The Editor is pleased to present the following excerpts from the first speech before the U.S. Senate by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, making an impassioned plea for an extension of unemployment insurance. The speech provides deep insights into Senator Booker’s concern for all his constituents.
Even when I was running for this office, I encountered so much frustration in my days before I came down here. People you would think would love Congress would look at me and say go down there and give them help. So many people in America understand what we’ve endured for the last six years, which is the worst economy of my lifetime. And, while we are seeing some progress in our national recovery, it has come slowly and unevenly, and many families are still hurting.
Americans believe that Congress isn’t doing all it can to address the urgent problems they face and believe that we have in some cases made problems worse. Some people I understand have surrendered to cynicism about government, cynicism about America’s future, and cynicism about the ability for people themselves to shape their own lives and their own destiny. But we cannot allow the pain of so many Americans to overshadow that long history that we all share.
There’s a reason why American history does not look kindly upon cynics and naysayers. Our collective pasts offer a resounding testimony to overcoming impossible challenges, to righting terrible wrongs, and advancing deeper and deeper meaning to those very American words – liberty and justice for all! That’s what our nation is all about. The oldest constitutional democracy.
We didn’t get there right away – even in our founding documents where Native Americans were referred to as savages, African Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings and women not at all. We have made progress. I know I’m here in this chamber because of what this nation has done by coming together, and like all of my colleagues, all ninety-nine of them, we are not here because of some royal lineage or entitled ancestry. I personally stand here like others because of the work, sacrifice, and discipline of my ancestors, but also because they had the blessing to labor in a nation that for generation after generation advanced to greater and greater inclusion – greater and greater opportunities spread among more and more people.
Our nation’s enduring belief is that, when we struggle together for a common cause, America is better and thus we are all better. It is the understanding that we are a nation with a profound and sacred Declaration of Independence. Also, our country has a historical course that profoundly proclaims a declaration of interdependence.
We began, and have endured, because our ancestors understood the common cause that is America. This cause was heralded by our greatest leaders in every single generation, people whose words, speeches, and example inspired me to be here today.
George Washington, an original founding father, reminded us of this principal American ideal in his farewell address where he wrote “the name American belongs to us.” We have in common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty we possess are the work of joint counsel and joint efforts as we experience common dangers, common sufferings and common successes.
I’m grateful that I’ve never forgotten what my mom has told me time and time again, “Boy, don’t forget where you came from.” I know from whence I come. I know from whence all of my colleagues in the Senate come. I’m proud that all one hundred of us, descendants of slaves, immigrants, laborers, factory workers, domestics, and farmers who through toil brought from the earth hope, business people who, with seemingly impossible mountains before them, climbed high and provided new opportunity for all of us despite our political differences.
We share a common heritage and a common desire to address the challenges that plague this nation and hurt families, to serve our country so that we may give truth to words like courage, patriotism, and wisdom – so that they never become simply empty words etched above our heads, but constantly fuel the passion and desire of our hearts.
That’s why I’m inspired by the work of the Senate. I’ve not surrendered to the cynicism about it. I’m inspired by the remarkable people who sit around me in the Senate that this is a great institution. I now have an even more fervid, relentless belief that together we can address our common cause and the common challenges that undermine our national strength.
Principal among the challenges facing the United States are the persistent economic hardships and insecurity facing too many Americans. Our economy, though improving, is nonetheless failing too many people. Economic trends and challenges not of any individual’s making – and particularly not of the making of those who felt the pain of this great recession the most – are forcing too many families out of the middle class and into poverty.
This is not a threat to just some. It is a threat to all of us. A shrinking middle class and intractable poverty is a threat to America. It’s a challenge to the very ideals that we profess as a nation. The ideal that each generation should do better than the one before. The ideal that we are a land of growing prosperity shared by an ever greater population. The ideal that anyone born in any station can, through hard work, self-discipline and sacrifice, make it in America.
Over the last few decades, realization of these ideals is becoming less and less the case. You see wages that are stagnant and by some measures have declined for the middle class. And social mobility in America, most embarrassingly, lags behind any of our competitor nations. More and more people are now getting stuck and feeling stuck through no fault of their own in a dismal, hope-subduing economic position. I watched, when I was mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, how company after company shed workers during the recession. Retirement savings collapsed. The ratio of people looking for jobs to jobs available jaggedly cut against the American worker. It is still standing at roughly three Americans looking for a job for every job that is available.
This jarring recession and other economic trends continue to deepen our national economic wounds. New companies are now outsourcing jobs and investment. New technologies that bring incredible societal benefit are also driving many jobs into obsolescence. The worker in America is facing a weakened negotiating position.
As a new senator, I am inspired by my colleagues. Their incredible staffs, the unsung giants of our federal government, are also working hard to meet the challenges. Members on both sides of the aisle have a true understanding of our common cause and our collective responsibility here in the Senate. Senator after senator that I talked to is driving an agenda that gives my very hope sustenance, and I’m proud to roll up my sleeves and work with them regardless of party.
While we may have differences in approach, disagreements of strategy, the common call to improve our economy has senators nobly pushing towards what I believe are critically important legislative measures, measures that range from efforts to address our national skills gap, to expanding educational opportunities, to boosting our manufacturing sector, to lifting small business, to promoting research, development, investment in our infrastructure, and to efforts to stop the perverse incentives that drive jobs and investments overseas.
However, these critical and worthy efforts may take months or longer to move through Congress and even more time to expand our economy at the necessary rate, and thus they do not relieve us from the urgency to right now do more to help families caught amidst the treacherous economic trends – families that so desperately want to work, who spend their days searching for jobs, sending out resume after resume after resume, and going online and filling out one job application after another.
Tens of thousands of New Jersey families are visiting food pantries for food, depleting their savings accounts, cashing out IRAs, and racking up charges on credit cards, just to pay for necessities, skipping prescriptions, missing rent payments, falling behind on their mortgages, letting their car insurance lapse, having their utilities cancelled, and having their children miss out on field trips or after school activities just because their parents can’t afford the cost.
This is why unemployment insurance is critical. It is America answering the call to help people in a crisis not of their own making. And I am so proud that for the last fifty years, America has answered this call time and time again to help others in crisis.
You see we are America. We have been America. This is our tradition. When times are tough, as a great New Jersey poet said, we take care of our own. In fact we are a nation that takes care of its own and reaches beyond. If there is a crisis, America is there.
If there is a crisis – be it a typhoon in the Philippines or an earthquake in Haiti, America responds. Be it an act of terror in New York or Washington, an oil spill in the gulf, flooding in Colorado or a hurricane barreling up the Northeast, America responds. When the vicissitudes of the market create economic crisis for our people at levels as high as they are now, America responds. Extending unemployment insurance has always been viewed in this light.
Senator Robert Wagner rose in the Senate in the mid-1930s amidst a depression that cast millions of families into economic peril to call for action. Heeding that call, Congress adopted the Social Security Act and its unemployment insurance provisions, which blended elements of economic wisdom and social justice.
George Bush, who extended unemployment benefits five times at a time when unemployment was lower than it is now, said in very plain English, “Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food and other critical bills. They need our assistance in these difficult times and we cannot let them down.”