A picture of Senator Mazie K. Hirono
Mazie H.
Democrat HI

About Sen. Mazie
  • Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act—Motion to Proceed

    by Senator Mazie K. Hirono

    Posted on 2014-01-08

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    Read More about Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act--Motion to Proceed

    HIRONO. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Ms. HIRONO. Madam President, 50 years ago today President Johnson declared a war on poverty. He said: Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The [[Page S106]] cause may lie deeper in our failure to give citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing.

    He proposed a broad range of new initiatives to address these deeper failures: Medicare, Head Start, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and housing and transportation programs. These initiatives have given millions of people more opportunities to succeed and help them get back on their feet when they stumble. President Johnson called on Congress to take up these proposals because, he said, ``many Americans live on the outskirts of hope. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.'' That is still our task today.

    We have come a long way since 1964, but clearly the fight is not over. For years our American dream has been that if people work hard and play by the rules, they will succeed. However, the divide between the very rich and the very poor is as wide as it has ever been. Wages have stagnated, and more and more middle-class families struggle to get ahead and provide opportunities for their children.

    We have to carry on the work that began 50 years ago and update it for the needs of our modern economy. Let's keep fighting to create new, good-paying jobs and sustainable American industries. Let's make sure all Americans have access to the education and training needed to get those jobs and succeed. Let's work to make sure that as our economy grows, so do middle-class incomes and the opportunity to climb into the middle class and beyond.

    I wish to speak briefly about three ideas for these goals. First, let's increase the minimum wage so workers earn more than poverty-level wages. Second, let's make education more accessible from pre-K through college so that Americans are well prepared for the jobs of the future. Finally, let's strengthen the safety net programs that have kept so many out of poverty so working families can get through the tough times and get back on their feet.

    First, our economy has grown fourfold over the last 50 years, but the poor and middle class have not seen enough of the benefits of this growth. According to Census data, the economy is producing 45 percent more per person than it was in 1987, but real median income has remained flat.

    Workers earning minimum wage have fared even worse because today's Federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. The 1968 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, would be $10.68 today, not $7.25. That means the minimum wage has lost one-third of its buying power. It is no wonder our families are struggling. The minimum wage should be increased.

    Raising the minimum wage is important for many Americans, but it is particularly important for women. Most minimum wage workers--over 64 percent of them--are women. Today millions of women are trapped in minimum wage jobs.

    The Federal minimum wage of $7.25 yields only $15,000 per year for a full-time worker. If this woman is supporting a child or an elderly parent, as is often the case, their family income would be below the Federal poverty line. Their situation is even more dire in Hawaii, where the cost of living is much higher.

    Fighting poverty is a women's issue. Poverty hurts more women and children than men. More than 58 percent of adults in poverty are women. More than one in seven women--nearly 17.8 million--live in poverty. More than one in five children--about 21.8 percent--are poor, almost twice the rate for adult men.

    The low minimum wage hurts not only workers--and particularly women workers and children--it is unfair to taxpayers. That is because minimum wage workers are often eligible for food assistance, housing vouchers, and other safety-net programs. This means we taxpayers are subsidizing companies that pay their workers poverty wages. If we want to reduce government spending--and make more workers fully self- sufficient--raising the minimum wage is a good place to start.

    Second, expanding access to education--from birth to college and career training--will build new ladders out of poverty.

    When I came to this country as an 8-year-old immigrant, my mother enrolled me in Hawaii public schools. That is where I learned English and developed a love of reading. When I graduated from Kaimuki High School, I attended the University of Hawaii. The Higher Education Act of 1965 helped me--and millions of other students--pay for college through work-study and low-interest Federal student loans. Today we need to strengthen our commitment to our next generation of scientists, architects, teachers, and innovators.

    I know firsthand the power of a quality education. That is why for years I have been fighting for quality preschool in Hawaii and nationwide. Children in poverty come to kindergarten with half the vocabulary of their higher-income peers. If they start school already behind, how can we expect them to catch up? President Johnson helped pass the Head Start Act. This law helped millions of poor children attend preschool, while parents got the skills they needed to help their kids at home. Since then, we have reformed and strengthened Head Start quality, but, still, fewer than half of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds can get a Head Start seat. Fewer than 1 in 20 eligible infants and toddlers can get a spot in Early Head Start.

    The Federal Government cannot do it all. States and local governments want to do their part too. That is why Governors, educators, and legislators across the country--both Republicans and Democrats--have expanded State preschool in 2013. Let's support their efforts.

    This Congress I worked with Senators Harkin, Murray, Casey, and others to introduce the Strong Start for America's Children Act. This bill would create a Federal-State partnership for high-quality preschool. It includes elements from our PRE-K Act so States such as Hawaii that have further to go can have more support as they build their preschool system.

    The bill's supporters include parents, educators, business leaders, and even police. They recognize that we can pay for quality preschool now or pay later for law enforcement when kids drop out of school and commit crimes. Let's come together to get this done.

    While we need to focus on helping kids start kindergarten ready to succeed, we also need to improve access to higher education when they graduate from high school.

    With student debt skyrocketing, the Pell grant is a bedrock investment in college access. In 1978, the Pell grant helped pay for 75 percent of college costs at a 4-year public university. Today it pays for only a third.

    This year I plan to introduce the Pell Grant Protection Act, a bill to strengthen and preserve the Pell grant. There is also more we can do--like simplifying the Federal student aid process, improving work- study, and expanding access to adult basic education. I look forward to working on these and other efforts in the Higher Education Act and Workforce Investment Act this year.

    Third, let's strengthen our safety net programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

    These programs provide real hope and real opportunity for people. I know this because I have lived it. My mother raised three children by herself. Most of us have relied upon or known families who have relied upon food stamps or unemployment insurance. My mother's unemployment checks were a safety net for us, providing us with much needed temporary help. They gave us breathing room and put food on the table while she searched for work. I know the anxiety when the family breadwinner loses her job through no fault of her own.

    These safety net programs have helped keep millions of Americans out of poverty. Using the Census Supplemental Poverty Measure, the national poverty rate has gone down from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Without safety-net programs, the poverty rate would have climbed to 29 percent. Seniors would have been hurt especially badly.

    Thus, it is alarming to see many of my Republican colleagues calling to shred the safety net programs. They have proposed drastic cuts to SNAP, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and a host of other vital supports.

    [[Page S107]] The basic idea of the safety net is to prevent people from falling so far behind that they cannot catch up. So instead of making cuts, we should strengthen these programs and, of course, focus on creating jobs.

    With the challenges facing our families today, the war on poverty continues. Let's not give in to the naysayers seeking to dismantle our safety net. Let's not retreat in our efforts to help people climb out of poverty. Let's fight even harder to provide an opportunity agenda, one that reaffirms the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. If we work together, I know we can get this done.

    I yield.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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