Kirsten E Gillibrand

Keynote Remarks at the Social Mobility Summit - January 13, 2014

Kirsten E Gillibrand
January 13, 2014— Washington, D.C.
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MS. SAWHILL: Good morning, everyone. Hope everyone is feeling bright and cheery this morning. It is sunny and a reasonable temperature again. I’m Belle Sawhill. I am a co-director of the Center for Children and Families here at Brookings, along with Ron Haskins. And we have invited a group of experts from around the country to join us today for the first annual Summit on Social Mobility in the United States. It was organized by colleague, Richard Reeves. And we’re really delighted to have so many wonderful experts here to talk about this issue all day. But if we’re going to put social mobility on the agenda in the United States and figure out what to do about it, we’re going to need help from people in public life. And so it is just a tremendous honor to have someone with us today to begin to help us address these questions.

Senator Gillibrand was first appointed to the Senate by the governor after Hillary Clinton vacated her post. And then she was elected on her own in 2010 for a six-year term. She has worked on all kinds of issues. I read her bio and looked at her website and there’s so many there that I couldn’t begin to list them all. I think probably she’s best known right now for her advocacy of ending sexual assault in the military.

Now, some people have referred to her as the next Hillary Clinton. And Harry Reid, very uncharacteristically, I think, for him, once referred to her as the hottest member of the Democratic Caucus. (Laughter) And I can’t imagine Senator Reid saying that, but evidently he did. Now, as the mother of two young children, and one of only 20 women in the Senate, she is especially focused on the needs of women and families. And she believes the women’s movement has stalled out and wants to see at least half of all Senate seats and half of all governorships be women in the future. And I want to heartily endorse that goal and I want to add to it one that I’m sure she would agree with, which is I would like to see a woman president of the United States before I die. And Senator, maybe it will be you. So it is with great pleasure that we welcome you to Brookings and I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that we’re really looking forward to your remarks.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Thank you, Belle. Well, thank you, Belle, for your leadership and for hosting today’s forum. I think this is going to be a very interesting conversation that, frankly, the American people are having at every kitchen table today.

I want to thank the Brookings Institution for bringing us all together to talk about a topic that is really vital to the future of this country and to talk about some fresh ideas to give more children and working families basically the opportunity they need to achieve their potential.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of an all-out war against poverty, ushering in a new era of commitment to security and opportunity for every single American, no matter their circumstances that they were born into or whatever kind of hand that life dealt you. The same week we marked this milestone in American history, the Senate and the House had a chance to do one simple act to live up to that promise: by extending a lifeline to one 1.3 million jobless Americans; 1.3 million Americans who, through no fault of their own, who want to work, who need to work, and are diligently looking for work. They were denied this lifeline, this basic lifeline that keeps them afloat during tough economic times for no reason but politics.

Democrats and Republicans may well have honest disagreements on the best way to grow our economy and create jobs for all those Americans who are ready and willing to work, but we should be able to agree on a basic core principle. We should stand by those who are struggling and never leave anyone out in the cold. But all too often this is exactly what happens here in Washington for reasons most would find inexcusable. It’s the same old political game being played with the SNAP initiative, better known as food stamps, which the House of Representatives would like to cut $40 billion over 10 years. They would have us all believe that they’re just cutting waste, cutting fraud, abuse, ending free rides on the taxpayer dime. But the reality is when you’re cutting food stamps you are just taking food off the table of families in this country, taking food out of the mouths of hungry children, taking food away from seniors who are on fixed income, from veterans who gave their lives for this country and everything for this country who are at a time of need. That’s actually who you are taking food away from.

And it makes me angry because all we hear about from the other side is that those on government assistance are somehow scamming the system or lazy. I’ve never met a lazy child who’s hungry, have you? I’ve never met one man or woman who is on unemployment benefits or who needs food stamps who wants to be there. They don’t want to be there. They would prefer to be working, providing for their children, feeding their children. I’ve never met a mother whose children are well-fed who is on food stamps.

And on top of this economic hardship, a lot of these families it’s a loss of confidence, it’s a loss of dignity. And that’s all the motivation that they need to work as hard as they can to find a new job and to regain that stability that their family so desperately needs. That’s what the 1.3 million Americans are fighting for: a job, an opportunity to work. And this assistance is meant for them as their safety net.

So when politicians callously attack those receiving government assistance they’re not attacking the nameless and the faceless. They’re attacking our kids, our seniors, our veterans who have given so much. I think we need to do much better. It’s not who we are as Americans. We are all in this together and we have to create the federal policies that reflect those core values.

Now, I know we will hear a lot of politicians finding a new sense of compassion and empathy over the weeks and months ahead. But when you look at their policies, they fall short of those words. We see policies that trade off cutting food assistance to families that need it to protect billions of dollars in profits for insurance companies that don’t need those guaranteed profits. If you look at the policies, they will gut Head Start. There’s not a parent in America who doesn’t know that early childhood education is the difference between their children reaching their full God-given potential and not. You will see policies that are designed to cut Medicaid. What is Medicaid? It’s access to health care for those who need it most.

Simply put, these are not the priority of a nation that fulfills its moral obligation to those who need help. These aren’t the policies of a nation that does what we can to support Americans who have fallen on hard times. Children and families who are hurting and hungry need more than a slogan, so we should at least agree on this: Let’s do more than just find the right way to talk about it. Let’s actually look, as Democrats and Republicans, for policies that focus on our core shared values and protect those who are struggling to make ends meet.

Now, I’ve traveled across my state of New York, and the stories of struggle actually haven’t stopped. Parents are working their hardest to get by, to provide for their kids, but the reality is that things seem to be working against them. For as far as we’ve come and for all those who have been lifted up since LBJ took poverty head-on, the fact is income inequality today is at record level. College affordability is slipping away. Seniors are working longer hours for less money. And contrary to the basic American value that we reward work in this country, the real value of workers’ wages is on the decline. As a result, families are having a tough time. But all along, the American dream hasn’t changed. We still all, as Americans, dream of getting an education, providing for our families, raising our kids, paying for college, and making sure we have some money for retirement.

But the rules of earning the American dream have changed. The skills and tools that all but guaranteed our parents our grandparents a place in the middle class won’t cut it today. The world has changed and our economy has changed. And most importantly, the American family and the face of the American workforce has changed significantly. And that’s where I see the greatest potential for reviving a middle class, an opportunity for all those who are fighting to make it there. The new faces of our workforce over the last four decades are now women. In fact, women are increasingly the new family breadwinner. Women are the primary wage earners for a growing share of homes across America.

In 1960, only 11 percent of families had the female, the mother, being relied on for her wages to provide for the kids. Today, that’s 40 percent. Forty percent of wage earners in America are mothers who are the primary wage earners to provide for their kids. Forty percent of the families with children under 18 rely only on the mother to pay the bills, make those tough choices at the kitchen table, and feed their kids. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at America’s workplace policies today. They’re fundamentally stuck in the past.

Congress and state capitals across the country simply have failed to keep pace with the new economy and the modern American workplace. The key to creating growing economy and the key to an American middle class is built to thrive in the 21st century is women. Without doubt, if given a fair shot, women will be the ones who will ignite this economy and lead America to a revival of its middle class, and that’s what I want to focus on today. It’s called the American Opportunity Agenda. It’s a set of five basic principles that will modernize the American workplace with policies that empower women and families, and give them the chance to earn their way and get ahead into the economy, achieve their full potential, and basically reflect the values of our nation.

First, rebuilding our American middle class relies on keeping every woman who wants to be in the workplace in the workplace earning a paycheck. Now, this is a situation that many in this room may well have faced. For anyone who has ever had a new baby or a sick family member or a dying mother or father who needs care around the clock you know what that feeling is like when you have to make a choice between providing for your family and staying in the workplace or caring for your loved one at home. Choosing between your loved one and your career is a choice that no person should ever have to make, but this is a choice that’s happening every single day. And more often than not, it’s the woman who will choose to leave the workforce to care for that family member. When they do, they will earn less income. They will miss out on raises and promotions and they lose out on retirement benefits. This can set women behind. It risks their future success and it risks the stability of their own families.

And it can also hurt businesses. Today’s lack of paid family medical leave keeps some of our most highly skilled, best trained, hardest workers out of the workforce. Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree America’s strongest asset is our people. We should change our policies to reflect that and give working parents a fair shot. The Family and Medical Leave Act we have today basically provides for unpaid leave, job-protected leave for serious health events. But only about half of our workforce actually qualifies for unpaid leave and many more given that opportunity can’t afford to take the time off. But Congress can and should do much more to support these workers and strengthen our economy by expanding paid family medical leave.

Under my bill, called The Family Act, we would create a self-funded, paid family medical leave insurance program and it doesn’t add one dime to the deficit. Based on successful state models, it works by establishing an independent trust fund supported by both the employee and the employer, contributions of a small amount in their wages. It’s basically an earned benefit that would make paid leave available to every working America, no matter how big your company is that you work for, a big business or a small business, whether you’re part-time or whether you’re full-time. The cost is about the cost of a cup of coffee a week.

When a young parent needs to care for a newborn, it shouldn’t come down to outdated policies that lets her boss decide how much time she can take off, how much time it will take her to get back on her feet, with that decision perhaps affecting the fate of her entire career. When any one of us, man or woman, needs time to care for an ill or dying family member we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our job and risk our future to do what we think is right. The Family and Medical Leave Act first passed with strong bipartisan support, so there’s no reason why Democrats and Republicans can’t come together and support it again today.

Let me just give you one real-life example to show why this is something we should all be able to support. For those who desperately want to reduce the rolls of those on government assistance this is a really great way to do it. I have an employee, she was single mom. She was working as a waitress. She was working 40 hours a week earning $2.19 an hour plus tips. She basically was able to bring home about $700 a week or about $24,000 a year. That’s a few thousand dollars above the poverty line. When she got pregnant she had no health care benefits by her employer, so she enrolled in Medicaid. When she was about to have her baby she knew she could not afford the hospital bills to deliver her baby, so she had to quit her job. Because she was able to be on Medicaid, that covered her hospital expenses, but because her employer gave her no sick days, no vacation days, and no paid leave, she wasn’t able to have her time with her infant at home, so she had to quit her job. She enrolled in WIC so she’d have enough money and she enrolled in food stamps. Now, this is a woman who was working full time, 40 hours a week, basically on the edge of poverty, and couldn’t provide for her kids. If she had had paid family medical leave in that job, she could have stayed in her job, had the time she needed, and have the benefit that would have protected her and her family.

We also have to work on things as simple as raising the minimum wage. Now, when we’re talking about low-wage workers, most people don’t understand not only the prevalence of minimum wage workers, but also how hard hit they are. Did you know that of all our minimum wage earners 64 percent of them are women? And did you know that if you are working 40 hours a week on our minimum wage you’re earning $15,000 a year? If you’re a family of 3 that is $3,000 below the poverty line. So we are saying in a country that has always said we reward work and if you work hard every day, you will make it to the middle class, but that’s not true. Because if you are working 40 hours a week and on the minimum wage, you’re basically earning $290 a week.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live on $290 a week today here in Washington, D.C.? Well, I have an example for you. Her name’s Lucila Ramirez and she actually works at Union Station. She’s been working as a janitor at Union Station for 20 years. She’s never had a sick day. She’s never had a vacation day. She has no benefits. To work at the same job for 20 years and still be earning $8.75 an hour with no benefits, it doesn’t sound right. Now, she’s about to retire. She doesn’t know how she’s actually going to retire because earning so little she’s been able to save very little. Hardworking people like Lucila, they’re not looking for a handout. They just want to work hard every day and be able to provide for their family and to have some hope, some glimmer that they, too, could be able to see the American dream.

Now, under the bill that we’re working on in the Senate it would give Lucila a raise. She’d get $10.10 an hour. It’d bring her income up to $21,000 a year. She’s one step closer to getting out of poverty and moving into the middle class. Now, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would help 33 million Americans, 17 million women, many women with children just like Lucila. Millions of mothers immediately would be able to do more to support their families and put that money right back into the economy. Raising the minimum wage is also good for business. An increase to $10.10 an hour would raise our GDP by up to $33 billion over the course of just 3 years with those increased earnings, which means increased spending on household goods, on food, on clothing, on things families need. With that added activity in our economy we could create up to 140,000 new jobs.

The next issue that I feel very passionate about that I think would make a big deal of difference for working moms is basically understanding the need for affordable child care. Today, more women are going back to work sooner after having a child, creating a much greater demand for affordable child care that allows them to stay in their job. Now, the cost of child care is about $6,700 each a year, much more for an infant, just about the same amount an average family spends on groceries. If you can’t afford child care, as many middle class families can’t, and you don’t have a family option, the choice you’re left with is to leave your job and stay at home and care for your children.

Now, if you just think about the numbers again, let’s say the average between an infant and a child is about $10,000 a year. You’re minimum wage earner; you earn $15,000 a year. How are you going to afford child care? Kindergarten doesn’t start till your child is five. So from zero through five you have no option. There is no affordable option. So imagine what you do as a single mom. Again, 17 million of those minimum wage earners are women; a lot of them are single mothers. What do you do? You look for informal care. You look for your mother perhaps or a lady down the street or someone in your building. What happens if your informal caregiver’s sick? You miss work. What happens when you miss work? You have no sick days. You’ll probably get fired. You certainly won’t be promoted. You lose out on every bit of economic potential and economic opportunity you have because there is no affordable daycare option.

Just as important, we need universal pre-K. We should focus on the fact that when children have that chance to have early childhood education they are able to reach their God-given potential. High-quality early learning leads to strong cognitive, social, emotional, and language development, key skills that every child in America needs. Any childhood development expert will tell you this fact and so will every mother. The first five years of a child’s life is a window we have to give them those essential skills for success, but for millions of families struggling, this is a chance that they’re never going to get through no fault of their own and no other reason that their families were born into a life of less opportunity. The block that you live on should not determine the success of the life you will have. That’s why we need to make these investments today to bring quality affordable pre-K to every child in America. This will give every child the chance they deserve to start out strong and to make sure that their hard work is what takes them how far they can go.

Every dollar that you invest in early childhood education, it generates up to $11 in economic benefit throughout the child’s whole life. That’s an NIH statistic. And it’s important for our overall economy today. When children have access to pre-K it means more working mothers get to stay in the workforce, provide for their children, and stay on a path to advance their careers. That’s good for the whole economy.

Critics will say that our debt and deficit, we just can’t afford this. I agree that we have to do more to get our deficit under control, but every budget that we write is about choices. They’re about our priorities. They’re about who we fight for. And, frankly, in a global economy, when we’re competing with countries in markets in every corner of the world, we can’t afford to lose a step. When we close our doors to early childhood education we risk a future engineer, scientist, or doctor that could make the next big breakthrough that changes the world and ignites a new economic engine. A strong early childhood education is one of the best things we can do to propel more kids out of poverty on a sturdy path to a brighter future, so we should invest in our children.

The last piece of my proposal is probably the most obvious: equal pay for equal work. It’s a promise made 50 years ago with the Equal Pay Act, a promise that continues to be broken every single day in this country. Today, women make up more than half of America’s population and nearly half of our workforce. Women are outearning men in college degrees and advanced degrees and are a growing share of the primary household earners. But still to this day, men are out-earning women in wages for the exact same work. On average, a woman earns 77 cents on every dollar a man earns and even less for women of color. African-American women earn 69 cents on a dollars; Latinas earn 58 cents on the dollar. It has to change.

How can any two-income family or a family where the mother is the sole breadwinner get ahead if they’re shortchanged every month? If we want to have a growing economy and a secure middle class and a chance for more families to get ahead, simply pay women fairly for the work they’re doing. It’s really that simple. And it’s a huge economic engine. If you just paid a dollar for a dollar, you could raise the U.S. GDP by up to 4 percent. It’s a huge economic engine. It’s plain common sense and it’s just the right thing to do.

So let me conclude. Fifty years into the War on Poverty with the deck stacked against too many in this country. Let’s commit ourselves with greater resolve to living up to what the American dream was always meant to be. It’s a dream that makes our country the land of opportunity; a dream that says it doesn’t matter from where you start, hard work pays off, you can get to the American dream and earn your future; a dream that for too long has been out of reach for too many people. Let’s do what we can do to create new opportunities for those who need it most and change the course of America’s middle class. And without a doubt, it will be women who will lead the way. When women lead this fight, we will end poverty in America because only when every American woman and family gets a fair shot they deserve to achieve their full potential will America ever be able to achieve hers. Thank you. (Applause)

MS. SAWHILL: I’m going to try to start here. Can everybody hear me all right? Okay, great. Senator, thank you so much. That was quite an exhilarating challenge to all of us and I think if I could summarize your agenda for American opportunity, it has five planks: paid leave, raise the minimum wage, affordable child care, universal pre-K, and equal pay for equal work. And I think these are all really important issues and I want to kind of relate them back to the theme of what we will be discussing here all day.

You mentioned the War on Poverty and the fact that we’re having an -- or celebrating an anniversary now and everyone is talking about that. And one of the academics who’s here today, Jane Waldfogel from Columbia University, she and her colleagues have recently done a study which you may or may not have seen, but I found it very interesting because it shows that although many people, especially on the right, have said, well, in the War on Poverty, poverty won, it didn’t work. Their study shows that the War on Poverty actually reduced poverty appropriately measured by something like 10 or 11 percentage points. I think I have that right, Jane.

But I think there was another message coming out of that study and out of the discussions that we’re having now, which is we did pretty well creating a safety net that would be there for people at the bottom who weren’t doing very well, but we didn’t do as good a job at changing the labor market, helping people to achieve middle class status through their own efforts and becoming self-sufficient. And I think there are some elements of your agenda that speak to that and some that are more really just catching people and helping them when they’re down, like unemployment insurance is part of the safety net. Pre-K programs are part of helping people climb the ladder. There are some debates now about pre-K because, of course, there was this study of the Head Start program that showed that it wasn’t having the kinds of effects that we earlier hoped it had.

I guess my question coming off of that is when you think about where we have -- and I’m talking long-term now. I’m not talking -- I mean, obviously, you’re dealing with legislative issues in the here and now, as you should, but when you think long-term and sometimes, you know, we worry, those of us out here in think tank land, that up there on Capitol Hill there isn’t quite enough long-term thinking. What do you think we most need to do to improve long-term opportunities for people to be self-sufficient? Which it’s not an argument against helping them, you know, if they’re down on their luck, but what should we -- what would be your top priorities there?

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: I think the most important change we need to make is recognizing the face of today’s workforce because most of our workplace policies were set in place in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when if you had an American block and there were 10 homes on it, 7 or 8 they would have a husband going to work and the wife would be staying at home. Today on that same block, five of the houses –

MS. SAWHILL: I remember that world well.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Five of those houses have two parents working, three have a single mom working, and only two have a parent staying at home with a child. So if you don’t actually create a workplace that has enough flexibility to accommodate families and the needs of families, you are going to constantly be undervaluing and seeing underperformance of your workers. So if you want to tap into the full potential of your workforce, meaning women who are typically the primary caregivers for both children and aging parents, you need to create a more family-friendly workplace policy, and that means something as simple as equal pay for equal work to make sure that wage earner isn’t being shortchanged every month. But something like paid family medical leave, so, again, you don’t have women off-ramping every time there’s a family emergency, which is constantly happening. And so if that woman is never getting the chance to be promoted, to earn more, to put more back into the economy, at a degree of 48 percent of our workforce in New York State is women, that’s a problem. You are really shortchanging an economic engine in your workforce by not giving those opportunities to excel and to constantly be earning more and getting ahead. So you need that flexibility.

Something as simple as universal pre-K and affordable daycare, that’s five years of that worker’s life for very child that she has that she’s going to need that kind of support or she’s not going to be in the workplace full time or she’s not going to be able to have her highest earning potential. So those are all engines that are being entirely untapped for about half our workforce. It’s a huge problem.

MS. SAWHILL: Yeah, I think it really has been an enormous transformation the fact that women have moved into the workforce and, as you say, are now 40 percent of the primary breadwinners. But, you know, Hanna Rosin wrote this book recently called The End of Men. And she and others have talked a lot about the fact that one of the reasons we have so many single parents is because the men can no longer make enough money to get married and support a family. Is that also a concern, you know, in arguing for women’s rights to climb the ladder and do better? What do we do about the men? Do you have thoughts about that?

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Well, they’re still earning a dollar on the dollar, so they are being paid fairly for their work.

MS. SAWHILL: Yes, okay.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: So I’m less concerned about that. But I think we want workplace policies that support all families because there may be men who want to be primary caregivers or men who need the flexibility when their mother or father is dying. That’s why paid family medical leave applies to women and men. And I think if you had more family-friendly policies that both parents would be able to take advantage and be able to be there when needs arise. And for all those families that are single-parent families, whether it’s a male or a female, they need that flexibility. So these are gender-neutral policies, although they will help more women than men because more often than not it’s the woman who has to sideline her career for family, but there are many men in the same situation.

MS. SAWHILL: Okay. Well, let me open this up for the audience to ask a couple of questions here. Please state your name and your affiliation, if you would. Anyone? Yes, right here. No, you, right, on the aisle there.

MS. RANCK: Thank you. My name is Edna Ranck. I’m with the World Organization for Early Childhood Education, which is called OMEP. And I want to point out that Robert Samuels’ column in today’s Washington Post quotes Dr. Sawhill and Dr. Haskins about the poverty issues, so ready that. I want to caution you not to make a dichotomy between child care and early education. I don’t think you were, but quite often people do. They see one as quite different from the other when, in fact, all programs for children from six weeks to six years are educational. Children are learning all the time. They don’t start when they go to school. And they are -- both provide care.


MS. RANCK: So just make sure not to –

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Yeah. No, universal pre-K is a different goal than affordable daycare just because there’s different mechanisms, but I know my children were in a daycare and I know the early childhood education they received was tremendous from the time they were infants straight till they were in kindergarten and fifth (sic) grade. But that daycare was $10,000 a year, so the affordability’s a huge problem. So there’s too many moms who couldn’t use the daycare that’s available to federal workers because they couldn’t afford it. And that’s why the affordability, I want any child to be able to go to a daycare of the highest quality that my children were given because I saw the early childhood education components built right in from infant care straight on to when they were ready to enter pre-K. And that’s why affordability is equally as important as universality.

MS. SAWHILL: Well, one more question because we are running out of time. E.J.?

MR. DIONNE: Senator, welcome to Brookings.

MS. SAWHILL: E.J., everybody knows you, but –

MR. DIONNE: Yes, thank you. And I usually have a really loud voice, but welcome to Brookings. As you know, I’m very sympathetic to this agenda you’ve put forward. I am curious why this hasn’t taken hold more within the Democratic Party or maybe it will. Because it does seem to me some of the proposals are obviously consensus proposals, like the minimum wage, but the package speaks to a lot of different aspects of what they’re talking about. Are we going to see more action sort of not just from women members, but party-wide on these kinds of things?

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: I think so. I think as women and as mothers we have a particular sensitivity often to these issues because we see it every day. I mean, I see what benefit my children get from daycare. I see what benefit they got from a great pre-K program. I know that I couldn’t have done my job well without the flexibility that I was given for paid family medical leave for both of my children. I know the difference it made for me personally. So when I speak to these issues, I speak very passionately about them and I know what opportunities are being missed for those who don’t have them because I know what it would have been like for me if I didn’t have them. So I can speak from the heart and also from real-life experience, so that’s one of the reasons why I think these issues are coming to the fore now.

But I do think the Democratic Party and the Republican Party will be able to grab hold of these issues as a new generational issue, as something that speaks to what are the changes we need to make to really create an economic engine and actually make a middle class that can thrive. So I think it can be something that can inspire both Democrats and Republicans.

And I do see amplification from a lot of places. The President gave a very significant speech where he mentioned a couple of those ideas in his speech just a few weeks ago. About a month ago, we had Speaker Pelosi do a really good press event with a number of members in the House on these issues a few months ago. So I think these issues are going to continue to be talked about and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I talk about them a lot, so that people begin to say that’s a good idea actually. That could have a real economic impact that would make a difference, and that these are positive for businesses. These help the economy grow.

MS. SAWHILL: Senator, we really wish you well on this agenda and please join me in thanking the senator for being with us.