Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction. Now what is true – and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious – is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit, changes that have not let up. Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and they face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top. All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs, even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.
For the past seven years, our goal has been a growing economy that also works better for everybody. We’ve made progress. But we need to make more. And despite all the political arguments we’ve had these past few years, there are actually some areas where Americans broadly agree. We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all, and offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids. And we have to make college affordable for every American.
No hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10% of a borrower’s income. And that’s good. But now we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year. It’s the right thing to do. But a great education isn’t all we need in this new economy.
We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber. For everyone else, especially folks in their forties and fifties, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher. Americans understand that at some point in their careers in this new economy, they may have to retool, they may have to retrain. But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build in the process. That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever; we shouldn’t weaken them, we should strengthen them.
And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today. That by the way is what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when you lose a job, or you go back to school, or you strike out and launch that new business, you’ll still have coverage. Nearly 18 million have gained coverage so far. And in the process health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.
Now, I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon. But there should be other ways parties can work together to improve economic security. Say a hardworking American loses his job – we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance, we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills. And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him. That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.
I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up, and I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers who don’t have children. But there are some areas where we just have to be honest – it has been more difficult to find agreement over the last seven years and a lot of them fall under the category of what role the government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations. And it’s an honest disagreement. And the American people have a choice to make.
I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, there’s red tape that needs to be cut. But after years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense.