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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
"Half in Ten" Report Release
Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thank you, Jon, for that introduction and for your incredible leadership and policy vision here at the Center for American Progress. I also want to acknowledge Wade Henderson and his team at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Debbie Weinstein and her staff at the Coalition on Human Needs. Thank you for your collaboration with the CAP Action Fund to produce this report.

There are a lot of great think tanks here in Washington, but what's so special about the "Half in Ten" partnership can be found right in your name. You think big, and you challenge America's leaders to do big things.

Cutting the poverty rate in half in 10 years is something we can do and have done before. It has been 47 years since America declared War on Poverty. The year 1964 was another time of war and economic anxiety in America. It was a time when the gulf between the "haves" and "have nots" seemed a bridge too far to cross. But President Johnson understood the urgency of the situation, and he proposed a program equal to the moment.

He said, "What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program. But poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy. It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. … If this were so, we would have conquered poverty long ago. But today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty."

President Johnson's words still ring true to me today. As your report notes, we nearly cut the poverty rate in half in the decade following the War on Poverty, and we made enormous strides once again under President Clinton by raising the minimum wage and expanding the earned income tax credit.

In 2011, even in these tough economic times, the President and I believe we can rise to the occasion again. At a time when our politics can seem so small, I am proud to work for a President who continues to think big. I applaud Half in Ten for not endorsing half-measures.

We need to set big goals to address the unacceptable fact that 15 million Americans are living in poverty. One in five children in America, 27 percent of African-Americans, and 26 percent of Latinos live in poverty. Now is not the time for policymakers to think small.

I chair the President's Interagency Council on Homelessness. The Obama administration has set the ambitious goal of preventing and ending homelessness by 2020. It's vital to set goals that match the size of the challenge before us. This is how we can chart our progress and hold ourselves accountable for results.

We've made record investments in initiatives to end homelessness across ALL populations: families with children, youth, veterans and those who've experienced chronic homelessness I was proud to stand with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan this fall and announce that we've ended or prevented homelessness for one million Americans under President Obama. This milestone was the result of a $1.5 billion investment in HUD's rapid re-housing program. It was the result of thinking big.

We still face great economic challenges, but the actions taken by our President helped us avoid a Great Depression. Without the Recovery Act, millions more would have fallen into poverty. Our efforts to expand unemployment insurance provided $167 billion in benefits to 27 million Americans. It's the longest-lasting emergency unemployment program in American history. The Recovery Act provided incentives for states to expand UI coverage to part-time workers and new workers. This kept 3.2 million Americans from falling into poverty last year. It was a remarkable accomplishment.

I'm so glad you've pledged to track the number of Americans kept out of poverty by the EITC and SNAP programs. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities crunched the numbers. If you count the expanded benefits from these two programs, we kept an additional 5 ½ million people out of poverty. That includes 3 million children. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it's clear that the Recovery Act was a lifeline to millions of Americans in need.

For me, providing a ladder out poverty has been my life's work. It's why I got into public service in the first place. I come from humble means. Some of you know my story. My mother immigrated to this country from Nicaragua to escape poverty. She stayed home for many years to raise my brothers, sisters and me. She later went to work in a toy factory to help my family make ends meet. My father was from Mexico and worked as a farm worker, railroad worker and a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. Though our family could not afford much, we always had each other.

My parents made many sacrifices so my six siblings and I could achieve whatever our talents would allow. I was helped by Pell Grants. I was helped by work study. I was helped by DOL programs that I am now charged with overseeing. I'm living proof that these programs can make a difference in people's lives. They have for millions of Americans.

In this country, we understand that poverty can be overcome. It's a false choice to say that comes down to either personal responsibility or a government that cares. It takes both.

I grew up in a poor community outside of Los Angeles in the shadows of polluted landfills and toxic dumps. My parents and my friends' parents went to work in conditions that were dirty and unsafe. In my zip code, we lived near a Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills — including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Several miles away in zip code 90210 — Beverly Hills — there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits, and zero chemical plants. I grew up with a strong understanding that there were "haves" and "have-nots" in this world.

I believe the Occupy Wall Street movement has done a patriotic thing by putting wage inequality back on the front page. Americans are frustrated that one political party is blocking progress on the single most important thing we can do to fight poverty: create more jobs.

At Half in Ten, you're right that we can't separate the poverty discussion from the discussion about economic opportunity. Good jobs are the single best solution to poverty.

Think about it: The poverty rate for full-time, year-round workers is just 2.6 percent. We need a recipe for growth that values hard work and creates opportunities for those who are willing to do it.

Last year alone, the Labor Department provided training and employment services to 39 million Americans to help them find good jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. We're investing billions of dollars in our community college system to provide an affordable education that can launch sustainable careers.

The administration's goal is for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. It's critical that we meet this goal. Never in our nation's history has it been more important for students to continue their education after high school. Right now, there are high-growth industries in this country that can't find skilled labor to fill open positions. There are 3 million job vacancies right now that employers are looking to fill. We need to train up our workers immediately to fill them.

But the President and I agree we need to do more than just create any jobs. That isn't good enough — not if they don't pay enough to feed your family, make rent, go to school or take a sick child to the doctor. I was pleased to see a section in your report that talks about this distinction. This point is sometimes missed by the mainstream media. We saw it in the reporting on the so-called "Texas Miracle." It's not a miracle when 1 in 10 hourly workers in Texas makes the minimum wage or less. And it's not a miracle when one in four Texans lacks health insurance.

Since my first day on the job as Labor Secretary, my motto has been "good jobs for everyone." After being sworn in, I added 350 new wage and hour investigators to help ensure workers are paid properly for the work they've already done. This is an important part of our strategy to keep hard-working Americans out of poverty.

At the Labor Department, we've focused more of our Wage & Hour cases on what we call enterprise-wide enforcement. If an employer is violating minimum wage laws in one workplace, we think it's likely they're engaging in the same practice in other company locations. So we're seeking injunctions to ensure that an employer complies with the law across all of its operations, and we're seeking back wages across all of a company's workplaces.

I'll be blunt: If you think being fined for minimum-wage violations is just the "cost of doing business," you're going to have problems with my Department.

It's immoral and illegal to seek a competitive advantage by paying workers less than the minimum wage. It's immoral and illegal to cheat your workers out of overtime pay. This depresses wages for all American workers. Not many people know that the Department of Labor is the second-largest enforcement agency in the federal government. Only the DOJ is bigger.

During the last fiscal year, we collected a quarter billion dollars in back wages for working men and women all over this country. Our industry-wide compliance approach is a powerful tool to level the playing field and help vulnerable workers make ends meet. During these difficult economic times, every dollar that workers are entitled to is even more crucial.

This is especially true for women, who continue to be paid less on average than men for the exact same work. Your report captured a very important statistic from the Census Bureau. The poverty rate for families headed by single mothers is 41 percent, compared to 9 percent for married couples. We must do more to help these women.

Today in America, women are paid on average of 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. For African-American women, it's 70 cents on the dollar. For Latina women, it's 60 cents on the dollar. This means that each time the average woman starts a new job, she starts from a lower base salary. Over time, that pay gap becomes wider and wider. That means $150 less in her weekly paycheck. It means nearly $8,000 less at the end of the year. The problem doesn't just affect women. It affects entire families, too. It's 20 percent less food they can put on the table, 20 percent less to spend on their kids' education, 20 percent less to pay the gas bill.

For companies that do at least $10,000 of business with the federal government, DOL has jurisdiction to enforce civil rights laws on behalf of their workforce. This includes pay discrimination. When DOL seeks a remedy for pay discrimination, we automatically seek back wages for all affected employees at a company. We feel this is an important way to level the playing field for pay disparities affecting women. My Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has shifted its enforcement priorities. Last year, 14 percent of their investigations involved compensation cases. This year, that number will be between 20 and 40 percent.

We need to close loopholes that give employers unjustified defenses to discrimination. We need to strengthen the ban on retaliation against those who complain about unequal pay. And we need to create more flexible workplaces so women don't have to choose between motherhood and a fulfilling career. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, if we closed the pay gap between men and women, we could cut in half the number of children living in poverty.

My department is making a huge effort in the areas of research, education, enforcement and policy development to close that gap. These are things in my power to do right now to address poverty in America, and I'm doing them. But we all know that meeting the goals of the Half in Ten campaign will require Congress to act.

Next month, we expect a vote on provisions in the American Jobs Act that target our poverty crisis. There will be a vote on extending unemployment insurance to keep 6 million Americans from losing their benefits. This is the right thing to do and the wise thing to do. Extending benefits will prevent many from going under the poverty line, and it will also stimulate spending and the economy as a whole. For every $1 we put into the pockets of the unemployed, $2 get created in the economy. There also will be a vote for a $3.5 billion fund for job programs targeted to disadvantaged communities. This includes $1.5 billion for summer and year-round employment to create a half-million jobs for young people. And there will be a vote to give employers incentives to hire the long-term unemployed.

We're in a fight for the heart and soul of this country. It's a fight about whether we're a country still willing to do big things. Are we willing to invest in our greatest resource — the American people? History is filled with examples of the good we can do when we unite behind strategies to tackle poverty in America.

So I'll close by today by returning to the words of President Johnson when he declared War on Poverty a half-century ago. He said: "Because it is right, because it is wise and because it is possible to conquer poverty," we have an obligation to act. Having the power, we have the duty.

Thank you for honoring that duty. Thank you for supplying the brainpower. Thank you for crafting policy solutions that help show us the way. God bless you all. And God bless the United States.