The American dream under siege

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Stagnant wages and income inequality are two of the biggest challenges we face in Congress. They threaten not only the continued existence of the middle class in America, but the American dream itself.

Even as productivity and profits have surged over the past several decades, the vast majority of Americans have been taking home less in pay.

Productivity has increased by 62.5 percent since 1989, but real hourly wages only rose by 12 percent over that time. This disconnect has become even worse since 2000: productivity has risen by 23 percent, but the median worker’s hourly wage rose only 0.5 percent, and median income for working-age households actually fell. As a percentage of gross domestic product, 2012 saw the highest corporate profits after taxes, and the lowest salaries and wages in our history.

This imbalance is a serious threat to our way of life. Low wages limit consumer demand, stalling our economic growth. And, just as important, the compact is being broken that allowed hard work to pay off and future generations to do better.

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It used to be that, through hard work and access to opportunity and education, a working-class family could move up the ladder in America. They could buy a home, send their children to college, have money to take the occasional vacation and know that when they reached retirement, they would be all right.

That is the story of my own parents, who worked hard all their lives so I could go to college and follow my aspirations. That is the American dream. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us. Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account today; and will hire others to labor for him tomorrow. Advancement — improvement in condition — is the order of things in a society of equals.”

But for far too many families, that order is slipping away. Americans are being squeezed. They are working harder than ever and not seeing any gains. And even as income has stagnated, prices — gas prices, food prices, prices of basic needs, the costs of college — keep going up.

Congress should be doing everything in its power to help restore the middle class in America: to create good, well-paying jobs at home; ensure steady, rising wages; and promote opportunity and upward mobility. And there are many things we can do.

For starters, we can raise the national minimum wage, something that is long overdue. The minimum wage used to be equal to about half of average wages. Today, at $7.25 an hour, it is barely a third. Put another way, in terms of purchasing power, the minimum wage has been dropping steadily for 45 years now, ever since 1968. If it had kept up with inflation over the last 40 years, it would be $10.55 an hour.

A recent poll showed that Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by a margin of 4 to 1. Eighty-three House Republicans supported, and then-President George W. Bush signed, the last minimum wage increase into law in 2007. It is time to do it again.

We should also pass work and family policies that reflect the way Americans really live. In 1963, JFK’s Commission on the Status of Women called for equal pay for women, paid maternity leave and expanded access to childcare. More than 50 years later, families are still waiting for these common-sense reforms.

In America today, women still make only 77 cents on the dollar, on average, compared to men, which means less income for the entire family. Almost half of private-sector workers do not have access to even one paid sick day, and we remain the only advanced economy in the world without paid maternity leave. And all too many families are finding that childcare is their biggest expense — sometimes bigger than their mortgage. I have introduced a comprehensive economic agenda that addresses all of these issues and would make a profound and positive difference for families’ economic security all across America.

There is more we can do. We can pass a budget that truly invests in the future and in our fundamental priorities, like education and job training.

We can support initiatives that create jobs and grow the economy, like infrastructure, manufacturing and biomedical research. We can stop savaging the safety net by cutting unemployment insurance and food stamps. We can think twice before signing onto trade deals that are proven to have terrible ramifications for American workers, including jobs sent overseas and depressed wages.

And we can simply recognize, as former President Lyndon Johnson did 50 years ago when he announced the “war on poverty,” that the federal government plays a hugely important role in alleviating hardship and ensuring upward mobility, and Congress should do all it can this year to see wages rise. The American dream is at stake.


DeLauro has represented Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District since 1991. She sits on the Appropriations Committee.