THE SOCIAL SAFETY NET
The Common Good
I am the elected Chair of the Ways and Means Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee. I think of it as the social safety net subcommittee because the subcommittee’s focus is on vulnerable children and families and on the programs and policies meant to give all Americans a fair shake and a helping hand when they need one.
After becoming Chair of the Subcommittee I asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine if our existing unemployment insurance program does a good job of helping American workers who lose their jobs. In a nutshell, the GAO report confirmed that there are gaping holes in our country’s social safety net and Americans are falling through it when they fall on economic hard times.
My job as the new Chair of the Subcommittee was to repair damage to the social safety net done during Bush Administration.
In 2007, I introduced HR 2233 to modernize the Unemployment Insurance Program. A companion bill, S. 1871, was introduced that year in the Senate by Senator Kennedy. The New York Times endorsed my legislation with a strongly worded editorial. My proposed legislation received widespread support from nonprofit and citizens organizations throughout the country that represent millions of Americans.
The much-needed legislation did not pass during the 110th Congress, but I introduced it again the following year. My legislation to modernize the Unemployment Insurance Program became part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Section 2003 of HR 1) that was signed into law by President Obama on February 17, 2009.
Today, our country’s stressed economy finds thousands of Americans in need of the kind of assistance provided by the newly modernized program.
The largest single committee request contained in the 2009 stimulus bill was the $45 billion that flowed though the Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee under my leadership. That money went directly to families in need and flowed from there into local economies across out country.
Social Security is the most successful government program in history. It allows hardworking Americans to look forward to retirement with hope, not fear. It guarantees a financial floor they can never fall through. From 1935 to 2005 Social Security reduced the number of elderly living in poverty from 40 percent to 9 percent. In other words, Social Security decreased poverty among the elderly by 400 percent.
Privatization is a phase-out scheme for Social Security and nothing more. It moves dollars out of Social Security, divides voters by age, and shaves benefits to the vanishing point.
The privatization scheme offered up by the Bush Administration five years ago would have undermined Social Security, and put comfortable retirement farther out of reach for most Americans. Think where retirees would be today if their Social Security retirement accounts were placed at the mercy of Wall Street.
Periodically, there are new schemes introduced to privatize our Social Security System. I will oppose them all.
Our country's current poverty definition was first developed in 1963 – before the Beatles’ first trip to the United States, before the establishment of Medicare, and before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We are using a poverty standard that is based on consumption data from the 1950's.
Many of the programs we have today, such as food stamps or Earned Income Tax Credits didn't exist when the current standards were established. The current poverty measure does not count work expenses such as childcare - when the standard was established in the '60's, there was a presumption that most mothers stay at home.
If we want to make measurable progress in reducing poverty, we first need to properly measure poverty. I have put forward a proposal reflecting a consensus of expert opinions on how to dramatically modernize the current poverty system.
Under my leadership, the Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee has convened hearings over the last two years to explore policies and programs designed to reduce poverty in America. We are undertaking the task of modernizing our country's poverty programs including developing new standards and measurements for defining poverty in America.
Clearly, our current poverty measure needs to be updated and improved because it has lost some of its relevance since it was created over 40 years ago. It is far past time for a major review and update of our country's poverty standards.
It makes no sense that 37 million Americans live in poverty in the richest nation on earth. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to do something about it.
As a society, I believe we’re judged on how we treat the least among us. Knowing what we know about the shortcomings in child welfare, let’s hope that judgment day doesn’t come soon.
I believe the time has come for a new vision to ensure the protection and well being of America’s most vulnerable children based on a few basic principles:
• The federal government should act as a partner with our States to improve outcomes for vulnerable children. This partnership shouldn’t begin and end with placing kids in out-of-home care.
• The federal government has an interest in every vulnerable child and our financing system for foster care should reflect that fact. We are now providing fewer and fewer foster children with federal assistance because of outdated eligibility standards that must be modernized.
• We must do a much better job of promoting the general well being of foster children beyond their immediate physical safety needs.
Two years ago Congressman Jerry Weller and I introduced the Fostering Connections to Success Act, HR 6893. The McDermott-Weller Foster Care legislation was called the most significant and positive development in Foster Care in over a decade. It was supported by literally hundreds of social, civic and judicial organizations; foster care advocates, and political leaders.
HR 6893 was signed into on October 7, 2008. The new public law makes major strides in improving the lives and outcomes for America’s most vulnerable children.