Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the keynote address at the second day of the 2014 New America Conference.
The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of State
MRS. CLINTON: (Applause.) Well, I’m delighted to be here, and I want to thank Eric for the very kind words, but also for his generous contributions to this institution as well as everything that he does to support innovation and growth in our country. And I want to thank my friend and former colleague, Anne-Marie Slaughter. I am deeply grateful for all of her contributions, her intellectual fire power at the State Department. She helped us put smart power into practice, including through her leadership of the first-ever comprehensive review of the State Department (inaudible) called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which provided a blueprint for 21st century statecraft. She’s now bringing that same imaginative, disciplined leadership to the New America Foundation. And a focus on big ideas, on the intersection of policy and technology, is exactly where she has been and where this extraordinary foundation is headed.
I think New America is becoming an even more exciting and indispensable fixture in the policy landscape, so I’m delighted to be here in the midst of a conference whose program I read and admired, and I think it’s a great way to bring together people who are also thinking big, but doing so with their feet firmly planted in the reality of the times in which we are living.
Speaking of times, this is a particularly special one for me and my husband. We are still reveling in the fact that we’re going to become grandparents, and I’ve already learned that when you’re about to become a parent for the first time, you can be a little terrified at the prospect and the responsibility. But becoming a grandparent for the first time? Nothing buy joy and excitement. (Laughter.) Very little responsibility, so I’m especially looking forward to that. My only regret is that my late mother won’t be here to meet her great-grandchild. She would have been over the moon and filled with good advice, not only for the parents but for the grandparents.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately because Mother’s Day always prompts those memories. They bring a fresh reminder of how much she gave to me and my brothers and so many others, and her commitment to social justice, which helped to mold and inspire me when I was growing up. I think about the obstacles she overcame in what was a very difficult life. By the age of 14, she was off on her own, working as a housekeeper and nanny. Thankfully, the woman who hired her allowed her to take time during the middle of the day to try to complete high school. And she always talked about the kindness that certain people showed to her during the course of what was a very difficult childhood that gave her the confidence to keep going forward, that really derived from a community that was caring and willing to support the weakest and the most marginalized among them.
And of course she and my father gave us a middle-class life, with opportunities she never could have imagined for herself, but which she always believed could be possible for her children. And that was a great gift that I will be forever grateful for, and then Bill and I of course worked hard to pass on those values to our daughter, and it’s been a great reward to watch her grow into an accomplished, purposeful young woman.
I think about what it must have been like, though, to have very difficult circumstances during my mother’s life, but never losing faith or hope in how far her children and grandchildren eventually would go thanks to not just their hard work, but the country and society into which they would be born.
That’s really how America is supposed to work. Each generation striving to create opportunity for the next, planting trees that we will not be sitting in the share of, but expecting others who will follow to be able to; not expecting to be handed anything on a silver platter, but believing that all of us would be given a fair shot at success if we were willing to do the work that was required.
Now, in one way or another, this has been a driving force for me in large measure because of my mother’s example from my very earliest years. And it was also a sense of obligation – how does one keep this dream alive, whether it’s growing up in a suburb of Chicago, or going off to a great college and then law school, or in Arkansas, the White House, or in the Senate, or the State Department. So I always believed that, but I must tell you that representing our country around the world during this very consequential time in history has given me an even deeper understanding of what’s at stake here and why this organization, your emphasis on big ideas, your belief that we have to keep reinventing America, is so essential.
People everywhere told me that that is what they’ve always loved and admired about America. Our values of opportunity, freedom, equality. It’s why so many people still look to us for leadership. It’s why so many still risk so much to join our mosaic. Even China’s new president, Xi Jinping, has picked up on the theme – starting to talk about a “Chinese Dream.”
We know that America is strongest when prosperity and common purpose are broadly shared. When all our people believe they have the opportunity, and in fact do, to participate fully in our economy and our democracy.
Now, the empirical evidence tells us that our society is healthiest and our economy grows fastest when people in the middle are working and thriving, and when people at the bottom believe that they can make their way into that broad-based middle. Now, this is not a new insight. It’s time-tested wisdom. It’s at the heart of what I believe is the basic bargain of America: No matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have the opportunity to build a good life for yourself and your family.
Now, unfortunately, it’s no secret that for too many families in America today, that isn’t the way it works anymore. Instead of getting ahead, they’re finding it harder than ever to get their footing in our changing economy. The dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach. And many Americans understandably feel frustrated – even angry.
The numbers are stark: More than four out of 10 children born into our lowest-income families never manage to climb out of relative poverty. Forget about getting rich. I’m just talking about getting into the middle class and staying there. That shouldn’t be as hard as it is now. And what’s more, an almost equal percentage of kids who are born into the most affluent families stay there for life, no matter what their effort. That is the opposite of the mobility we think of as a hallmark of America.
And here’s a particularly troubling fact: A majority of African American children whose families fought their way into the middle class decades ago now have lower incomes than their parents did, and many are falling out of the middle class altogether.
To understand what’s going on here, we have to take a good look at what’s happening in both the economy and in society. In the economy, since 2000, productivity has increased by more than 25 percent, yet wages for most Americans have stagnated, further depressing demand and slowing growth. Median real hourly wages for Americans in the middle have been flat over the past decade. For lower-income Americans, they’ve actually fallen. And even for many higher-wage earners below the very top, they’ve barely risen.
So what do we draw from this? Americans are working harder, contributing more than ever to their companies’ bottom lines and to our country’s total economic output, and yet many are still barely getting by, barely holding on, not seeing the rewards that they believe their hard work should have merited. And where’s it all going? Well, economists have documented how the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top – not just the top 1 percent, but the top .1 percent or the .01 percent of the population – has risen sharply over the last generation. Some are calling it a throwback to the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons.
Now, as Secretary of State, I saw the way extreme inequality has corrupted other societies, hobbled growth, and left entire generations alienated and unmoored. From Guatemala to Greece to Pakistan, I urged elites to pay their fair share, to provide services that would be the base on which more of their fellow countrymen and women could climb out of poverty. I pressed governments to invest in their people and an inclusive positive vision for the future. Now, in the Middle East and North Africa, we saw the explosive results when opportunity and potential are denied for too long.
But one could ask: Well, what does that mean for us? We’re not like them. Well, imagine a young single mother trying to raise a family today. After all, there are some 10 million single moms working hard to make it on their own in America today, up from just 3.4 million in 1970. Mothers are now the primary or sole breadwinners in nearly 40 percent of all families. This single mom lives somewhere in our vast metro sprawl, traveling long distances every day to work a low-wage job she’s lucky to have. Many other young people in her neighborhood are still looking. She works hard. But she knows that her male coworkers tend to make more than she does. It’s demeaning and demoralizing – and it shortchanges her whole family.
She lives in dread of her baby getting sick or some other emergency. Because like nine out of 10 workers earning the lowest wages – most of them women – she doesn’t have access to paid family leave. And forget sick days, or flexibility, or predictability, which is just as important for parents and caregivers. So she relies on a network of friends and family to help care for her kids. But that too is hard. The neighborhood isn’t like the one she – and certainly not her mother – grew up in. Religious and community organizations are weaker. The schools never seem good enough; there are few quality, affordable childcare options. But she has dreams. She certainly has dreams for her kids. But she doesn’t just face ceilings on her aspirations and opportunities. Sometimes it feels as if the floor has collapsed beneath her.
Now, these are the kinds of daily struggles of millions and millions of Americans. Those fighting to get into the middle class and those fighting to stay there. And it was something of a wakeup call when it was recently reported that Canadian middle-class incomes are now higher than in the United States. They are working fewer hours for more pay than Americans are, enjoying a stronger safety net, living longer on average, and facing less income inequality.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be. We often think that we invented the middle class. So what can we do about it?
Of course, a lot depends on our leadership here in Washington and across our country. The 1990s taught us that even in the face of difficult long-term economic trends, it’s possible through smart policies and sound investments to enjoy broad-based growth and shared prosperity. My husband gave a lecture at Georgetown recently where he walked through the numbers. Yes, a rising tide really did lift all boats. Twenty-three million new jobs were created. Raising the minimum wage, doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit – that helped millions of lower-income families climb out of poverty for the first time. The Children’s Health Insurance Program changed millions of young lives. And on and on, all with a balanced budget that resulted in surpluses as far as the eye could see.
I remember being on the Budget Committee in the Senate my very first year, with the new administration making different choices. And the next eight years taught us different lessons about how, by policy choices, we can turn surpluses into debt, we can return to rising deficits. That’s what happens when your only policy prescription is to cut taxes for the wealthy. And then to deal with the aftermath of a terrible terrorist attack and two wars without paying for them.
Regulators neglected their oversight of the financial sector and allowed the evolution of an entire shadow banking system that operated without accountability. Government failed to invest adequately in infrastructure, education, basic research. And then the housing crash, the financial crisis hit like a flash flood. Millions of jobs were washed away, along with college savings, mortgages, nest eggs for retirement, confidence – that intangible – confidence in the future.
It’s taken years of painstaking work and strong leadership from President Obama to get our economy growing again. But it is growing. And there are reasons to be optimistic about our future. And we know there are tremendous opportunities that we are better positioned to take advantage of than any country in the world, from big data to clean energy to a resurgence of manufacturing to the dream being realized of energy independence. We are better positioned than anyone to take advantage of these advances. We have the best universities, the most innovative companies, the most creative, flexible, talented workers anywhere.
But it won’t happen just because we have these assets. We’ll need some big ideas, like evidence-based decision making – and old idea that I hope can be restored. (Laughter.) Some of these ideas are as old as America itself, rooted in our values of equality and opportunity. And most of all, we will need to learn again how to work together, how to compromise, how to make pragmatic decisions.
In the upcoming midterm elections, Americans will have choices to make about which path they want to go down and whether we’ll make the investments we need in our people. I will leave that discussion to others. But for a lot of us, in the private and non-profit sectors, we have work to do too. Government doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas, obviously, and even if it wanted, it couldn’t and shouldn’t try to solve all the problems by itself. We have responsibilities to do what we can.
When I left the State Department, I joined my husband and daughter at the Clinton Foundation. I wanted to continue my life-long work pursuing ways and answers and solutions that could help more people live up to their own God-given potential. And I wanted to help try to tear down barriers and crack ceilings that have for too long held back women and men from participating fully in the economy and society.
So I thought, what can we do to build on this great work that Bill had done and that Chelsea was leading, drawing on lessons that really came from my entire life, starting with my work at the Yale Child Study Center when I was in law school, making sure that children are not hobbled from birth, but given more chances to succeed. And it became clear that I could go back to what I had been doing, but unfortunately it was going back to where we had been in some respects 30, 40 years ago, rather than picking up the pace of where we had moved toward. I was very struck by how difficult it was for so many children to be successful in school, despite all the education reform that we have done and experimented with over a very long time now.
And it really did come home to me that part of the problem is that too many of our children are not getting that very early start in those first years that will enable them to take advantage of advances in education. Economic pressures on parents translate into less time and interaction with their children – less time reading and talking, even singing. All of which we now know, which we didn’t know 30 years ago, stimulates crucial brain development.
By age three, children from low-income families have learned, on average, half as many words as children from middle- and upper-income families. By the time they enter school, they have substantially smaller vocabularies than many of their classmates. Experts call this the “word gap,” and it leads directly to an “achievement gap.”
So we’ve launched a public action campaign called Too Small to Fail to give parents the tools and information they need to do their part in beginning to close that word gap, that will give their children the best possible chance in school and later in life.
I also thought we needed to keep moving forward on the unfinished business of the 21st century: empowering women and girls here at home around the world. So we started an effort called No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project. It’s been nearly 20 years since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, when we spoke with one voice to declare that, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” But we still had only a glass half full. So what we are doing is collecting the best data and research available on the progress women and girls have made in the past two decades – both the gains and the gaps – and then making that information accessible to a broad audience.
We’re also building momentum for a 21st century policy agenda for the full participation of women and girls, including here in the United States. Now, there have been big changes in our economy and our society – and in many ways, our institutions, policies, and attitudes haven’t caught up. Women now make up almost half of the U.S. labor force, but they’re largely concentrated in lower-wage positions. Women hold nearly three-quarters of all jobs that rely on tips, like waiters, bartenders, hairstylists, which pay even less than the average minimum wage. And across the board, women are paid less than men for the same work.
And here is part of what’s happening below the surface as a result of this slowdown in progress: American women with the least education – less than a high school education – and the lowest incomes are actually living shorter lives today than their mothers did. Shorter lives than women in any other major industrialized country. The only other place where we’ve seen such a reversal in life expectancy was among Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Now, there’s no single explanation for why life expectancy is declining, but it correlates strongly with unemployment and economic stress. That’s not what we should expect from ourselves, with the best medicine, most advanced technology. It’s not something that we should be satisfied with.
The third area I wanted to focus on at the Clinton Foundation was helping young Americans struggling to make headway in this tough economy. It’s something I’ve also been working on and committed to for decades.
We saw similar problems back in the 1980s, when I served on a workforce training commission organized by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the National Center on Education and the Economy. But the problems have grown more complex as the economy has changed. Across the country, nearly 6 million young people are both out of school and out of work. That’s almost one out of every six. And for young people of color, things are even harder. If you don’t have a college degree or didn’t even graduate from high school, most doors just aren’t open, no matter how hard you knock. Think about what that means. It’s not just about missing a paycheck or going without benefits like health care, although thankfully we’re beginning to resolve that. When young people can’t find work, they miss out on a crucial period of personal and professional growth that reverberates for decades in lower wages and lost opportunities. Those first jobs – I certainly remember my first jobs – that’s where you learn skills, even if it’s just showing up on time; that’s where you build networks and gain confidence, and experience the dignity of work and responsibility. If you miss out on all of that, frustration, rejection and, yes, poverty gives you a much less positive outcome, and the rest of your family and community and society.
Now, economists say that our youth unemployment crisis could cost America roughly $20 billion in lost earnings over the next decade alone. And there’s no doubt that the biggest cause of youth unemployment is an economy that is still not generating enough demand, despite the recovery. So we’ve got to keep growing and investing in the building blocks of that 21st century economy.
The so-called “skills mismatch” is sometimes overstated. But it’s true that to get a good job, you have to, in our knowledge- and technology-based economy, have some form of specific skills and proven work experience, and not just the strong work ethic that was a ticket to the middle class for my parents. But many young Americans don’t have these qualifications, and I would argue it starts at the very beginning and then goes all the way there – through their schooling. They don’t get the job experiences that they need outside of the classroom. They don’t know what is expected of them. And when skills training is available, too often it’s disorganized, it doesn’t actually exist, or it’s for industries that are shrinking, not growing.
So we need to do more to sync up young people, workforce training programs, and employers looking to hire. And so as part of the Clinton Foundation effort, we’re reaching out to businesses big and small and really trying to drill down on what their actual needs are, and why what they tried before hasn’t worked, and how we can do a better job in a public-private partnership to resolve these difficulties. And there are great success stories out there that we can learn more from: apprenticeships, partnerships with community colleges, innovative cross-sector collaborations. There are forward-looking companies that recognize that molding the talent pool of the future is good for them – that’s an investment worth making.
For example, take The Gap. As a leading national clothing retailer, it recently raised its bottom wages. It has lots of experience hiring and training young Americans, many for their first jobs.
And the company has partnered with several non-profits to specifically provide job training and paid internships to underserved youth who might not otherwise make it through their doors. Most of the young people who complete this program go on to become full-time Gap employees.
Or consider Corning, a glass manufacturer headquartered in Upstate New York famous for supplying the scratch-resistant “gorilla glass” for the iPhone. Corning knows that to stay on the cutting edge, they need a steady pipeline of high-skill talent. So they’ve invested in internships that help students explore careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM fields – and they’re providing on-the-job apprenticeships in their factories.
So at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual “CGI America” conference in Denver next month, we’re assembling a network of businesses like Gap and Corning willing to step up. Expanding hiring, training, mentoring; hopefully you create a virtuous ripple throughout the economy. Engaging with others in the business community and beyond to encourage more partners to come off the sidelines. And frankly, for some to use some of that cash that is sitting there waiting to be deployed. To help build training infrastructures that will help entire industries. To help use supply chains as force multipliers. To work with schools, non-profits and unions and elected officials. To coordinate everyone who has a legitimate, sincere interest in moving (inaudible). And we’ll be announcing more details about that in meeting in Denver.
Now, this is a long-term challenge, but we can’t for government – which seems so paralyzed, and particularly unfortunately at a time when we could be racing ahead – and we can’t wait because we have a rising generation of young people, the so-called Millennial generation. They’re optimistic, they’re tolerant, they’re creative, they’re generous as a cohort, they have so much potential, so much to contribute, and they can be the participation generation, the innovation generation, not a lost generation. Because we haven’t tended to what social supports they need in order to make their mark.
Now, working with my husband and daughter at our Foundation, our motto is we’re all in this together, which we totally believe. We believe in the American Dream and the idea of social mobility. We believe that what worked for my mother or for Bill’s mother, the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, are still possible. And in fact, it’s part of what has fueled the idea of America. That’s part of what has always made us great: the chance that any one of us could move forward, no matter where we came from; that we can achieve so much, in fact there is no limit on what can be achieved; when big talent means big ideas.
But if you look at American history, there’s also another important story to tell about how upward mobility really works. In part, this is the complement to the rugged individualist story that we all know so much about, and some of you have obviously lived. It’s about communities that are ecosystems of opportunity. As Eric Schmidt knows so well, the personal computer revolution needed more than one or two people in a garage. It needed Silicon Valley. The networks of public and private universities, the investors, the competitors, collaborators. It needed state and local governments that invested in the future and in human potential. It needed a culture of risk taking and creativity.
This story about the link between strong communities and the American Dream goes very deep. And one of the first great observers and chroniclers of America was, of course, Alexis de Tocqueville. He traveled across that new country of ours in the 1830s, learning everything he could about this radical idea called democracy and the men and women who made it work. He was amazed by the social and economic equality and mobility he saw here, unheard of in aristocratic Europe. And by what he called our “habits of the heart.” The everyday values and customs that set Americans apart from the rest of the world. He found a nation of joiners. Clubs; congregations; civic organizations; political parties – groups that bound communities together and invested those famous “rugged individualists” in the welfare of their neighbors. This made America’s great democratic experiment possible. Talk about a Big Idea.
Those early Americans were volunteers and problem-solvers. They believed that their own self-interest was advanced by helping their neighbors. Like Benjamin Franklin, they formed volunteer fire departments, because if your neighbor’s house is on fire, it’s your problem too. Middle-class women went into the most dangerous 19th century slums to help poor children who had no one else standing up for them.
Americans came together, inspired by religious faith, civic virtue, common decency, to lend a hand to those in need and to improve their lives and their communities. And that made our democratic experiment possible. It made America an exceptional nation. I believe with all my heart that is still true.
And we see that where the fabric of community is strong even today – places with a vibrant middle class, two-parent families, good schools, unions, churches, civic organizations, places integrated across class and racial lines – that’s where we still see upward mobility in America. It’s not about average income. Researchers point to cities with similar affluence, like Atlanta and Seattle, that have markedly different rates of economic mobility. It’s not about race. Black and white residents of a city like Atlanta both have low upward mobility.
It’s about all these other factors that add up to healthy families and inclusive communities. And it suggests that investing in our neighborhood institutions, strengthening our community bonds, has to be part of our strategy for reducing inequality, increasing mobility, and renewing the American Dream.
Because it’s not just about money, as important and critical a factor as that is. It’s about how we live with one another. It’s about how we treat and look out for one another. It’s about how we see one another, how we organize ourselves, what we value. Whether in this atomized age, we can still come together to solve our problems the way those early Americans did. That’s the big challenge we face.
We now spend most of our time talking to people who agree with us. The so-called “big sort” has happened. That’s who we’re comfortable with. And we don’t really want to hear from the other side, no matter what side we’re on. And that’s what makes compromise so difficult, because we don’t put ourselves any longer in anyone else’s shoes. Why are some people across the political divide, believing what they believe, holding their values so strongly against what we believe to be right? If we don’t get back into a conversation that cuts across all those lines that divide us, it will be very difficult to tackle the economic and social problems that stand in the way of moving away from inequality toward greater equality, economically and socially.
But I am an optimist, and I believe the time has come for us to begin not only a conversation, but a serious effort to see which big ideas will renew America, for our faith, for our children, and yes, for our future grandchildren. It won’t surprise you to hear me say I think it really does take a village.
Thank you all very much. (Applause.)