This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
“The test of our progress,” said Franklin Roosevelt, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
This year, in the United States Senate, two major issues will be presented to fit this test -- two bills aimed at providing enough for those who have too little -- two bills aimed at sharing our abundance with those who have been left out in this age of so-called prosperity: those drawing unemployment insurance -- and those affected by our minimum wage law.
These two bills will test our progress -- and our compassion. And if this Congress fails the test, both items will be high on the agenda of the next Congress -- and the next President.
Increasing the Minimum Wage
This week we reported to the floor a bill I introduced -- with the co-sponsorship of Senator Morse -- to increase minimum wages to $1.25 an hour. There are those who say we cannot afford this increase -- that it is inflationary -- or that it is unnecessary. But I am convinced that we cannot afford to pay less. If such clamps on inflation are necessary, the place to begin is not on our underpaid workers.
Department of Labor statistics show that the average single worker -- much less a family man -- cannot survive on a wage of $1 an hour. Department of Labor statistics show that since the dollar level was set five years ago housing costs have risen 22 per cent, medical care has risen 28 per cent, and other costs have risen as much as 30 per cent. Department of Labor statistics also show a substantial rise in productivity and a substantial rise in the general wage structure. And yet the head of that Department, the Republican Secretary of Labor, nevertheless came before our subcommittee last summer and opposed paying all American workers a decent wage -- not even a wage which would keep pace with rising prices and rising productivity.
Substandard wages inevitably mean poor health, low efficiency and great personal tragedies. This is what America cannot afford. Our greatest asset in the race for industrial supremacy is a strong, healthy, vital labor force. Our greatest handicap would be an ill-fed, ill-clothed labor force.
Unions cannot assume the full burden. They cannot be expected to look out for every worker. The unprotected, unorganized workers at the bottom of the economic scale must look to the Government for protection -- and the Government must provide that protection.
Strengthening Unemployment Compensation
Secondly, we must modernize our unemployment compensation system. That system, when first enacted, provided benefits to workers large enough and long enough to enable them to pay their rent and their grocery and their doctor bills until work could be found. It was intended to put back into the community at least 50 per cent of the loss in wage payments. But a schedule of unemployment compensation payments that was adequate 22 years ago is grossly inadequate today. Less than 20 per cent of lost wages is replaced today.
Whatever data you may hear about prosperity, there are still over four million people -- over 5 per cent of the labor force -- searching for work today -- and those that are still able to receive unemployment checks must get by on an average benefit check of less than $31 a week. There are almost one million people who have been unemployed for 15 weeks or longer. In many states that means the complete exhaustion of meager benefits and reliance upon either the bounty of relatives or public assistance.
That is not the choice we should offer in a country with the highest industrial capacity in the world. Along with Senator McCarthy of Minnesota, I have introduced a bill to give all unemployed workers at least one-half their pay for at least 39 weeks. I believe in our programs of foreign aid and mutual security -- but we should also take care of our own. And the place to begin is by enacting decent nationwide standards of unemployment compensation.