Reviving the American Dream


Whether they are struggling to find a job or have stopped trying, unemployment is holding down millions of Americans.  For them, the American dream feels out of reach. 

With the passage of tax reform, our attention needs to be on getting everyone who can work to work.  A growing economy means more jobs and greater demand for qualified workers.  Too many Americans have been stuck on the sidelines, and our goal is to move them into the workforce and out of poverty.

On Jan. 18, I had the opportunity to speak at the American Enterprise Institute on how the Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee, which I chair, is working to unlock the potential in more people.  Human resources can be a confusing term, but what we are really talking about is human capital – helping Americans become self-sufficient and productive, which not only betters their lives but also strengthens families and the economy. 

The current anti-poverty system in our country is missing the mark.  Seven million men are missing from the workforce, and 5.5 million young adults are not in school and not working.  At the same time, there are more than six million job openings across the country.  We must do a better job of empowering those outside the workforce to connect with available opportunities. 

A witness at one of our subcommittee hearings last year spoke passionately about how finding a stable job changed his life and the trajectory of his family.  In addition to being able to provide for his children and his aging mother, the pride and self-confidence he achieved through the dignity of work became evident to his children, who have stayed in school and are now more deliberate in their decisions about their own futures.   

This is the heavy responsibility we face.  If our anti-poverty programs are successful, they can have positive ripple effects throughout families for generations.  If not, the reverse incentives will cause repeated harm and keep more Americans trapped in a damaging cycle. 

Only three percent of individuals who work full-time are in poverty.  This is an important statistic, as it reflects why it is so crucial to focus on workforce development.  Expecting able-bodied adults to work, or prepare for work, in exchange for benefits must be the centerpiece of reform.  

We also need to ensure working is always a better situation for people than stagnating in government dependence.  I have heard recently from Nebraska employers who are eager to hire but struggling to find qualified workers, while others have had employees turn down promotions or raises to avoid losing benefits.  We need to move away from measuring the effectiveness of our anti-poverty programs with the number of people enrolled or amount of money spent and instead evaluate results – whether we are actually helping people in a meaningful, long-lasting manner.  

For example, the Nebraska Department of Labor has piloted an innovative approach to unemployment insurance.  Instead of simply distributing benefits, the agency is pairing recipients with staff members who counsel them one-on-one through the process and help them achieve re-employment.  Another example is the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, known as MIECHV, which I introduced a bill to reauthorize last year.  The bill passed the House in September.  This voluntary program helps families in at-risk communities reach self-sufficiency, and its funding is contingent upon demonstrated evidence of effectiveness. 

Our work in this area is especially timely as tax reform lays the groundwork for strong, sustained economic growth.  Businesses across the country are expanding, hiring, and raising wages.  Full and immediate expensing allows for increased up-front investment, which means more workers will be needed to build, deliver, and operate equipment.  For those who re-enter the workforce, the doubling of the standard deduction will help them keep more of the money they earn. 

Building up our workforce is the next key factor in realizing our country’s economic potential.  We should not miss this opportunity to revive the American Dream by empowering more people to experience the dignity of work.

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