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Congresswoman McCollum's Remarks at Minnesota Poverty: A Call to Action

May 7, 2014

Congresswoman McCollum's Keynote Speech
Minnesota Poverty: A Call to Action
May 1, 2014
[Remarks as prepared]

Good afternoon.Thank you, Clarence,for that kind introduction andfor your leadership in our community.

I am very proud of the work you and your entire team at the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties do every day to support families and seniors.You are on the frontlines working with ourneighbors in need.Thank you for all you do!

I am fortunate to be able to be here with all of you,to express our shared commitment to making our communities, our state, and our nation stronger.So thank you for your dedication to helping people build a better, sustainable future for themselves and for our communities.

You care about the children, families, seniors, and low-wage workers struggling to meet their most basic human needs –food, safe shelter, education, employment,
and healthcare.

You are delivering direct services,managing programs, conducting research,
and advocating for low-income families.You are making a difference in so many lives trying to overcome poverty.So thank you for your work.I believe in what you do andI want you to have the resources, the flexibility,and the successful partnerships to do even more.

Our nation must recommit ourselves to the goal of ending poverty.We must work to ensure all Americans have an opportunity to succeed in a job thatpays a living wage.

It was fifty years ago,when President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” President Johnson’s war on poverty wasprofoundly personal.Robert Caro,President Johnson’s biographer,said Johnson hated poverty andviewed it as an enemy.Caro explains:

"[President Johnson’s] father failed.He once had been a very respectedstate legislator and businessman,and he totally failed.And as a result,for the rest of his boyhood,Lyndon lived in a home that they were literally afraid every monththat the bank might take away.There was often no food in the house, and neighbors had to bring covered disheswith food.In this little town, to be that poor,there were constant moments of humiliation for him, and insecurity.It was a terrible boyhood.”

President Johnson’s experience with poverty was seared into his soul and it drove him to use his power as President of the United States totransform America. Johnson inspired the nation,mobilized Congress,and launched the Great Society.

Only five months after Johnson’s famous speech,the Economic Opportunity Act passed Congressand was signed into law. It created many of the services that our communities still depend on today:

Community Action;
Job Corps;
Neighborhood Youth Corps;
Head Start;
Adult Basic Education;
Family Planning;
Community Health Centers;
Congregate Meal Preparation;
Economic Development;
Foster Grandparents;
Legal Services;
Neighborhood Centers;
Summer Youth Programs;
Senior Centers … and the list goes on.

The following year Johnson and Congress worked to pass the Civil Rights Act,
the Voting Rights Act,the Food Stamps Act,Medicare, and Medicaid.

Johnson’s anti-poverty legacy continued beyond his term as president.Under President Nixon,the Earned Income Tax Credit became law.President Clinton added the Child Tax Credit. And,now because of President Obama’s leadership,we have the Affordable Care Act,which extended critical health care protectionsto all Americans.

The data is clear,between 1968 and 2012 –because of your work and the work of so many others committed to fighting poverty –an average of 27 million Americans per year have been lifted out of poverty.

In 2012 alone,economic security programs helped 45 million people out of poverty.These are important statistics, but it so much more.

Seniors now have access to healthcare because of Medicare and Medicaid.Millions of children no longer go to school hungry because of nutrition programs.

Mothers have received the job training they needed to find work, stabilize their lives,
and to help their children succeed in school.

Those who benefit from these programsare leading and making decisions about the future of their communities in the board rooms ofCommunity Action AgenciesYou know these people.You know their faces, their names, and their stories.

The “war on poverty” establishedboth a ladder of opportunity andan effective social safety-net for Americanswhen they need it most. But we are not done.I am not declaring victory over poverty,there is still more work to do!Yes, great progress has been made.A strong foundation is in place. But that foundation must be modernizedand strengthened.We must continue to fight to keep the safety net strong and make needed improvements to meet the changing needs of society.

In Congress,I’m taking a leading role to extend andmodernize two anti-poverty bills –reauthorizing the Community Service Block Grant,which funds our community action agencies,and reauthorizing the Older Americans Act. Both of these bills have bipartisan support andare critical to helping our nation confront the evolving challenges facing low-income Americans.

And there is still more work to do.We all know that poverty continues to persist in our urban, suburban, and rural communities.It’s suffocating the potential of too many ofour neighbors.

Economic, social, and health disparities for African Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans,and Latinos are profound, damaging,and unacceptable.Yet,some of my conservative colleagues in Congress seem to be oblivious to the fact that50 million Americans,including 13 million children,continue to struggle below the poverty line.

It easy for conservativesto cut funding,attack, and propose to eliminate programs
that help low-income families and seniorswhen they can pretend the poor simply do not exist. And when poor people become invisible,fighting poverty is no longer a political priority.And that is a serious problem.

We have a recent, shameful example of this.During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,as the Super Dome filled up with thousands of poor, infirm, and abandoned residents of New Orleans,the former director of FEMA was quoted as saying:“We’re seeing people we didn’t know existed.”

We are seeing people we didn’t know existed?

As long as poverty and the poor are ignored and made invisible – some people will choose to believe that they don’t exist.This is particularly true in politics.And we need to change this.

Together,we must ensure that the children, seniors,and low-income workers you serve are not only visible, but vocal and empowered in advocating for their rights.We need to strive to build a society where no American lives in the shadows.

There is a fundamental and distinct difference between our support for the social safety net andthose conservatives who deny the value and effectiveness of government support forvulnerable Americans.

To see this difference,we need not look back any farther than 2009 when our nation was in the midst of the Great Recession.Low-income and middle-class families saw all ora portion of their savings disappearand their discretionary income evaporate.

Our economy was on the verge ofan economic depression.Congress needed to act and so Democrats passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Actto strengthen the safety-net.

The law temporarily expanded SNAP,expanded the earned income tax credit and
the child tax credit,and extended unemployment benefits.

We invested in infrastructure projects that kept people working and over 1.2 million jobs were saved or created.

Parents were able to continue to put food on the table and support their families.

There were tax cuts for middle class familiesand our economy stabilized.

The Recovery Act was not a failure.It was a success!

But, many on the right condemned theRecovery Act.They stated that these investments in Americaand the American people werewasteful government spending.They ignored the fact that more than12 million Americans did not,did not fall into povertybecause of government action during the darkest economic period we’ve faced as a nationin seventy years.

Today,those same conservatives continue to ignore the social issues that contribute to keeping and making people poor.Low-income families are blamed forour nation’s problems –whether it’s incarceration rates orsingle parent families –shifting the political debate from a war on povertyto a mean-spirited and harmful war on the poor.

Let us support single-parents with childcare, healthcare and educational opportunities.These families deserve respect and our help,
not political scapegoating.Instead of vilifying people with this war on the poor,let us work togetherto help people transitioning out of prisonfind stabile lives and meaningful jobs.

Minnesota banned the box,now let’s “ban the box” all across the country.I hate to speak so starkly,but there is no sugar coating the political situation in Washington.Nowhere is this war on the poor more prevalentthan in my workplace, in the U.S. House –and that is clearly highlighted by theRepublican-Ryan budget.

Last month,the U.S. House passed the Ryan budget forFiscal Year 2015.This vote was unnecessary.A bipartisan budget agreement for the comingfiscal year had already been signed into lawfour months earlier. On a purely partisan vote,219 Republicans voted for this unnecessary budget.All Democrats opposed it.And, 12 Republicans opposed their own party’s budget because domestic programs were not cut enough.

So what does this Republican-Ryan budget do?

Over the next ten years,it would reduce federal spending by $5.1 trillion.

And how did they do that?

Two-thirds, 69%, of those cuts are taken from services for low-income and middle class families. This Republican budget repeals ObamaCare - again,dismantles Medicare,turns Medicaid and SNAP into state block grants,guts education funding,and reduces federal investmentsour communities need.

These deep cuts to vulnerable Americans are used to pay for an additional $500 billion in overall defense spending and tax cuts forthe wealthiest American households.

This budget is the Republican vision forAmerica’s future.The poor get punished,the rich get rewarded,and its middle class Americathat both pays the bill and gets left behind.

There is some good news though.This budget will not become law.

But this budget framework is a warning for all of us.It signals that Republicans find more value in exploiting anti-poverty programs for political gain, rather than investing in fighting poverty forsociety’s gain. The Republican-Ryan budget is their political roadmap and it’s a nightmare for America.

Friends,this budget makes the poorand those of us who serve the poor
political fodder for a campaign designed to demonize poor people and the services they need. And it is not just me saying this.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call described the Ryan budget with this headline:“House Budget Priority:Energizing Election Year Base.”The National Journal reported:“this long-term spending proposal is morean exercise by Republicans to provide votersa road map … of what they would do if they were totally in charge.”

Unfortunately,this is not some momentary phenomenon.I believe it is the new normal for the right-wing.It is shameful.It hurts our country.And it needs to be stopped, it needs to be defeated.

We saw this all play out last summer with the attacks on SNAP during prolonged and painfulFarm Bill debates.We were successful at preventing any cuts toSNAP recipients in Minnesota,but the unprecedented way nutritional assistancewas targeted and stigmatized was a warning about the potential future of every anti-poverty program.

Again, the good news is the Ryan budget will not become law this year.

But control of the U.S. Senate is uncertain following the upcoming election and the current bipartisan budget agreement ends next year.Then sequestration returns in full effect.

If Republicans win control of the House and Senate this November,
there is only President Obama to prevent truly devastating cuts to the services we care about.

I am taking the Republican – Ryan budget seriously, and let me tell you why.

In 2011,the Budget Control Act became law andintroduced the threat of sequestration. No one believed that Congress would be so irresponsible as to allow that threat to come to pass. But,we know how that story endedand today we are still dealing with the impact of the reckless cuts caused by sequestration.

That’s why we need to work together to stand up against the Republican-Ryan budget.The call to action as far as I am concerned needs to be to get all Americans active in supporting a strong and effective social safety-net.To do this,we should look to two current political movements as examples of how to activate and mobilize supporters.

First is the effort to enactcomprehensive immigration reform. The collective action of immigration activists,labor unions, faith groups,and non-profit organizationsare making a tremendous impact.They are making their voices heard in Washington and in their communities around the United States.Undocumented people of all ages,almost always poor and living in the shadows,are active, energized, and shaping an important policy and political debate at a national level.

Another issue that is mobilizing a broad coalition of Americans is the need to raise the minimum wage. I want to commend our State Legislature and Governor Dayton for their outstanding work to raise the minimum wage here in Minnesota. Their effort is critical to the economic security of tens of thousands of low-wage workersand their families.

Now, we need to do it in Congress.I support raising the federal minimum wageto $10.10 an hour.Earlier this year,President Obama signed an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay a $10.10 minimum wage.But we can do more.Implementing a $10.10 minimum wage would lift 4.6 million working people out of poverty and would help support more than 15 million working women.

We hear allot of rhetoric about giving poor people “lives of dignity” from my conservative colleagues. There can be dignity in work,but working for a wage that keeps people in povertyis called exploitation, not dignity.It’s time to raise the minimum wage.

Taking the lessons from these movements,we need to empower low-income Americans to be active participants in the political process.We must enable them with the tools to stand up,to speak out, and to become involved in the debate about our country’s future. And we need to hold politicians accountable.

Voters, including low-income voters,need to know if their elected officials are
fighting a war on povertyor fighting a war on the poor.

We must stand together –low-income Americans,anti-poverty advocates,
people of faith, labor unions,and middle class families –to champion an agenda that will move America forward and create opportunity for all our children.

We must fight back and ensure everyone’s voicesare heard.If that doesn’t happen,then the politics of exclusion and isolationwill take over.

In 1964,when President Johnson launched the war on poverty, the gross domestic product of theUnited States was just over $1 trillion.Today,the gross domestic product of the U.S. is approaching $16 trillion.We are the richest, most democratic, and most powerful nation on Earth.

We have the ability to meet our nation’s social, economic, and security challenges without leaving 50 million poor Americans behind.

We have the ability to end the politics of division and the stigmatization of the poor.

The greatest threat to our country’s future is not that investments in low-income and middle-class Americans will drive us deeper into debt.

Rather,we are at risk if we failto invest in quality education,expanding job training,
rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure,and strengthening our health care system.Failing to do this will result in our countryfailing to meet the challenges of an ever competitive global economy.

We need every child in America prepared to learn, able to graduate from high school,and eventually move into the workforce with specialized training or a post-secondary degree.This can’t be the hope or dream of a few,but instead it needs to be our expectation for all. It is our job to work to make that happenand to advocate for it.

And, as long as I am in Congress,I will be standing with you – shoulder to shoulder –to help you succeed whether it’s job training,a WIC program,or helping a homeless veteran transition to a permanent home.

Your work is important work,valuable work,and it continues to transform both individualsand our nation.

Just think about it,in the fifty years since President Johnson declared a national war on poverty –infant mortality has dropped,college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the workforce,and malnutrition has all but disappeared.

These successes have made our communities,our states, and our nation stronger.

Thank you for your compassionate workand for making a difference for the so many children, families, and seniors in need.

Thank you!