Iowa social worker Amanda Greubel laughs with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, after a hearing with Harkin’s Senate labor committee. Gruebel had testified about financial hardships she’s endured after having her work hours reduced.
Iowa social worker Amanda Greubel was invited to Capitol Hill to offer a firsthand account of how her family and the families she helps through her job are losing hope in the American dream.
Greubel testified before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing hosted by Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He said the meeting was one in a series to check the economic pulse of the middle class.
“Americans don’t expect to be rich or famous, but we do expect a living wage and good American benefits for a hard day’s work,” Harkin said. “It’s time we got back to that basic concept.”
He invited Greubel to testify after reading a letter from her expressing fear that congressional leaders are losing sight of the hardships their constituents face back home.
As director of the Family Resource Center for the Central Community Schools in DeWitt, Iowa, Greubel helps families so their children can experience greater success in the classroom.
The social worker, who recently had her work hours reduced due to budget cutbacks, explained that her family is among the growing number of families feeling squeezed out of the middle class. She said that even though she and her husband both have master’s degrees, staying afloat financially with a 5-year-old son and another baby on the way remains a constant concern.
“We did everything we thought we were supposed to do,” she testified. “We did everything but we’re still struggling.”
Greubel said she also wanted to speak on behalf of the families she serves, many of whom never needed public assistance until recently. Her job includes client referrals for health care, mental health care, utility assistance, housing, domestic violence services, clothing, health insurance, food assistance and childcare assistance.
She told lawmakers that even though her district represents many affluent neighborhoods, 30 percent of students have qualified for the reduced meals program. Many families are embarrassed to ask for aid.
“All the things that are ailing our families are so interconnected,” she testified. “We wonder who you are working for. Money talks around here and that means you don’t hear us. I ask that you come back here and do something. Please, do something for us.”
The committee also heard testimony from social worker Jared Bernstein, former chief economist and economic policy adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, who’s now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Bernstein, who holds an MSW and a Ph.D. in social welfare, told lawmakers the middle class is indeed shrinking, in part because health care premiums have risen faster than middle-class incomes and also because the burden of saving for retirement has transferred from employers to workers.
He said household incomes fell steeply after the recession started in late 2007. Households lost between $2,000 and $3,000 in two years with an average loss of 4.2 percent, he said. For minority households, especially African-Americans, the household income decreased at the most drastic level, 7.1 percent.
Another concern affecting the middle class is health coverage. Bernstein said data from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the cost of premiums has risen much faster than middle-class earnings.
The economist said lawmakers can help the middle class through policy. Among his suggestions: Protect Social Security benefits, Medicaid and the recently passed Affordable Health Care Act.
“While it is beyond the scope of this testimony to discuss a jobs agenda policy set, the ideas that President [Barack] Obama outlined in his ‘Winning the future’ agenda, including investments in new industries such as clean energy, infrastructure and education should certainly help generate more opportunities,” Bernstein said in his written testimony.
Multimedia journalist Susan Sipprelle presented a snippet of a video documentary called Over 50 and Out of Work. Another participant, Thomas Clements, spoke about the struggles of running a small business in Louisiana in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in 2010 and the subsequent oil drilling moratorium issued by the president.