By: Sen. Joe Manchin
February 4, 2014
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address last week, spoke to the American people about ways he feels we can address income inequality and his plans to bypass Congress by issuing executive orders aimed at expanding opportunity. As a former governor, I understand his frustrations with Capitol Hill, which does not produce the best results for America. But as a senator, I am discouraged by the efforts President Obama has made to reach common-sense solutions where Democrats and Republicans can agree.
I grew up in Farmington, W.Va., where there was no such thing as economic inequality. We were all blessed. Everyone earned a similar salary, lived in the same-size houses and attended the same schools. Through my eyes, we were all pretty much equal.
My outlook changed the day in 1960 that my mom called me up from our garage, where I was working on my go-cart. My hands were dirty and greasy, but Mom insisted. As I washed my hands and climbed the steps, I remember hearing an Irish accent foreign to my small town. That was the day I shook hands with Ted Kennedy and the campaign staff of his brother, John F. Kennedy, as they sat at my parents' kitchen table eating spaghetti and discussing ways that we could lift all Americans out of poverty and improve the quality of life in our country. JFK called his agenda the New Frontier, "the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats" -- and it inspired me to serve.
Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, went on to address income inequality and poverty in the United States by creating a social safety net, a poverty floor that no American should fall beneath. Those were noble goals then and now, but if we truly want to help lift Americans out of poverty and into the middle class, we must adapt to the changing times and move beyond the same old policy solutions.
President Obama plans to issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractor workers and is calling on Congress to do the same for all workers. He also demanded Congress extend long-term unemployment insurance for yet another year. For half a century, we've focused primarily on protecting and sustaining safety-net programs: food stamps, unemployment benefits and incremental raises to the minimum wage. While I support temporarily extending unemployment benefits and increasing the minimum wage in a responsible way, these programs simply help those in need to get by. What I haven't heard from the president is any concrete plan to create an environment that nurtures economic growth and help workers find high-paying skilled jobs.
Don't get me wrong: After three years, I have learned the hard way that nothing is easy in the Senate, even if it's popular and right. I know everyone says that a "grand bargain" on spending and entitlement programs is dead, but I still hold out hope that the president will dust off the Simpson-Bowles framework and put the force of presidential leadership behind it. Because, let's face it: Until we get our financial house in order, we cannot invest in our priorities. And it is those priorities where we finally have some agreement.