Title[ Strengthening Families in a New Economy
Date[ June 15, 2007
Location[ Spartanburg, South Carolina
Each year at this time we honor and think about the fathers who've been a part of our lives - the examples they've set, the sacrifices they've made, their successes and their struggles.
I think about my grandfather, who first became a father when my mother was born on a Kansas army base at the outset of World War II. He left to fight fascism in Europe while my grandmother stayed behind and pitched in on a bomber assembly line.
With the nation still dragging itself out of Depression, I imagine he must have felt uncertain at that time about what the future held for his family, and yet he returned to a country newly committed to opportunity - a country that gave him a chance to go to college on the GI Bill, buy a house thanks to the Federal Housing Authority, and move west to Hawaii to raise his family.
I also think about my father-in-law, Fraser Robinson. He raised his two children with his wife Marian in 1960s Chicago. They faced what other African-American families faced at the time - both hidden and overt forms of racism that limited their opportunities and required more effort to get ahead. And they faced an additional obstacle. At age 30, Fraser was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And yet, every day of his life, even when he had to rely on a walker to get him there, he went to work at the local water filtration plant while Marian stayed home with the children. And on that single salary, Fraser Robinson provided for his family, sending my wife Michelle and her brother Craig to Princeton.
And of course, though I did not know him well, every year around Father's Day I think of my own father. He and my mother divorced when I was only two years old, and for most of my life I knew him only through the letters he sent and the stories my mother and grandparents told.
In his absence, it was more difficult for my mother to raise me and my sister on one salary during the 1970s, and we struggled, at times turning to food stamps to get us through the month. And yet, through the support of my grandparents, the sheer will and determination of my mother, and the blessings of generous scholarships, I was able to attend some of the best schools in the country - schools that made it possible for me to stand here today.
It has not been lost on either Michelle or myself that our family's story has been America's story - a story of opportunity, and possibility, and the tireless pursuit of a dream that was always within reach. Our parents and grandparents were given no guarantees, and they certainly had their share of failings and hardship, but theirs was a country where if you wanted it badly enough, and were willing to work for it, and take responsibility, you could provide for your family and give your children the same chance.
There are fewer and fewer families who can tell this story today. Unlike my grandfather, the brave soldiers who return from Iraq and Afghanistan are lucky if they come home to a job that pays the bills, or even the benefits and care they've earned as veterans. Blue-collar workers like Fraser Robinson have seen their benefits decline, and their unions weakened, and their wages flattened while the cost of everything else rises. And as many of you know too well, single parents no longer have the support system that my mother did, with too many fathers financially unable to help raise their children even if they want to do the right thing.
Over the last few decades, fundamental changes in the way we work and live have trapped too many American families between an economy that's gone global and a government that's gone AWOL. Too many rungs have been removed from the ladder to middle-class security, and the safety net that's supposed to break any falls from that ladder has grown badly frayed. Many families face increased anxiety when it comes to paying the bills or finding ways to spend more time with their children, while others have tumbled into poverty, watching jobs disappear, and fathers leave the home. And even though the vast majority of mothers are now working - including single mothers - we haven't yet provided them with the support they need to raise their children.
I don't have to give you a history lesson in economics for you to know how this all happened, because many of you have seen it or even lived it. You've seen the factories close their doors and move overseas, leaving too many cities and mill towns without their biggest source of employment. I saw it when I first arrived in Chicago in the early 80s, where I took a job helping to rebuild neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings.
And today, it's not just factory jobs that are disappearing. As countries like China and India churn out more workers who are educated longer and better, revolutions in technology and communication have made it possible for American companies to automate some jobs and send others wherever there's an internet connection.
The jobs that remain pay less and offer fewer benefits, as employers have succeeded in busting up unions and cutting back on health care and pensions to stay competitive with the companies abroad that are paying their workers next to nothing.
The weekly earnings of American workers, which had steadily risen during the years our parents and grandparents were employed, have fallen more than twenty percent since 1973, and the minimum wage hasn't moved in ten years. This means that right now, a family of three with one minimum-wage earner is still more than $6000 below the poverty line.
Most Americans are vulnerable to these new risks, but without a doubt, the hardest hit have been those families who were most vulnerable to begin with. They are families who live in inner-cities and remote rural areas; they are disproportionately African American and Latino.
In the last six years, over 300,000 black males have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector - the highest rate of any ethnic group. In urban areas, more than 50% of black men do not complete high school. In one survey, nearly one out of every three African-American families said they experienced at least one of three hardships in the last year - overcrowded housing, a lack of medical care, or hunger. Without a job or an education, many black men simply cannot afford to raise a family - and too many have made the sad choice not to. Today, 54% of all African-American children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled since 1960. Now, many single moms - including the one who raised me - do a heroic job on behalf of their kids. But in an economy where a two-income family has become a financial necessity, a fatherless household takes its toll. Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and nine times more likely to drop out of school.
Providing these families with the same chances that previous generations have had is a daunting challenge, but it is certainly one we can meet.
Many of us here in this room have seen how this progress can be achieved. All across this state, the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families has helped countless families climb out from poverty by connecting fathers employment opportunities and encouraging them to take responsibility for their children. You have turned lives around and you have given so many children a better future and for that you should feel very proud.
I've also been blessed to see this progress myself. There was a lot of hopelessness in those South Side neighborhoods when I first arrived in Chicago as a community organizer. But we set up job training programs and after school programs and counseling programs and after a while, those neighborhoods started to come around.
Later, when I became a state Senator in Illinois, I made sure we expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit so we could put $100 million of tax cuts into the pockets of working families. I made sure we provided health insurance for another 70,000 children and 84,000 parents. And we expanded early childhood education to give kids the best possible start in life.
So we know what needs to be done when it comes to giving our families a fighting chance. And I think it's time we finally had a President who gets Washington to start doing it.
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of hearing that town tell us we can't.
For too long, they've told us we can't do anything about disappearing jobs and stagnant wages. They've told us that we can't lower our health care costs or the price of college tuition. They've told us that poverty is a nuisance to blame on the impoverished, not a moral shame that should outrage a nation. We're assured that the market will correct all our misfortunes, and that there's no problem that can't be solved by another tax break that the wealthy didn't need and didn't ask for.
Well, we have tried it their way for six years and we're ready to try something new. It's time to turn the page.
We are not a country that settles for survival of the fittest, but a people who have always fought for survival of the nation. That's how we got a GI Bill that sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. That's how we gave workers the right to organize and form a union. That's how we got Social Security and Medicare so that Americans could retire in comfort and dignity.
Now we have to do it again. And it won't be easy. We know that we can't put the forces of globalization back in the bottle. We cannot bring back every job that's been lost. We have to find a way to make this new economy work for us.
We also know that government cannot meet this challenge alone - that there is not a program for every problem we face. It will take responsibility and sacrifice from the American people; changes in habits and attitudes. We will need to work more, read more, train more, and think more. Parents will need to make sure their kids turn off the TV once in a while, and put away the video games, and start hitting the books. And there are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.
But just as we have individual responsibilities, at the dawn of the 21st century we also have a collective responsibility to strengthen that safety net, put the rungs back on that ladder to the middle-class, and give every family the chance that so many of our parents and grandparents had. This responsibility is one that's been missing from Washington for far too long - a responsibility I intend to take very seriously as President.
We know what we need to do to help every family compete and prosper in a globalized world. We know that we need to invest in the science and technology that will make America the home for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of tomorrow.
We know that to fill these jobs, we'll also have to get serious about educating our workforce for the 21st century. This means starting our kids in school younger, with more early childhood education opportunities like the four year old kindergarten program you've been trying to pass here in South Carolina. It means improving our public schools by recruiting thousands of new teachers and paying them more and asking more of them. And it means making college affordable for every American who wants to go by offering more loans and bigger grants.
And of course, in a world of increased risks and insecurities, we also know that every American needs a health care plan and a retirement plan that stays with them no matter where they work or even if they can't find work. That's why a few weeks ago, I introduced a universal health care plan that would not only cover every American by allowing the uninsured to buy into a similar kind of plan that members of Congress get themselves, but it would cut costs and save a typical family up to $2,500 a year.
So we know that we need this broader agenda to help families get ahead in this new world. But we also know that for the families who've been hit hardest by these economic changes, we have to help them get started before we can help them get ahead - we have to empower them to grab that first rung of the ladder before they start climbing. That's why today I want to lay out a plan that would strengthen some of our most vulnerable families by ensuring that they can find a job, stay out of poverty, and get the support they need to raise their children.
First, we need to ensure that everyone who is willing to work can find a job. Since South Carolina has lost 83,000 manufacturing jobs in the last six years and 60,000 more people are out of work, this certainly isn't easy. But it's a promise we have to keep in this country.
So, for those Americans who have been searching unsuccessfully for employment, I will invest $50 million in programs that will place willing workers into transitional jobs and train them for permanent ones.
These programs have already proven to be highly successful in the many communities that have tried them. People get the chance to work in a community service-type job, earn a paycheck every week, and learn the skills they need for gainful employment. And by leaving with references and a resume, often times they find that employment.
Still, even for those workers who do find a permanent job, many times there is no way for them to advance their careers once they're in those jobs. That's why we'll also work with community organizations and businesses to create career pathways that provide workers with the additional skills and training they need to earn more money and keep climbing up that ladder to middle-class security. Unions and various communities have done this quite successfully, and this program would build on that model.
The second step we'll take to strengthen families is to ensure that working Americans are not impoverished Americans.
One of the most successful anti-poverty programs in history has been the Earned Income Tax Credit - additional income that lifts nearly 5 million Americans out of poverty every year. As President, I will double the number of single workers who receive the EITC and triple the benefit for full-time workers making the minimum wage, from the $175 they get today to $555.
And instead of waiting every ten years for Congress to fight over raising the minimum wage, I will finally make the minimum wage a living wage by permanently indexing it to inflation so that it actually pays the bills.
The third step we'll take to strengthen families is to give them the support they need to raise their children.
As President, I'll start by passing the plan I outlined last year that would make it easier for fathers who make the responsible choice and harder for those who avoid it. It's a plan that would remove some of the financial penalties the government currently imposes on married couples, cut out the red tape to ensure that every dime of child support goes directly to children instead of bureaucrats, and provide fathers who are paying their child support an even larger EITC benefit. This plan would also crack down on those who avoid their responsibility by increasing child-support enforcement, a measure that will collect nearly $13 billion in payments that can help raise, nurture, and educate children.
We should also help new mothers with their new responsibilities. There is a pioneering Nurse-Family Partnership program right now that offers home visits by trained registered nurses to low-income mothers and mothers-to-be. They learn how to care for themselves before the baby is born and what to do after. They are counseled on substance abuse, creating and achieving personal goals, and effective methods of nurturing children.
Where it's been tried, this program reduced childhood injuries and unintended pregnancies, increased father involvement and women's employment, reduced use of welfare and food stamps, and increased children's school readiness. And it produced more than $28,000 in net savings for every high-risk family enrolled in the program. As President, I will expand the Nurse-Family Partnership to provide at-home nurse visits for up to 570,000 first-time mothers each year.
My plan would also support families with children by expanding the Child Tax Credit to an additional 600,000 more Americans, who would receive $1,000 per child. And for all those families where both parents work and don't know what to do when their child has to stay home sick for the day, my plan guarantees every worker seven paid days of sick leave each year.
None of this agenda will happen overnight, nor will it be easy to get done. But then again, America's story hasn't been all that easy itself. It is filled with tales of those who risked and struggled and beat the odds because they knew that this is a place - perhaps the only place - where such triumph is always possible. Because they believe that the pursuit of happiness is not just a phrase in a declaration, but the founding promise of our country - a promise that sustained our parents and grandparents through war and depression, racial and social strife, heartache and hardship.
It's a promise that sustains this generation still.
The other day we heard from a young man named Joshua Stroman who's from right here in South Carolina.
Joshua never knew his father, and when he was very young, his mom and stepfather both died from cancer. He was then taken in by family members who were involved with gangs and drugs. He experimented with that lifestyle for a bit, and his low point came when he went to jail at eighteen years old.
That's when he decided that his story would have a different ending.
He began to find comfort in his faith, and when he left jail, he moved in with an aunt who expected him to behave well and study hard. And he did. He is now at Benedict College and will be president of the student council there next year.
But he told us that of everything that's out there, his biggest dream is to someday stand in the front yard of his own home with his wife and kids, who will hug him and say, "I love you, Daddy."
It's a dream that could not be simpler or more profound - a dream that, in some form or another, has probably animated the journey that so many fathers and mothers and young men like Josh have taken over the generations. He has turned his life around because he held close the belief that it was always within reach. Now it is our task to turn this country around so that we can prove to him and so many others that they were right all along. I look forward to working with all of you in making this happen. Thank you.