Marco Rubio: Raise ladders of opportunity, not just the minimum wage

Thanksgiving in my house was probably a lot like it is in most others. It’s a day for faith, family, food and football. It was a day to gather together under one roof and reflect on the blessings we’ve been given as a family. We were joined by my mother, and that’s a blessing in itself.

She’s seen 59 Thanksgivings since arriving in America. While the customs of this holiday probably seemed foreign to her at first, the reason for it never escaped her: Americans have a lot to be thankful for. Now, at 84 years old, she was able to give thanks for having fully realized the American Dream herself.

She and my father never got rich or famous in America, but that’s not what the American Dream is all about. They were able to find steady jobs that paid livable wages. They were able to raise their kids in a safe home, provide for our needs, and even take us on occasional trips. They were able to retire with dignity, and leave their children with lives even better than their own.

This is the dream that has defined us as a nation. My parents achieved it right here in Miami. But today, there is a growing sense among the people of our city, our state, and our nation that the American Dream is slipping out of their reach.

One study issued last month showed that in Miami-Dade County alone, a staggering 50 percent of people live either below the poverty line or one paycheck above it. Across Florida, there are two million people living paycheck to paycheck.

The difficult truth is that if my parents had arrived here in 2006 rather than 1956, they would likely be among those struggling to access opportunity and stay afloat financially. They were fortunate to arrive at a time when plenty of jobs were available to people without much education and when their modest wages could meet the cost of living.

Times have changed since then, but that doesn’t mean the American Dream has to. To preserve it, we simply have to do what every generation before us has done: adapt the promise of our nation to the realities of our times.

Over the last two decades, globalization and technological progress have transformed the very nature of the American economy, yet our nation’s policies and institutions have failed to adapt with them.

They are designed for a time before anyone had heard of the Internet. They are designed for a time when higher education was a luxury rather than a necessity. They are designed for a time when it took a trip on a jetliner to conduct business internationally rather than a tap on a smartphone.

As a result, the most radical age of innovation in history is resulting in hardship rather than prosperity. In order to move our nation into this century and restore the American Dream, we need ideas as big as our current crisis.

Let’s take the example of a single mom in Miami working at a fast-food restaurant and making $8 an hour. What concrete things can we do to bring the transformational power of the American Dream within her reach?

Democrats will tell you the answer is to simply raise the minimum wage. But like nearly every other industry, food service is rapidly changing due to technological advances. Raising the minimum wage will only pressure this woman’s employer to move faster toward the inevitable step of replacing her position with a touchscreen or similar technology.

To truly transform this woman’s life, she needs the opportunity to go from making $8 an hour as a cashier to making $30 an hour in her restaurant’s corporate office, or in one of the many new industries emerging in this century.

To raise these ladders of opportunity, our leaders need to focus on three goals. First, we need to grow the economy and accelerate the creation of high-paying 21st century jobs. Second, we need to help her access the skills she needs for these jobs. And third, we need to assist her with the rising cost of living.

Addressing the first goal will require pro-growth economic policies aimed at spurring innovation, expanding emerging industries, and allowing businesses to access the hundreds of millions of international customers within their reach.

The second goal will require us to revolutionize higher education by making it more flexible, affordable, and accessible to all Americans.

For the third goal, instead of a counterproductive minimum wage hike, we should institute a wage enhancement credit that encourages work and provides relief to low-wage workers. We should also institute pro-family tax reforms such as a substantial increase in the child tax credit.

That’s just a quick overview of what must be a comprehensive and extensive set of reforms. I’ve spent this year proposing these and many other ideas that I believe will extend the American Dream my mother and father lived to every American.

Even though our country and our people are hurting today, we live in the country that remains the best positioned to access the prosperity of the 21st century. We live in a country that has risen to every challenge it has ever faced. We are the descendants of a people that have never yielded to hardship, and who will not do so today.

Marco Rubio is a Republican and Florida’s junior U.S. senator. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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