At the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Antipoverty Forum on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called for a revival of the dignity of work in America in order to preserve the American Dream for future generations. A partial transcript of Rubio’s remarks is below:
In recent years, this path to dignity and to prosperity has closed off, and it has left many Americans, particularly those without advanced degrees, which is the majority of the country, on their own to chart their own course where clear and attainable paths to a meaningful and prosperous life once existed.
And while families in everyday America live paycheck-to-paycheck, they are being lectured by the official gatekeepers of America – pundits in Washington and on Wall Street and those that dominate our large institutions – who are always telling them that things have never been better. I would say that that’s true in our bubbles of prosperity, and certainly true in elite circles.
If your financial assets and wealth are tied to stocks and real estate, your life is probably better than it has ever been--your wealth is doubled. But at the same time that that was happening, the total productivity growth – basically what Americans actually produce – has declined. We produce less and are somehow worth more. That is the very definition of a bubble. That is not evidence of success.
So we have to chart a new course if we are to deal with not just our economy and not just with poverty, but with the very essence of our nation, our very identity as a people. And that will require us to deal with life as it is today for our families.
In doing so we can’t limit ourselves to this false choice between either living on welfare or some government program, or on the other a lifetime of low-paying work. That is a false choice. This is not the American Dream. I believe that a true choice does exist and a path forward.
We will only find it if we are willing to restore the dignity of work as core of economic goals. Economic growth matters, GDP growth matters, all these numbers are relevant, but our goal should be restoring the dignity of work. You need economic growth to do that. You need all these other advances and movements forward to do that, but the goal of our economic policy should be to restore the dignity of work.
To truly make work the center of the antipoverty movement in America, we need to make this dignified work available to as many people as possible.
Let me start by outlining how we are not going to do it, which is a policy that the political left is now offering. It’s called the “Universal Basic Income,” or a “federal jobs guarantee.” With the basic income idea, they want to give everyone a government check for thousands of dollars no matter if they work or not. The jobs guarantee is even more interesting. The idea is to give a $15 an hour government job with full benefits to everyone who wants one, but I’m not exactly sure what they are going to do with this job.
Both of these supposedly “big and new” ideas. They are certainly big, but they aren’t new. In fact, they double down on what’s wrong in the first place. It looks and views Americans as only consumers instead of fathers and mothers and human beings, defining life by simply how much money you make and therefore how many things you can afford to buy for yourself, as opposed to the dignity that comes attached to productive work. In essence it doubles down on what’s wrong. It writes off millions of Americans simply because they currently are in low-income jobs, and that’s a problem. That’s not the solution.
Both of these ideas are basically the same thing. They would have the government pay Americans who today are low-income to be unproductive, whether it is sitting at home or whatever these millions of “government jobs” would be.
Now, I reject those ideas because they won’t work, and they actually make things worse. That does not mean that the solution is just the status quo, that if we basically just pretend that the path we are on now, that economic growth alone minus any other initiatives will take care of everything. You cannot solve this without economic growth, but economic growth alone will not solve the architectural and structural changes that our economy is facing.
And that’s why I think it’s important that we reject false choice of economic growth for the few with redistribution, versus economic growth for the few without redistribution.
What we need instead are policies that view Americans as human beings, as men and women who cannot flourish without the sense of accomplishment, and pride and self-sufficiency that comes with a good-paying job. Policies built on the realization that our people need real and productive work, not just a paycheck. Policies that create jobs that allow them to pour themselves into a task, turn their efforts into productivity, and allow them to use that productivity to invest in themselves, their families, and their communities. Family and community: two of the most important institutions of any society. Both directly impacted by the lack of dignified work.
So to achieve this we need a clearer picture of the “future of work”. It’s a phrase you hear quite often. The idea is that the modern economy is causing deep disruptions to American work lives, so something new must be done to help them succeed. This is all true, but it’s a buzz phrase that’s too often used to absolve government, to absolve business of a responsibility that’s in our national interest to build an economy that works for American workers, instead of American workers who work for the economy. It’s important to always remind ourselves that America’s not an economy, it’s a nation of people, of families, and communities, and that our economy works for the people, not the people for the economy.
Ask someone at a think tank panel like this one what the “future of work” means to them, and good people, smart people, but you’ll likely hear about automation or job re-training, and all that’s true, but it’s far more than that. Because focusing only on that sells short the problems referenced by the phrase.
A dignified “future of work” is not a lifetime’s worth of scrambling from one dying industry to another in a constant battle against the ever-shifting forces of globalization and automation. A dignified “future of work” is not primarily an assertion of the need for the dignity of work, low-paid rootlessness will become the future of work defacto, and American workers will continue be stuck in the same no-win situation.
So, the centrality of work in our antipoverty programs would be helped tremendously by strengthening the dignity of work. It is not enough to make our antipoverty efforts a feeder program into an economy that doesn’t provide good jobs for low-skilled Americans. As I said earlier, we need jobs that are stable. Jobs that will teach workers new skills. Companies that are willing to invest in their workforce. And jobs that provide for families in ways no government ever could.
And so in conclusion, I wanted to offer a few ideas that I think could help us build this future. Some of these are old proposals of mine that we hope to pass others are new ones. Some will be recognizably conservative, others will be new. I believe they are all fundamentally conservative, because the key challenge of our time is to conserve the classic American institution of dignified work.
For starters, we need to get the millions of what scholars have called the “missing men” back into the labor force. By some counts, there are upwards of 6 million prime-age, able-bodied men who simply do not work and aren’t even looking. It’s a national crisis. It deserves an emergency solution.
In addition to having policies to build an economy that creates more manufacturing jobs, we should reform the Earned Income Tax Credit to more clearly reward each hour of work. And we should reform anti-poverty programs like the federal disability insurance entitlement and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, to not just mandate work, but to promote it.
We need to invest in the productivity of American workers, and especially those who are of low-skill. The tax cuts passed last year were a good first step.
We need to make the immediate deduction for capital investment, called “full expensing,” part of permanent law, so that companies, and employers know they can invest with confidence in the future. This provision rewards the businesses building new factories and high-technology equipment here in our country, and will do more as a result, to make American workers more competitive.
We shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for American workers on the international stage. That doesn’t mean you have to be against free trade or open trade. But it does mean we need to make it painful for people who are trying to impose on his bad trade, and unfair trade, like China, a nation which at the direction of the Communist party and government are stealing the fruits of our innovation and our labor. Pro-work conservatives should reckon with the fact that the mismanaged opening of our economy to China has done much to create dependency on antipoverty programs as these low-skilled jobs offshored there.
We need to create new opportunities for working students. We should help to clear the once well-traveled path to a stable working-class life provided by a technical careers. We can do this through accrediting innovative educational products, like vocational degrees. Imagine for a moment, a high school senior interested in becoming an aircraft mechanic. The possibility of low-cost online courses in the principles of engineering, with a virtual tutor, to supplement hands-on learning might better suit them, than a traditional 4-year college degree. And probably end up paying more, certainly in the short term. We should make sure the federal government is not pushing them into an over-subsidized and expensive degrees by reforming student loans and accreditation.
We need to ensure those in low-skill, low-pay industries are not trapped by non-competitive agreements. While non-compete agreements make sense in certain circumstances, many entry level workers are surprised, to find themselves unable to take their next job because of broad non-compete agreements. It is a concerning trend that hampers economic growth and holds individuals back from reaching their full potential. The issue merits scrutiny from those of us in favor of robust and open labor markets.
So let me close by saying that I try to remind myself every single day that I am literally just a generation removed from poverty and despair. And sometimes I’ve wondered where I be right now at this very moment, or whether I would have ever been born, if there had never been an America? What kind of lives or future would my children have if this was not a land of the American Dream? What if my father had been stuck working as a bar back his whole life instead of making it to head bartender? Which is kind of a promotion, thought it may not sound that way.
What kind of life would I have right now, if those jobs hadn’t been available. In all likelihood, I too would have be among the millions of people around the world who are on the outside looking in, forever frustrated that my parents had no power or privilege and that I was therefore unable to achieve my full potential, no matter how much talent one might have or how hard you’re willing you are to work. And I think if there’s anything to be concerned about with regard to all this it is that a growing number of Americans and their children do not see a path today to the stability necessary for this. And it’s clear that the status quo isn’t working. And we must try a new way – one that applies the old wisdom that we seek to conserve to the new challenges of the new era.
I would close by saying that in recent days and weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about a term called nationalism. And I think some are confusing true American nationalism with a nationalism built on race or ethnicity. America is a direct rejection of ethnic and racial identity, as a national organizing principle.
American nationalism—real nationalism—is pride and a commitment to America and to its identity. And our identity is not a race, our identity is not an ethnicity. Our identity is that of a people, bound together, by a belief, by a powerful principle, that all human beings are created equal and that they have the right to life, and liberty, and to pursue happiness not given to them not by government, not by laws, but by their creator God. This is our identity and when we talk about the dignity of work, when we talk about poverty, when we talk about economic deprivation, all of these are a direct challenge to that identity, to allow every single human being, the opportunity to pursue happiness as they define it is not just a good idea or a nice thing to do. It is at the core of who we are. It is what makes us different, it is what makes us special. It is in essence, the purpose for America.
And so what we are fighting for in fighting for these things is not simply a better economy and better jobs, but to preserve our very identity for future generations. And despite all of our differences and all of our challenges, I do believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans want us to remain that kind of country. And that’s why I know, that like those that came before us, we will solve this problem. It will take time, and it will not be easy, and it will require a lot of thinking and a lot of work, but we will solve this problem. And in the end I know that we, in this generation, will do what those who have been here before us did, what Americans have always done. We will do whatever it takes to leave whatever it takes for our children, an America that is as prosperous, and as special, as the one that we inherited.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was first elected to the Senate in 2010.