The American people must make a fundamental decision. Do we continue the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, or do we fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all? Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy? These are the most important questions of our time, and how we answer them will determine the future of our country.
The long-term deterioration of the middle class, accelerated by the Wall Street crash of 2008, has not been pretty. Today, we have more wealth and income inequality than any major country on earth. We have one of the highest childhood poverty rates and we are the only country in the industrialized world which does not guarantee health care for all. We once led the world in terms of the percentage of our people who graduated college, but we are now in 12th place. Our infrastructure, once the envy of the world, is collapsing.
Real unemployment today is not 5.8 percent, it is 11.5 percent if we include those who have given up looking for work or who are working part time when they want to work full time. Youth unemployment is 18.6 percent and African-American youth unemployment is 32.6 percent.
Today, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the median male worker earned $783 less last year than he made 41 years ago. The median female worker made $1,337 less last year than she earned in 2007. Since 1999, the median middle-class family has seen its income go down by almost $5,000 after adjusting for inflation, now earning less than it did 25 years ago.
The American people must demand that Congress and the White House start protecting the interests of working families, not just wealthy campaign contributors. We need federal legislation to put the unemployed back to work, to raise wages and make certain that all Americans have the health care and education they need for healthy and productive lives.
As Vermont’s senator, here are 12 initiatives that I will be fighting for which can restore America’s middle class.
Our infrastructure is collapsing, and Americans know it. They see it every day in the potholes they drive over, the bridges in their communities that have been shut down and the water pipes that burst.
The sad truth is that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States of America an overall grade of D-plus on the condition of our infrastructure. That doesn’t just mean roads and bridges. It also means airports, dams, drinking water, electrical grids, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, mass transit, ports, public parks, rail lines, schools, and solid waste and wastewater management. Only one of the 16 categories evaluated earned as high as a B-minus (solid waste), and just four others finished in the C range (bridges, ports, public parks and rail).
It’s shameful that we’ve allowed this to happen. We are not a developing nation, dependent on foreign aid to survive. We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We were the birthplace of Yankee ingenuity in the 19th century, the arsenal of democracy in World War II, and the undisputed economic powerhouse of the last century. Once, our infrastructure was the envy of the world. Today, we’re judged to be in 12th place internationally. While bridges are collapsing around us, we’re spending only half as much as Europe on infrastructure and just over a quarter as much as the Chinese.
Is this the best our country can do? No. We can and we must do better. That’s why we need to invest at least $1 trillion over five years to rebuild America. This will not only make us safer, more productive and more efficient, but it will generate income and create jobs — lots of jobs. The estimate is that this $1 trillion investment will create and maintain 13 million jobs — which is exactly what our economy needs. We have ignored our infrastructure crisis for too long. The time to act is now.
The longer we wait, the worse it will get. Roads and bridges don’t fix themselves, and it is already costing us dearly in terms of travel delays, floods, broken water mains and brownouts (not to mention catastrophes like collapsing bridges). The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that if we fail to make these improvements, by 2020 we will have lost $3.1 trillion in gross domestic product, along with 3.5 million jobs. We can’t afford to keep lagging behind our competitors around the world. We need to start repairing bridges, improving electrical grids, rebuilding levees and securing our drinking water supplies as soon as possible. We can do better and we must.
While unemployment has been falling, it is still much too high. In fact, as of December 2014, a shocking 17 million Americans were either without jobs, only marginally attached to the labor force, settling for part-time work when they wanted full-time jobs, or had become so discouraged by their prospects that they had left the workforce entirely. The economists are clear in telling us that the fastest way to create good-paying jobs is to rebuild our infrastructure. Let’s do it.
We are a great nation, but we cannot be a world leader when the physical infrastructure of our country is rotting and we are falling further and further behind other countries. We cannot be a world leader when real unemployment is more than 11 percent and millions of our people are unable to find decent-paying jobs. If we are serious about the future of our country and the needs of our middle class, it is imperative that we invest in infrastructure and rebuild America.
There’s a reason that investing in our infrastructure has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. It’s a good idea. It creates jobs, income, profits and tax revenues. It lays a foundation for the efficient operation of our economy in the future. It would give us a necessary boost in the wake of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. It returns us to where we should be internationally, in the front and not behind. This funding should receive the highest priority.
It’s high time we stopped bailing out Wall Street and started repairing Main Street.
The United States must lead the world in tackling climate change and make certain that this planet is habitable for our children and grandchildren. We must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and into energy efficiency and sustainable energies. Millions of homes and buildings need to be weatherized, our transportation system needs to be energy efficient and we need to greatly accelerate the progress we are already seeing in wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and other forms of sustainable energy. Transforming our energy system will not only protect the environment, it will create good paying jobs.
Unless we take bold action to address climate change, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to look back on this period in history and ask a very simple question: Where were they? Why didn’t the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth, lead the international community in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the devastating damage that the scientific community was sure would come?
At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, we need a progressive tax system in this country which is based on ability to pay. It is not acceptable that major profitable corporations have paid nothing in federal income taxes, and that corporate CEOs in this country often enjoy an effective tax rate which is lower than their secretaries. It is absurd that we lose over $100 billion a year in revenue because corporations and the wealthy stash their cash in offshore tax havens around the world. The time is long overdue for real tax reform.
Millions of seniors live in poverty and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country. We must strengthen the social safety net, not weaken it. Instead of cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs, we should be expanding these programs.
Americans spend about twice as much per capita on health care as almost any other developed nation, but our outcomes are not as good as others that spend much less. We can do better. We must do better.
Today, some 38 million Americans lack health insurance. Many others delay going to the doctor because of high deductibles and unaffordable copayments. While the number of uninsured Americans will go down with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, widely known as ObamaCare, tens of millions of Americans will remain uninsured.
The goal of an effective health care system is to do everything possible to enable people to live long and healthy lives. Sadly, the American system fails to do that and falls behind many other countries. While we devote 18 percent of our gross domestic product to health care, we rank 33rd in life expectancy and 34th in infant mortality, and trail in many other health outcomes. A Harvard University study indicated that, incredibly, some 45,000 Americans die needlessly each year because they do not get to a doctor in time.
I start my approach to health care from a very basic premise: health care is a right, not a privilege. Unfortunately, uniquely among major nations, that statement is not true for the United States, where access to health care depends on how much money you have and what your employer is willing to provide.
It is simply unconscionable that the most advanced nation in the world has so many people who lack health insurance. It makes no sense that millions more are one diagnosis or car accident away from financial disaster. And, despite the trillions of dollars we spend on health care, the disparity in the quality of care between the rich and everyone else grows wider.
Our system doesn’t make economic sense, and it certainly doesn’t make moral sense. In a civilized, democratic society, every man, woman and child must be able to get the medical care they need regardless of income.
It is incomprehensible that drug companies still get away with charging Americans twice as much — or more — than citizens of Canada or Europe for the exact same drugs manufactured by the exact same companies. It is an outrage that insurers still want to hike premiums by as much as 60 percent a year on individual policyholders.
It boggles the mind that approximately 30 percent of every health care dollar spent in the United States goes to administrative costs rather than to delivering care. Taiwan, for example, spends only a little over 6 percent of its GDP on health care, while achieving better health outcomes on some key indicators than we do. The reason, of course, is that they spend a fraction of what we do on administrative costs.
If our goal is to provide high-quality health care in a cost-effective way, what should we be doing?
Clearly, we must move toward a single-payer system.
The health insurance lobby and other opponents of single-payer care make it sound scary. It’s not. In fact, a large-scale single-payer system already exists in the United States. It’s called Medicare. People enrolled in the system give it high marks. More importantly, it has succeeded in providing near-universal coverage to Americans over the age of 65.
Establishing a single-payer system will mean peace of mind for all Americans. When health insurance is no longer tied to employment, people will not fear losing both their job and their family’s access to health care. Millions of Americans won’t have to stay in jobs they don’t like because their family needs health care. Entrepreneurs and small businesses will be free to develop their business plans without worrying about the cost and complexity of providing health care for themselves and their employees.
For these reasons and more, Rep. Jim McDermott and I have introduced the American Health Security Act, which would guarantee health care as a human right and provide every U.S. citizen and permanent resident with health care coverage and services through a state-administered, single-payer program.
I am very proud that my home state of Vermont is now taking big steps to lead the nation in health care by moving forward on a plan to establish a single-payer health care system that puts the interests of patients over corporate profits. The American Health Security Act would make sure every state does the same.
The goal of real health care reform must be high-quality, universal coverage in a cost-effective way. We must ensure, to as great a degree as possible, that the money we put into health coverage goes to the delivery of health care, not to paper-pushing, astronomical profits and lining CEOs’ pockets.
The function of banking is to facilitate the flow of capital into productive and job-creating activities. Financial institutions cannot be an island unto themselves, standing as huge profit centers outside of the real economy. Today, six huge Wall Street financial institutions have assets equivalent to 61 percent of our gross domestic product – over $9.8 trillion. These institutions underwrite more than half the mortgages in this country and more than two-thirds of the credit cards. The greed, recklessness and illegal behavior of major Wall Street firms plunged this country into the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. They are too powerful to be reformed. They must be broken up.
In today’s highly competitive global economy, millions of Americans are unable to afford the higher education they need in order to get good-paying jobs. Further, with both parents now often at work, most working-class families can’t locate the high-quality and affordable child care they need for their kids. Quality education in America, from child care to higher education, must be affordable for all. Without a high-quality and affordable educational system, we will be unable to compete globally and our standard of living will continue to decline.
Since 2001 we have lost more than 60,000 factories in this country, and more than 4.9 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs. We must end our disastrous trade policies (NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, etc.) which enable corporate America to shut down plants in this country and move to China and other low-wage countries. We need to end the race to the bottom and develop trade policies which demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad.
Women workers today earn 78 percent of what their male counterparts make. We need pay equity in our country — equal pay for equal work.
The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage. We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage — $15 an hour over the next few years. No one in this country who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty.
Union workers who are able to collectively bargain for higher wages and benefits earn substantially more than non-union workers. Today, corporate opposition to union organizing makes it extremely difficult for workers to join a union. We need legislation which makes it clear that when a majority of workers sign cards in support of a union, they can form a union.
We need to develop new economic models to increase job creation and productivity. Instead of giving huge tax breaks to corporations which ship our jobs to China and other low-wage countries, we need to provide assistance to workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives. Study after study shows that when workers have an ownership stake in the businesses they work for, productivity goes up, absenteeism goes down and employees are much more satisfied with their jobs.