Ranking Member Steve Womack (R-AR) Opening Statement at Hearing Titled: “Health and Wealth Inequality in America: How COVID-19 Makes Clear the Need for Change”

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chairman Yarmuth, for holding this hearing, and thank you to our witnesses for joining us today.

Prior to the coronavirus, the U.S. economy was increasing wages and living standards. Median average income (adjusted for inflation) increased by 3.4 percent in 2018, and the poverty rate fell from 12.3 percent to 11.8 percent, according to the latest Census Bureau data. Unemployment was at a five-decade low of 3.5 percent. Black, Hispanic, and Asian unemployment rates fell to 5.4, 3.9 and 2.1 percent, respectively — all of which were record lows. Wages were growing faster for low-income workers than for higher-income workers. But the pandemic brought these upward trends to a screeching halt.

While I think the topic of today’s hearing is extremely important, and one that we need to carefully discuss and address, I’m concerned that this committee ought to be focused on a large and growing crisis that threatens income security programs for all Americans. And that threat is our out of control deficit and debt. Congress has, appropriately, and on a bipartisan basis, enacted $2.4 trillion worth of legislation to address our current public health and economic crisis. Even while we take such unprecedented action, we can no longer ignore our country’s long-term fiscal imbalance. The nation’s structural budget deficits, which exist not only in economic emergency, but also during peace and prosperity, are a severe challenge to the critical programs that millions of our seniors and low-income Americans rely on every day, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—the list goes on and on.

The federal government’s future ability to fund these programs is threatened by the growth of net interest payments, which are growing far more rapidly than the rest of the federal budget—even with historically low interest rates. Ultimately, if we fail to live up to our duty to responsibly budget, future generations may face a sovereign debt crisis that would not only threaten our ability to fund these programs that tens of millions of Americans rely on but would also cause economic hardship for all Americans.

Since we failed to do our job during normal times and put the nation on a fiscally responsible path, we set ourselves up for an even more challenging budget outlook when the pandemic crisis hit. Now, our budget deficit for this year is projected to be $3.7 trillion, by far the highest ever in American history.

This committee needs to get back to its job of writing a budget resolution for Congress and making the tough choices we have been tasked to do. This is not going to be an easy job, but it needs to be done. This is the only way these critical safety net programs—programs so vital to our most vulnerable communities—will continue to exist for current and future generations.

The past few months have been extremely challenging for the entire country, and, in fact, the entire world. In the United States, over 2 million cases of COVID-19 have ravaged the health of our nation, and our economy has been infected as well. The economic downturn caused by the quarantine orders has significantly increased the impact of COVID-19 on our most vulnerable communities. Today, we will discuss how the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting health care and economic inequalities in the nation.

I look forward to today’s discussion. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.