This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. One draft of the speech exists in the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers at the John F. Kennedy Library. Page images of the draft can be found here.
There are three groups in our population - at the bottom of what FDR called the economic pyramid - who have - along with our farmers - suffered the greatest economic hardship from lack of constructive, dynamic leadership in Washington. Those three groups are the unemployed, the underpaid, and our older citizens.
In an age of unparalleled American prosperity - at a time when many Americans are enjoying the greatest material abundance in history - when we have more automobiles and larger television screens than ever before - these three groups form an island of economic distress, of personal hardship, and of government neglect - in the great sea of American plenty.
The first of these groups is the unemployed. Today more than four million men - more than five percent of our entire working force - are jobless. These unemployed workers must struggle to support themselves and their families under an outmoded system of unemployment insurance which has failed dismally to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
When first devised, unemployment benefits were large enough for workers to pay their rent, their grocery and doctor bills, until a new job could be found. But that was 22 years ago. And the benefits that were adequate 22 years ago do not begin to meet the essential needs of today. Today's unemployed worker must try to make ends meet on a meager average payment of $31 a month - payments which are, in many States, completely exhausted in anywhere from 4 weeks to 4 months - forcing the worker to rely entirely on the generosity of relatives and friends or on public assistance. This is not a situation which can be permitted to prevail in the richest country on earth.
Last year I introduced in the Senate a bill to modernize our unemployment insurance system - to bring it into line with the realities of today's high prices and prolonged periods of unemployment. This bill would have given all workers at least half their pay for thirty-nine weeks. I have reintroduced the bill this year, and I intend to keep fighting for its passage. For I believe - and I think the Congress will agree - that our unemployed workers are entitled to a decent and dignified living, while they search for the jobs which will allow them to contribute their productive skill to America’s growing economy.
The second of these groups is the underpaid. Since the $1 an hour minimum wage was established four years ago, prices have risen, the productivity of our workers has risen, and wage rates have risen. And today - four years later - Department of Labor statistics show clearly that the average single worker - much less the family man - cannot survive decently on a wage of $1 an hour.
Last year I introduced a bill to raise the national minimum wage to $1.25 an hour. I believe that this bill is an important first step toward a decent wage for all Americans - I believe that it is a necessary step - and I believe that it will be passed, regardless of any opposition from those who say we cannot afford it.
For we cannot afford to oppose this increase in the minimum wage. Substandard wages inevitably take their toll in poor health, low efficiency, and great personal tragedy. This is a price we cannot afford to pay. Our greatest asset in the worldwide struggle for industrial supremacy - and in our own fight for a decent way of life for all Americans - is a strong, healthy and vital labor force. To secure such a labor force, Congress must provide our workers with the important protection of a decent minimum wage.
The last of these groups is our older citizens. Today sixteen million Americans are over the age of 65 - 400,000 of them live in Wisconsin. And as our population grows during the turbulent, expanding sixties, the number of our older citizens will also grow. Here in Wisconsin you have already experienced some of this growth - in Milwaukee County alone the number of people past the age of 65 has risen 30% in the last ten years.
And most of this growing group of older citizens must try to make their later years bearable on social security benefits which have not kept up with the rising cost of living—benefits which average a meager $72 a month. Three out of every five of our older citizens struggle for subsistence on an income of less than one thousand dollars a year - four out of ever five receive less than two thousand dollars a year.
These figures make plain that no matter how they retrench - how many accustomed comforts they learn to do without the later years of many of our older citizens are attended by cruel hardships. And this hardship becomes heartbreak and despair when illness threatens.
For this is the time of life when the need for medical care rises sharply. And this is also the time when income drops, and the soaring costs of medical attention become the most burdensome. Thousands of our older citizens - living on small fixed incomes - are unable to afford the medical care they desperately need.
I am convinced that the only solution is an extension of our social security system to provide hospital and medical care for our older citizens. That is why I offered a medical care bill early this year to provide for such a program - completely self-financing and based on sound insurance principles. That bill, I know, will be debated at length. But there is no debate as to the need. There is no debate as to the harsh facts of life which our older citizens face. And there should be no debate about the fact that this bill must be passed if we are to make even a beginning in solving this critical problem.
"The test of our progress," said Franklin Roosevelt, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." It is by that great test that we must measure our progress in the years ahead. We have the economic strength - the goods and the wealth - that are needed. We must also have the will and the vision and the courage which the task demands.