As I was saying, I’ve been a Senator, and it’s been a great honor to serve the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts down in Congress. I've worked on the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, worked on the TARP bailout, trying to get a little accountability, taught for many, many years — but none of this was always my life.
Growing up was pretty different for me. My parents worked really hard. My dad sold fencing and carpeting He ended up as a maintenance man. My mom raised four kids —those are my three brothers. I am the cool, short one in the sunglasses. You know, you’re born with style or you’re not. What can I say?
But we were always hanging on to our place in the middle class -- pretty much by our fingernails. It got really bad when I was in junior high and all three of my brothers were off in the military. My daddy had a heart attack. We lost our car, the medical bills piled up, and we came so close to losing our home that you could feel the foundations shake. We were flat out of options when my mom, who was years old, took her first job. She went to work at Sears answering the phones — it was a minimum wage job so we could make the mortgage payment and keep food on the table. She is the tall one in the plaid dress. She is also the one who saved our home and she saved our family.
But it was really, really hard. And we came really, really close to disaster. And for a lot of families, this story does not end well. For a lot of families, no matter how hard they work, no matter how many coupons they cut, no matter how much they try to save, there is never enough to make ends meet. And for some families -- African-American and Latino families -- the system has been rigged for so long that there will never be enough to make ends meet. None of this is going to get better unless we make some fundamental changes in this country -- that’s what today is about. So here’s the deal: we all know that America is the great economic engine of the world. We have been through some ups and downs, but mostly, we just had decades of productivity and innovation from American workers and businesses that have just kept that GDP on an upward climb. You know, today, many corporations are recording record profits, the stock market is booming, inflation is low, unemployment has dropped below 5% -- all of the official markers for a healthy economy are there. It looks like everything is great. But who is doing great?
The average two-income family today is actually in much worse shape than a one-income family from a generation ago. Back in the early 1970s, I want you to look at these numbers, back in the early 1970s, families were doing well enough that they were putting away almost 12% of their disposable income in savings. That’s what you could afford to do in the 1970s. And revolving debt -- the kind of debt you end up putting on credit cards -- was about one-half of one percent. Families had money in the bank and not much debt -- that’s what was meant by a solid middle class.
Today, those numbers have reversed. On average, savings have been cut by two-thirds while debt has exploded. Do you realize that today’s families carry 15 times more debt than families did a generation ago? Think about it. Less savings. More debt. Families are living on the edge of a financial cliff and it is a long, long way down. Today, 1 in 3 Americans with a credit report is dealing with a debt collector — bills that aren’t paid. 18-year-olds are taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Last year, nearly a million families filed for bankruptcy -- you know, that is almost the same number of households in all of Middlesex and Suffolk Counties (MA) combined. That’s who went into bankruptcy.
The American economy may look great from the outside -- but for most of the families living in it, this economy looks very different. So the question is, how did this happen? What went wrong? How did families end up getting squeezed so hard? So let’s talk about some of the things that have changed.
First big one. Big change. Back in the 1970s, for example, less than half of women with children were working. Today, that number is above 70%. Now that hasn’t quite doubled what families are earning, but it means that, on average, these families have more income. So that should be good news, right? If we’re earning more, why the pictures about so much debt and so little savings?
And I’ve got to tell you, the easy explanation for lots of people is just blame ourselves. Fancy cars, iPhones, eating out too much, microwave ovens -- you hear these stories. People assume that America’s debt problem comes from wasteful spending. But here’s the thing, it is just not true. In fact, for the past 30 years, families have actually cut a lot of their spending.
Adjusted for inflation, the average family -- the family right in the middle -- is spending less on food, including eating out, less on clothing, less on furniture, less on appliances than they did a generation ago. The numbers are really just pretty conclusive on this. Now, you may have an Aunt Edna who shakes her finger at young families. But today, the data show most American families are not out there whooping off their money. They’ve watched their nickels -- but boy have they gotten slammed by the big stuff.
The big fixed expenses are truly staggering. Families today spend -- this is all adjusted for inflation -- 57% more on their mortgages. 104% more on health insurance. College, even at a state school, is through the roof. A kid today will pay tuition and fees nearly three times higher than in the 1970s. And with more parents with small children headed into the workforce to work long hours, the cost of childcare is enough to rock back almost any family. In fact, see what happens to it? Whoa! There we go.
It is no wonder that American families have blown through their savings and are taking on debt. After they deal with big fixed costs, there’s just not much left over for them to work with. Now these changes in spending mean that today’s families face a lot more risk.
When my parents needed extra money for something like car repairs or buying school shoes for my 3 brothers and me, they could cut back on the everyday items. And when something really bad happened -- when my daddy got sick -- my mother could go out and get a job to pay the bills. It was just a minimum wage job but it was all new money. Today, families don’t have that flexibility. They can’t cut back on health insurance or childcare. Lots of families have only one parent. And even in two-parent families, when something goes wrong when someone gets sick or hours get cut -- they just don’t have another way to produce a new paycheck.
So instead, they end up taking on a ton of credit card debt or going belly-up on their mortgages. So how did this happen? What changed? Yeah, what changed? That’s it. What changed is policy. We changed our policies. We went from a country that strengthened its middle class to one that bet on its wealthiest citizens and hoped that the benefits would eventually trickle-down for everyone else.
So I want to tell that story. I just want to watch that story. Here’s how the story starts. From the 1790s to the 1930s, we were a boom and bust economy. Start with the one in 1819 and go to the bust in 20008. So things would go well, the economy would grow for a number of years, then inevitably another depression or another recession would hit and families would struggle with lost jobs and lost homes. That’s just how this thing kept working.
But when the Great Depression hit, we pulled up our socks and said, as a country, we can do better than this. So we decided, together, that we would pass laws to make us all safer and we would create some real opportunities for all of our people. First, we decided to regulate the big banks. Woo-hoo! Glass-Steagall, FDIC insurance, the SEC, right? They were there to help make sure these crises didn’t happen again. And then the second thing we did, a truly great thing. We decided to invest in ourselves, in our people.
We invested in education, with things like the GI Bill and NDEA loans. We invested in world-class public universities. We built up our infrastructure -- created a national highway system. We invested in ambitious research like DARPA and the moonshot you just saw there. We invested. We invested in Social Security and later in Medicare because we said we’re all going to pitch in together to make sure that after a lifetime of hard work, people can retire with dignity. We strengthened the right to join unions so that workers could have a share in what they produce. That’s what we did.
We built a country to invest in us. And now, let me be clear, things were not perfect. Systematic racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry meant that opportunities were not spread around equally. But over time, we were bending in the right direction. And these government investments in education, in infrastructure, let us turn our hard work into real success for people all around this country. Before 1980, we made a real effort through our government to invest in our country’s future. We spent money on education, on research -- areas that benefitted a large part of the population. All of us together, through government, helped create opportunities. Because here’s the part, we made those investments together, and here’s the really cool part It worked.
It totally worked. Before 1980, the 90% of Americans -- they’re wearing baseball caps, the 90% of Americans -- the 90% of Americans who are not in the top 10%, the 90% of Americans got 70% of all the new income that was generated in that economy. Yes, that’s what we should be applauding. This was an America where you could afford to work and have a family. An America where I could go to college on $50 a semester. It was an America where my mother could support a family on a minimum wage job. Does anyone in this room think that any of that is possible today?
That you could build a secure life? That you could send kids to college on $50 a semester? At minimum wage, today, a minimum wage job will not keep a momma and a baby in a one-room apartment. That’s where we live now. And that is wrong.
The reality is that middle class life today is very different from what it was in my parents’ era, and even in my own. And that change is the direct result of some very deliberate policy decisions made by our government. The decisions to invest in the richest Americans.
So I want to talk about this. Part one of trickle-down was re-write the tax laws. Swayed by the lobbyists and the campaign contributions, politicians in Washington decided that the wealthiest families should pay lower rates than middle class families. Tax loopholes made it profitable for multinationals to go overseas. Giant corporations could stash their money in foreign countries and let the small businesses here at home be the ones to pay the full freight.
Once these tax loopholes were in place, it was easy then for the Republicans to say, “Hey, I’m sorry, there’s just no money for the other stuff." And look, if we’re going to be honest, it wasn't just the Republicans. There were a lot of Democrats who went along with that too.
And what was the result? The result is just about what you’d expect. We aren’t making the investments in the things we really need. Our infrastructure in America is crumbling. And it now gets a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. As a portion of our GDP, spending on research and development is now down more than a third.
And what about education? That great ticket to the middle class? Let’s face it, Head Start and public education isn't a priority for those who can afford to send their kids to private preschools and expensive colleges. Making sure that our kids get an education -- all of our kids, including African-American kids, including non-English speaking kids, including special needs kids -- takes money. And those tax cuts? Well, they have to be made up somewhere.
And the same is true in higher Ed, where the costs of an education are going up, but government support at state schools is now down more than 20%. After years of underfunding higher Ed in our state schools, it’s no surprise that student loan debt is exploding. So, that’s number one.
Number two: The second big trickle-down change was fire the cops. Not the cops on Main Street. The cops on Wall Street. They called it deregulation, but what it really meant was that a lot of powerful corporations could keep right on doing -- and do -- whatever they wanted to do and no one would stop them. Laws to keep banking separate from investing were repealed and the SEC was effectively neutered. And without a cop on the beat, Wall Street got even more greedy and more reckless. They built models based on cheating people. On cheating people on mortgages, on credit cards, on payday loans. They loaded up on risks and they put the whole economy in danger. And we know exactly how that turned out. 2008 was the biggest crash since the Great Depression. Every one of these changes is really bad for working families. But there was one that truly cemented the problems.
The system itself was corrupted to serve the wealthy and the powerful. Today, most politicians aren’t working for the average family. They’re working for the donors who support campaigns. They are serving the lobbyists who roam the halls of the US Capitol. Billions of dollars now flow into the pockets of American politicians to tilt them in favor of continuing the support for the wealthy. And be clear- it’s not just the campaign contributions. It is so much more. Look at lobbying dollars. I’ve got lobbying dollars up here.
No one has the exact numbers from the 1980s, but it is estimated that politically-active organizations spent about $200 million a year on direct lobbying of the US Congress. Think about that. That is a lot of money. By 2002, that number had skyrocketed to $1.8 billion. And by 2012, it had reached a shocking number of $3.3 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that is 7 times more money than lobbyists were spending 30 years ago. About three-quarters of this benefits nobody but corporate America. CEOs around this country have figured out that spending millions on lobbyists can yield billions in profits. And I’ve got to make this even worse- campaign contributions and lobbying? They’re on the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corporate influence.
Business executives and government officials spin through a revolving door, making sure that the interests of powerful corporations are always protected. Giant Wall Street businesses offer millions of dollars to their high-ranking executives to go work in Washington for a few years, making policies that will benefit exactly those same Wall Street businesses that sent them there.
And corporations and trade groups fund study after study that just so happen to support the rule or the exception that the industry is looking for. And that is why, despite tons of evidence showing how bad these policies are for working families, THAT is why nothing changes.
Remember the number that showed from 1935 to 1980, as total income increased in this country, the number that showed that the 90% got at least 70% of the new income generated. Well those days are gone. From 1980 to 2016, total income kept growing -- you remember the GDP slide from early on. Total income kept growing, but now it was divided very differently. The share of new income that went to the 90% was almost 0. Nothing. Not even one percent.
If you look at market income, the income that individuals earned before government and transfers like Social Security, the top 10% has taken nearly all of the new income since 1980. And for African-American families, dragged down by more than a century of systemic racism, the wealth gap in this time period actually got worse under trickle-down. I got a lot of numbers on this, but I’m just going to give you one. From 1984 to 2009, where we actually have some good numbers on this, the wealth gap between black and white families tripled. Tripled.
This economy is growing, but it’s really only growing for those at the top. Everyone else is left behind. And here is what makes the story really scary. A government that works just for those at the top is a government that can’t address other problems. Some of the biggest problems that we’re facing. Look, the world is heating up and climate change could destroy much of our land and our oceans. But so long as big coal and big oil are calling the shots in Washington, nothing will change.
Trade deals force US workers to compete head-on with imprisoned workers, with child labor in Guatemala and Jordan. But so long as multinational corporations call the shots in trade negotiations, nothing will change. Nothing. And one more.
A tech boom is leaving millions of people scrambling to piece together enough work to support themselves. But so long as Washington lobbyists keep the Labor Department at bay, people will be working harder and harder and have less and less. We face big problems. Really big problems. But the biggest problem we face is political.
Deliberate government policies that once favored working people now favor the privileged class -- billionaires are giant multinational corporations. But there is good news in this story. There truly is. If government has been taken over by the rich and powerful, then the rest of us can take it right back.
We can do this. We can make our government change its priorities and once again serve American families. And build a future for our children and grandchildren. The last thing we should be doing as a country is making more cuts, creating more loopholes, taking more cops off the Wall Street beat. We need to make regulations that create a level playing field between the big guys and the little guys and we need to enforce the law for everyone. Everyone.
You ever think about this? A kid who gets caught with a few ounces of drugs can be looking at jail time but a CEO who helps his bank launder a billion dollars of drug money gets a bonus. That is not right. We need to be investing in education, from preschool to college. To build opportunities for our kids. We need to be investing in clean energy infrastructure to help create new technology and new jobs and a healthier planet. We need to be investing in medical and scientific research because curing cancer and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s brings down the long-term costs of health care and it helps the people we love.
So here’s a question, can we actually do any of this stuff? Could we make these investments without going broke? If we tried, would we just bankrupt ourselves? Well I don’t think so. And there are lots of examples, but I want to give you one example of why I don’t think so.
If we got rid of the tax loophole that allows corporations to write off obscene multi-million dollar executive bonuses as a business expense, that would mean $55 billion over the next ten years. Now that one is not even the biggest loophole, but I’m going to stick with that. Because closing just that one loophole would be enough to give everyone on Social Security -- seniors, veterans, Americans with disabilities -- the same percentage pay raise that CEOs got last year. Does that sound fair?
Or look at it another way. It is just about enough to let every young person with college loans to refinance at lower rates and save some money. Yup. It’s also enough money to completely replace every water pipe in Flint, Michigan -- and 67 other cities. It would be nearly enough money to double the amount that NIH spends on both Alzheimer’s and cancer. So I just want you to think about that. Do a little bit of math. If we multiply what we could get from closing one loophole to about 20 other giant loopholes, and think about what we could do if we said that this country and this tax system should work for the American people, then we could build a real future.
This isn’t pie in the sky. These are changes, by the way, that the majority of Americans support. I know if you watch the news you believe that there is no issue in America that has more than 50% support. And actually, it’s true. There are real issues that divide us as a people. But these issues, these core how-we-build-a-future issues, bring us together. Raise the minimum wage. Refinance student loans. Support child care. Adopt family leave. Pass equal pay for equal work. Regulate the big banks. Expand Social Security. National surveys tell us that somewhere between 60-75% of all Americans support these changes. They’re there. The progressive agenda is not a Democratic agenda or a Republican agenda. The progressive agenda is AMERICA’s agenda.
It’s Congress that is wildly out of step with the American people. Out of step, because Congress is corrupt. Too many elected officials have sold out to corporate money and corporate lobbyists. I just want you to keep this in mind, the next time you hear someone talking about gridlock, remember, it works for someone. Special interests have invested millions and millions of dollars to keep things just the way they are. Don’t close the loopholes, don’t hold Wall Street CEOs responsible when they break the law, don’t shut down the dirty coal plants in the country.
Those lobbyists and those PR machines have done an incredible job of convincing most Americans that the situation we’re in today is inevitable. That there is nothing they can do to make a difference. But we CAN make a difference. They might have money and power, but we have our voices and our votes. This may be an uphill fight, but if we don’t fight, we can’t win. And the point is We CAN win. We’ve seen it happen.
After the financial crash, the banks spent more than $ million a day lobbying against the financial reforms, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But we won. We won that battle. We won it. And here’s the payoff. That little Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, been up and running about 4 years now, it has already forced the biggest banks in this country to return more than $11 billion directly to people they cheated. That is government that works for the people. And look. There’s action at state and local levels. 17 states are now raising the minimum wage, including states with Republican governors, so it can happen.
But making government work for us won’t happen overnight. Not overnight. But change is possible. And it starts with our government. The one that we own. Republicans make government the brunt of jokes, and sure, government gets things wrong sometimes. But there is a difference between a government that tries to get it right and work for us and needs help getting better, and a government that’s just plain working for somebody else.
Look at it this way. A weak government can’t police Wall Street. A starving government can’t invest in students. A torn government can’t move decisively against climate change, and a captured government can’t cut a better trade deal. Without government, we don’t build a stronger nation. And without government, we don’t push each other to be a better people. We need our government.
Look, I stand up here — I am not naive. We have all been through our share of fights. Lord knows I have. And more to come. We’re gonna have some fun. And look, I also get that lots of time we don’t win. But the worst thing we can do is lay down without a fight. You don’t win what you don’t fight for and you can’t make progress if you don’t aim high.
Our future is worth fighting for. And I hope that you will join in this fight. Because you already have everything you need to make a difference. The first one is what you do every day. Raise your voice. If you see things that are broken, tell people. Call your elected officials and give them an earful. And tell your family to do the same. Change starts when people engage.
It starts when you tell your skeptical sister or your father-in-law why they should care about the prospects of America’s families and what they can do to help. The second one is raise your hand. Volunteer. Volunteer to get somebody elected -- I know many of you will -- to get a law passed and get out there and advocate for what we believe in. Volunteer. Volunteer because democracy won’t survive on its own. It needs people to participate.
And one more really important thing: raise questions before you ever vote again. Don’t let the people who represent you skate by without taking a stand on who they plan to work for. So we’re Democrats, and we can put a lot of this together in a lot of ways, but I just want to do it as four questions. Just to kind of lock in your brain. And you can add to them if you want.
But here are four questions to get us started. Four questions that everyone, regardless of political power, should be forced to answer.
First: Will you fight to overturn Citizens United and reduce the influence of giant corporations and billionaires? Money in politics.
Second: Will you put more cops on Wall Street and tell them to hold corporate executives personally liable when they break the law?
Third: Will you commit to raise more tax revenue from the top 10% to support education, infrastructure, and research funding? The things we need to build a future.
And fourth: Will you strengthen the safety net for ALL workers? Full-time, part-time, gig, independent contractor, Higher Social Security, family and medical leave, health care, a chance to join a union — will you do those? There are more things to do. But these four questions start with taking back our government and making our commitment to a future that works, not just for the wealthy few, but that works for all our people. It’s not gonna be easy. In fact, it’s probably going to be pretty hard.
When I was a young mom, and I was on my own trying to get started in a career, there were days when I truly thought I wasn’t going to make it. But I’m one of the ones who got really lucky. My Aunt Bee came to live with me, and the second time around I married the right guy. But I could build something with my life because I lived in an America that gave people second chances. An America where you could pick yourself up and you could try again. An America of growing opportunities. And that is how the daughter of a maintenance man and a minimum wage worker from Sears could end up in the United States Senate.
Just let me say one thing: I believe in that America. And I believe that we can build that America together. That’s why I’m here. That’s why you’re here. And it comes to us at this moment in history to get ALL of America there. So thank you. Thank you for all you’re doing.
Speech from https://youtu.be/-WAUB1Q-b7I.