We used to agree that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, especially at a time of chronic unemployment, you should have some support while you’re looking for new work. We used to agree – on both sides of the aisle – that no child in this country should go to bed hungry at night.

“But in recent years, it has been alarming to see how these fundamental principles and values are being attacked in our public discourse.  For many, the new attitude is ‘you’re on your own.’  And if you struggle, even if you face insurmountable challenges, it’s probably your own fault. 

“There is a harshness, born of a benign neglect, toward those Americans who have tough lives, are ill-educated, marginally employed, or just down on their luck.

“It used to be that we only heard such harsh rhetoric from talk radio partisans trying to attract ratings.  Sadly, now it has become part of our everyday conversation here in the United States Congress.  We hear how minimum wage workers don’t deserve a fair wage because they are not worth $10.10 an hour.  We hear that unemployed workers should be cut off from unemployment insurance because they are becoming ‘dependent.’  But they are trying to support their families on $310 a week on average—and that ranges from $193 on average in Mississippi to $490 on average in Massachusetts.

“At a time when there are three job seekers for every job, we hear that it’s critical to take away food assistance from millions of individuals so that, supposedly, they will learn the redemptive power of work – as if young mothers working service jobs, laid off factory workers delivering newspapers, and unemployed families receiving SNAP benefits need to be lectured by members of the House of Representatives about work. 

“What has happened to respect for the people who do the work and want to work in our country?  What happened to our values – the basic moral truth – that people shouldn’t go hungry in the richest country in the world?

“And how did we get to the point where many of us value the work of day-traders pushing paper on Wall Street, but ignore the contributions of the people who work in day care centers, educate our children, and care for our elderly in the twilight of life? What about their value?

“I wish that the people who are pushing this harsh rhetoric could talk to Terrence, a father of three in Kansas City, Missouri.  He works 50 hours a week at Pizza Hut and Burger King to try to make ends meet. He can barely insure his 15-year-old car or purchase shoes for his three girls.  Last year, he lost his house. He told the Washington Times, ‘We work hard for companies that are making millions. We’re not asking for the world. We want to make enough to make a decent living. We deserve better. If they respect us and pay us and treat us right, it’ll lift up the whole economy.’

“Or they should speak with Edward, a father in Illinois.  Both he and his fiancé earn the minimum wage. He says:

“‘We have three children and our paychecks combined barely cover the necessities like a roof over our heads, gas and lights, and clothes for the kids. We wouldn’t be able to make it without government assistance like food stamps and a medical card. There is constant stress because we are living paycheck to paycheck and never have enough money. Everyone needs help sometimes, especially since the economy is so bad and it has made life even harder for working people. This isn’t about needing more money for luxury things, we need a raise in the living wage in order to survive.’”

“Edward and Terrance clearly are not lazy.  They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing – what we’ve told them they must do – to make it in this country, but they are slipping further and further behind through no fault of their own.  The fact is, our economy has changed, and it just doesn’t work for many families right now.  We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t true.  And we shouldn’t suggest that it’s Edward and Terrance’s fault, or that their kids don’t deserve to eat or to wear shoes. 

“We as elected leaders have an obligation to recognize the fundamental truths about the challenges working families face in our economy.  And we have a duty to support policies that will help these families both weather the continuing economic storm, and build a brighter future for their children.

“First we have to acknowledge the truth that – while we are moving in the right direction – our economy has not recovered from the great recession, especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  Jobs are still scarce.  There are 4 million people who have been pounding the pavement for at least six months looking for new work. There are three jobseekers for every one job.  Our economy is millions of jobs short of what we need. 

“In the past, when the job market was this challenging, politicians on both sides of the aisle agreed that the federal government had an obligation to step in and help the long-term unemployed while they are struggling to find a work.  The current federal unemployment insurance program was put in place in 2008 by President George W. Bush when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent; today the unemployment rate is 7 percent.  That’s the official rate.  Unofficially, when we include those folks who want to work full-time but can only find part-time work and those who have given up actively looking for work, the rate is actually 13.2 percent.

“Given that the unemployment rate remains high in many parts of the country, my colleague, Senator Jack Reed, and I have introduced a modest proposal to extend the current system of federally-funded extended unemployment insurance until the end of 2014. 

“It is vitally important that we extend this invaluable program, which is set to expire in just two weeks.  Almost 5 million American workers will exhaust their state unemployment insurance and lose their last lifeline before the end of next year.  We are their families’ last lifeline.  They are counting on us.  How can we even think of turning our backs on them?

“But instead of joining our call to action, some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are actually suggesting that an extension of this program would hurt jobless Americans.

“Senator Paul, for example, said last week that he didn’t support an extension of the federal unemployment program. He said:

“‘When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed … group in our … economy, and … while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you’re trying to help.’”

“A ‘disservice?’  Frankly, I don’t understand at all this kind of myopia, this harshness.  First of all, the maximum amount of unemployment insurance is no longer 99 weeks; it is 73 weeks.  That’s only for those who are unemployed the longest and it’s only in two states with the highest unemployment rates.  The rest of the states have access to at most 63 weeks; in Iowa, the maximum is only 40 weeks.

“Secondly, this is a desperately needed program.  Let’s be clear, unemployed workers are not living large on these insurance payments, which average only $310 per week nationally. And in some states it is less than that.  In Mississippi, for example, it’s $193 on average per week. The truth is that they are barely subsisting, barely hanging on.  And they are not sitting around watching TV and collecting insurance they don’t deserve.  In fact, you can only collect unemployment insurance if you have worked and paid into the system.  So basically, you must have already earned the right to benefit from this insurance program.  And you can only collect on the insurance if you are actively looking for work.

“Contrary to the statement of our colleague, it is not a ‘disservice’ to provide this meager compensation to the long-term unemployed – a benefit they have earned.  The only disservice is to float this absurd myth that jobless Americans want to be unemployed.  It is offensive to suggest that they are lazy and don’t want to work.  And it is morally repugnant to conclude that they will somehow be miraculously better able to find a job if we simply let their children go hungry.

“The same harsh thinking has crept into our national debate about the most fundamental aspect of our social safety net – food assistance.  Millions of American families depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to have enough to eat.  Such a basic thing—having enough food to eat.  Many of these folks are in working families.  In 2011, 41 percent of SNAP participants lived in a household where someone worked.  But over the last several years, my Republican colleagues have sought again and again to slash food assistance for struggling families. 

“The House-passed farm bill proposed $40 billion in cuts to the SNAP program.  If enacted into law, such draconian revisions to SNAP would have cut 3.8 million individuals from the SNAP program in 2014, and reduced already modest benefits for hundreds of thousands of additional families.  Other parts of their proposal would cut off benefits or prevent access in the future for some of the poorest adults – people for many of whom SNAP is the only income assistance available – or it would result in throwing 210,000 children out of their free school meals program. 

“Yet another provision would actually provide strong financial incentives to states to kick folks off of food assistance if they cannot find a job or get into a job training program. The House farm bill would allow states to cut off SNAP benefits to most adults who are receiving or applying for SNAP, including parents with children as young as 1-year-old, if they are not working or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.  This means that mothers with young children still in diapers could be cut off from the SNAP program even if they don’t have child care.  Forcing a mother to choose between employment and safe child care for her child is not progress!

“Nor is it realistic.  Unemployment is still high, that there are 3 jobseekers for every job opening, that training programs’ budgets have been cut back, and that 48 states have waiting periods for the largest training program (WIA).  So, never mind reality.  Republicans seems to think that denying food assistance will magically make people find jobs—despite the fact that the jobs don’t exist! 

“I fully support the goal of promoting work and helping struggling individuals get back into the workforce.  We all do. 

“But getting people into the workforcewill require a stronger, growing economy, with real jobs, and with strong job training programs that will help people get ahead. Promoting draconian cuts to SNAP benefits under benign-sounding ‘work’ labels does not make the effect any less harsh.

“What we’ve seen in recent years with respect to the SNAP program are not concerted and sincere efforts to help people leave the SNAP program because they’ve gained employment.  Or because the economy is getting stronger.  Quite the contrary, many Republicans just want to eliminate food assistance for families without regard for the true nature of the economy, or the effect on those families.

“In addition to acknowledging the fundamental economic truth that our job market has not adequately recovered and that, for many Americans, programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps are essential to basic survival, we also have an obligation to face another – perhaps even more alarming – economic reality.  For those at the bottom, working hard and playing by the rules isn’t enough anymore.  Hardworking people, who are working full time, sometimes multiple jobs, aren’t getting paid enough to make ends meet.  Full-time workers are living in poverty.  That is a fundamental failing of our economy, and it’s something that we as elected leaders have both the ability and the moral obligation to fix by raising the minimum wage.

“I have introduced a proposal with Congressman George Miller in the House of Representatives, the Fair Minimum Wage Act.  The bill will gradually raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10, link the minimum wage to the cost of living in the future, and provide for a raise in the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in more than 20 years.

“Since its peak value in 1968, the minimum wage has lost one-third of its buying power.  If the minimum wage had kept up with rising prices, a minimum-wage earner today would be earning $10.75 an hour, giving his or her family an additional $7,000 a year to spend on necessities.  Yet, right now, a minimum-wage worker who works full time and has two children still can’t earn enough to lift her family out of poverty.

“It’s no wonder that working people have to turn to the safety net.  In fact, a recent study found that taxpayers have to pick up the tab for millions of working families to survive—to the tune of $240 billion a year—because their employers pay such rock-bottom wages. 

“So taxpayers would definitely benefit from a raise in the minimum wage that helps families to be more self-sufficient.  And businesses will benefit too!  The biggest problem businesses – especially small businesses – face, right now, is lack of consumer demand and poor sales.  Putting money into the pockets of millions of low-wage workers will be a boon to small businesses. 

“In a poll earlier this year, two-thirds of small business owners said they support raising the minimum wage because they know it will help increase consumption and will reduce pressure on taxpayer-funded public benefit programs. 

“Some folks claim that if we raise the minimum wage, there will be negative effects on jobs.  But it’s just not true.  The most sophisticated empirical economic research conducted over the last two decades proves that minimum wage increases in the U.S. do not cause job loss—not generally, not among teenagers, and not among restaurant workers.

“In short, history shows us, time and again, that – despite all the cries of doom and gloom from richly-paid lobbyists and well-funded trade associations – there are simply no real negative economic consequences from a carefully planned, reasonable increase in the minimum wage. To the contrary, the benefits to the overall economy are enormous.  The Economic Policy Institute estimates that my bill would pump an additional $22 billion into GDP, supporting 85,000 new jobs as the raise is phased in over three years. 

“But most important of all will be the impact on the working families that will see more money in their paychecks each week.  Under this bill, 28 million American workers will get a raise, including 15 million women, 13 million people of color, and 7 million parents.  Fourteen million children have a parent who will get a raise.  This additional money will make a real difference in workers’ lives.  It could pay for 7 months of groceries or 6 months of rent; it could buy an additional 1,600 gallons of gas a year. 

“Some conservatives seem to think that the EITC should be the only answer to the problem of low wages.  But what this overlooks is that the EITC only helps families with children.  Childless adults who work full-time at the minimum wage actually earn too much to qualify, but the minimum wage is not enough for even a single person to survive on.  Moreover, relying exclusively on the EITC would simply shift costs to taxpayers, rather than requiring employers to pay a fair wage, and it would incentivize employers to pay even less in wages—even to those workers who do not qualify for EITC.

“The minimum wage raise we propose is particularly important for the millions of tipped workers who will receive a raise for the first time in 22 years.  Workers who receive tips will get a raise in their base wage.  These workers include not only restaurant servers, but also nail salon workers, pizza delivery drivers, coat checkers, parking attendants, and more.  Right now, under current federal law, employers are required to pay just $2.13 an hour and can ‘credit’ workers’ tips toward the rest of the employer’s minimum wage obligation.  Rather than supplementing wages, tips have virtually replaced wages.

“The current system is incredibly insecure for workers, and it often leaves them in poverty.  There is no predictability to tips.  Often, workers go home with only tips because tax deductions cancel out their cash wages. Here’s an example:  this is a real check to a restaurant server right here in Washington, DC.  All the wages went to taxes, so the server got a ‘check’ for zero dollars and zero cents!  How many folks go to work all day, all week, all month, and get a check for nothing?  Yes, she received tips, but what kind of security is that?  A restaurant server doesn’t know what tips will be like one day to the next.  They can’t plan for it, and certainly can’t raise a family on it.

“No one who works all day long should come home with a check for nothing.  That’s not what America is supposed to be about.  My bill will reestablish a fair balance between wages and tips by slowly, over at least 6 years, lifting the base wage for tipped workers from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage.  That’s much more in line with how the tipped minimum wage worked in decades past. 

“The National Restaurant Association claims it can’t afford to raise wages, but it says this every time we talk about raising the minimum wage.  This group opposes any minimum wage increase at any time.  But they can afford it.  In fact, the last minimum wage increase, in 2007 to 2009—which meant raises for workers like bussers, kitchen staff, and others who don’t regularly receive tips—did not hurt the industry.  In fact, the industry is doing remarkably well, as they admit.

“Let me close with one more statement from a real worker whose life will be improved if we here in Congress will step up and support the people who do the work in our country.  She has a lesson for us here in Washington.  Jackie Parkins works at a restaurant in Denver, CO, and she says:

“‘You’re talking about real people… You can sit in your ivory tower in the legislature and talk about economics and numbers and… jobs, but what you don’t understand is … there are real jobs … and real workers who have families that they need to support, and raising the minimum wage helps me support myself and my family and to advance… and to achieve the American dream.’”

“I believe in Jackie’s dreams and those of all hard-working Americans.  As we look ahead to Christmas and the New Year, I hope that all my colleagues here will take time over the holiday to think about all the blessings we have been given, all we should be thankful for.  And I hope we put ourselves in the shoes of those working people, who just want to build a better life for themselves and their children.  Think about the minimum-wage retail worker who works hard running the cash register, standing all day, but can’t afford to shop in her own store.  Think of the unemployed worker who must go to the local food bank because he can’t find a job and can’t afford Christmas dinner.

“We have a duty to make sure the people who do the work in this country get a fair chance to aspire to the American Dream.  When we return from the holidays I urge all of my colleagues to support a strong food assistance program, a richly deserved and long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, and an extension of federal unemployment insurance.  And let’s have a new year that’s filled with less harshness and a little bit more compassion and understanding for our fellow Americans.”