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Let me begin by thanking Linda and Bob McKinney, the co-managers of Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank, and her son Joel for allowing us to be here today and for your excellent introduction.
Let me also thank Sabrina Shrader, Tanya Spinella, and Sam Petsonk for your very moving and eloquent statements.
And I especially want to thank everyone here today who are working hard to improve the lives of the people of this beautiful county.
A few years ago, as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Primary Health Care and Aging in the United States Senate, I held a hearing on poverty.
The title of the hearing was “Dying Young: Why Your Social and Economic Status May Be a Death Sentence in America.”
One of the counties we focused on at this hearing was McDowell County and I was very pleased that Sabrina was one of the witnesses at this hearing.
In the United States today, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, 47 million Americans are living in poverty.
Almost 22 percent of American children are poor and we have the highest childhood poverty rate of any major country on earth.
Let’s be clear. Living in poverty doesn’t just mean you don’t have enough money to buy a big screen TV, a fancy laptop computer, or the latest version of the iPhone.
It goes much, much deeper than that. In America today, being poor not only means you are less likely to have a grocery store in your community selling healthy food, far too often it means you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from. In fact, 15 million children in America today are living in families that struggle to put enough food on the table.
Living in poverty means you are less likely to have access to a doctor, a dentist, or a mental health care provider. And if you are lucky enough to see a doctor it means you are less likely to afford the prescription drugs a doctor prescribes to you. In fact, one out of five Americans between the ages of 18-64 cannot afford to fill their prescription medication at a drug store.
Living in poverty means you are less likely to have access to public transportation — which makes it harder to find a job.
It means you are less likely to have access to child care. And you are more likely to do drugs and engage in self-destructive activities.
If you add all of these things up, what you will find is that yes, far too often, poverty is a death sentence in America.
In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health found that 130,000 people die each and every year as a result of poverty.
This is an issue that we have got to address. This is an issue that we cannot sweep under the rug and hope it will go away. It won’t.
Let us not forget: West Virginia used to have one of the strongest economies of any state in America. Today, it is one of the poorest states in America.
Today, West Virginia has the lowest labor force participation rate in the country. Only 54 percent of the working-age population in West Virginia has a job.
About 100,000 kids in West Virginia live in poverty – over 24 percent of all children in this great state.
West Virginia has one of the highest levels of income inequality of any state in the nation.
From 1979 to 2012, the top 1% saw their income go up by more than 60% on average, while the bottom 99% saw their income go down by 0.4% in West Virginia.
And McDowell County — where we are today — is one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in America.
In 2014, over 35 percent of the residents in McDowell County lived in poverty, including nearly half of children under the age of 18.
In McDowell County, not only is it hard to find a job, like too many poor communities, it’s hard to find a grocery store, a dentist, a mental health provider, or a primary care physician.
The roads are dangerous and they are crumbling.
There are no colleges and only 5 percent of adults have a college education.
Less than half of adults have graduated high school.
Over two-thirds of households have no wastewater treatment – which means that over 300,000 gallons of untreated wastewater is being dumped into streams and rivers – each and every day.
Over 550 residents are drinking untreated groundwater – which is probably a very conservative estimate.
Two of the leading causes of death in McDowell are from suicide and drug overdoses.
In fact, the highest percentage of drug overdoses in West Virginia is in McDowell County.
And McDowell has the lowest life expectancy in the entire nation.
The average life expectancy for men in this county is just 64 years.
But if you take a six-hour drive from here you will arrive in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the wealthiest counties in America with a median income of more than $107,000 – over five time the median income in McDowell.
In that county a man can expect to live until the age of 82 – 18 years longer than men in McDowell County.
The average life expectancy for a woman in Fairfax County is 85, compared to just 73 for women in McDowell.
That is unacceptable and that has got to change.
You’ve probably heard me say that it is too late for establishment politics and establishment economics. This is not just a campaign slogan. This is what I am talking about.
When I talk about the need to think big, to think outside of the box, and to reject incremental change, I am talking about McDowell County and the thousands of other communities that have been tossed out, left behind, and abandoned by the rich and the powerful.
In my view, we need to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent. We need to create an economy that does not allow the top 1 percent to own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent. We need an economy that does not allow the top 1 percent to earn 58 percent of all of the new income in America today.
Here’s what we need to do.
We need to rebuild our crumbling roads, bridges, water systems, wastewater plants, dams, culverts, railways, airports, broadband and electric grid. And we need to target this funding to communities that are most in need – communities like McDowell County.
A $1 trillion investment in our infrastructure will create at least 13 million jobs all over America – jobs that cannot be outsourced.
More than 1,500 bridges in West Virginia are functionally obsolete — 22 percent of the bridges in this great state. We need to repair these bridges now, not five years from now.
Now, I understand that McDowell County used to be a vibrant coal-mining community with a strong middle class.
While I strongly believe we need to combat climate change to make our planet habitable for our children and our grandchildren, let me be clear: We cannot abandon communities that have been dependent on coal and other fossil fuels.
In my view, we have got to invest $41 billion rebuilding coal mining communities and making sure that Americans in McDowell County and all over this country receive the job training they need for the clean energy jobs of the future.
We must rewrite our disastrous trade policies that enable corporate America to shut down plants in West Virginia and move to Mexico, China and other low-wage countries. Since NAFTA, West Virginia has lost more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs. Unacceptable.
We need to end the race to the bottom and enact trade policies that demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad. And we need to stop China from dumping steel into this country by establishing strong countervailing tariffs.
At a time when youth unemployment is off the charts, we need to create 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans through legislation that I introduced with Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.
And not only do we need to create millions of jobs, we need to make sure that these jobs pay a livable wage.
We need to increase the wages of at least 53 million American workers by raising the minimum wage from a starvation wage of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour.
At a time when women workers earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, we need pay equity in our country. We need to sign the Paycheck Fairness Act into law. Equal pay for equal work.
We need to make health care a right for every man, woman, and child through a Medicare for All single-payer health care system.
We need to treat drug addiction like a mental health issue, not a criminal issue. We should not be locking people up who have a drug addiction. We should be giving them the health treatment they need to beat their addiction.
We need to make sure that every worker in this country has at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave; two weeks of paid vacation; and one week of paid sick days.
We need to make public colleges and universities tuition free and substantially reduce student debt. I want every child in McDowell County to understand that if they study hard, if they get good grades they will be able to go to college regardless of their parent’s income. And we will pay for that by imposing a speculation tax on Wall Street.
At a time when over half of all older workers have no retirement savings, we’re not going to cut Social Security, we’re going to expand Social Security so that every worker can retire with dignity and respect.
Now, the truth is that no president, not Bernie Sanders, or anybody else, can do what it takes to reduce poverty and rebuild the middle class alone.
We need a political revolution. We need millions of Americans to begin to stand up and fight back and demand a government that represents all of us.
And if we stand together, men and women, gay and straight, black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American, and say loudly and clearly that enough is enough! That this country belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.