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Remarks at 2009 National Minority Enterprise Development Conference (MED Week)

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at 2009 National Minority Enterprise Development Conference (MED Week)
Washington, D.C.

Hello everyone.

I am very happy to be here, but at the same time saddened by yesterday's news of the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay to this man is that is impossible to tell the story of America’s progress without telling the story of Teddy Kennedy. For a half-century he was on the front lines of the battles to expand civil rights, protect our liberties and provide healthcare and educational opportunities for all. No modern day senator did more to advance the prospects of minorities then Sen. Kennedy—and all of the successful leaders in the audience today are very much a testament to his life's work.

We are going to miss him.

It is an honor to be among so many talented business owners gathered here by MBDA—which has been there for minority businesses for 40 years.

I really feel at home here—because my father was just like many of you.

He was a minority business owner.

After serving in the Army in World War II, my father came back home to open a small, family-owned grocery store. I grew up in that place, stocking shelves, making free deliveries and making sure our customers had everything they needed. My father put everything he had into that grocery store. It was his little piece of the American dream.

And when I was younger, that dream was there for millions of American families. In the 1950s and 1960s, America saw the greatest ever expansion of our middle-class.

But today, that dream is slipping away for far too many. It's become uncomfortably normal to turn on the news and hear about massive layoffs at this automaker or that financial firm. But hit hardest of all has been America's small- and medium-sized businesses, many of which are minority owned.

Through the third quarter of 2008, half of all private sector job losses had occurred in companies with fewer than 20 employees. For too many American businesses, the bills have kept coming while the payments for products delivered or services rendered have not.

There's no doubt that this has been a rough past year. But now it’s time for America to get back to basics and empower the doers, the builders and the entrepreneurs to start growing and innovating again.

I’m talking about the people in this room.

Going forward, America must end its dependence on economic bubbles for growth. What we need is new inventions and innovative new ways to deliver products and services. And increasingly, we need these advances to come from minority businesses. Many of you are anchors in your community, and America needs you to succeed to ensure that opportunities for prosperity are fairly shared by all.

Today, I want to talk briefly about how this administration and the Commerce Department plan to enable minority business owners and all business owners to start growing again.

From the day he took office, President Obama has made exceptional efforts to provide immediate help to the small and medium-size businesses that are accountable for a significant number of new jobs in America.

It all begins with the Recovery Act—which was essentially divided into three parts.

One third of the money is going directly to tax relief for families and small businesses. Another third of the money has been for emergency relief like additional Medicaid and unemployment insurance funding for those who have borne the brunt of this recession. The last third of the Recovery Act is for investments to put people back to work and lay a new foundation for long term prosperity. This includes vital infrastructure improvements like upgrading our roads and our bridges; and renovating schools and hospitals, as well as investments in things like broadband expansion and renewable energy.

  • Thanks to the Recovery Act, $100 billion in funding and loan guarantees was set aside to encourage and support manufacturing in America -- much of which will assist smaller enterprises. This has allowed the Small Business Administration to increase loan guarantees from 75 to 90 percent on their biggest loan program and also to waive a variety of borrower fees.
  • I know some of you here are involved in construction, and you'll be happy to know that more than $24 billion has been made available to fund over 7,400 shovel-ready transportation construction projects in states across the country—more than 4,000 of which are already underway.

And in these difficult times for employers and workers alike, the Recovery Act helped expand the social safety net.

  • More than 12 million laid-off workers are collecting an extra $25 a week in unemployment benefits—and many more Americans have more time to sign up for up to 33 extra weeks of benefits.
  • Families relying on COBRA health insurance are paying 65 percent less for their health coverage.
  • More than seven million low and moderate-income students will receive a 15 percent increase in their Pell Grant awards to help pay for college.
  • And 95 percent of working Americans have seen a decrease in their taxes.

With unemployment continuing to rise, I understand and share the frustration that the economy isn’t getting better quicker.

But let’s remember for a moment what the economy looked like at the beginning of 2009. Every day seemed to bring news that was worse than the last. We were on the precipice of a great recession turning into something much worse.

The Recovery Act – along with our other economic initiatives—has worked to stabilize economic conditions and help those harmed by the economic crisis.

But the true measure of the Recovery Act and of President Obama's entire agenda won't be determined in just a few months.

To put our economy on a sustainable path, we've got to make fundamental changes like we haven't seen in America for decades.

For too long, American businesses—particularly small- and medium-sized businesses—have been fighting against systemic imbalances that make it tough for them to compete and create new jobs. And President Obama aims to fix them.

  • Number one: We have an education system that isn't preparing our kids or retraining workers for the jobs of the 21st century. The President's Recovery Act had $44 billion set aside to improve our schools and much of the funding is contingent on states driving tough new accountability standards for teachers and low performing schools and for improving their curriculums to reflect the needs of today's global economy. That’s the kind of tough love our schools need.
  • Number two: We have had decades of mismanaged energy policy that puts our environment in peril, and leaves American businesses – especially manufacturers – vulnerable to unpredictable price swings in the oil markets. Through the unprecedented investments President Obama has made in things like developing a national smart grid, providing incentives for solar and wind manufactures and driving gains in efficiency, he's putting us on a path to environmental and economic sustainability. But he is also helping to grow a domestic renewable energy industry that is already taking hopeful steps to put laid-off industrial employees back to work building wind turbines, and solar panels. This could be the great growth industry of the 21st century and the president wants to make sure America leads it.
  • Finally, we have the most challenging domestic issue of all: A healthcare system that leaves almost 50 million Americans without care, millions more with too little care, and is riddled with inefficiencies that pile backbreaking costs on governments, citizens and businesses.

There is plenty of room for honest debate on this issue. But let’s be clear about one thing:

Those who advocate continued inaction are not only guaranteeing that tens of millions of Americans will continue to be uninsured or underinsured; they are also consigning American businesses to a less competitive future because of unsustainable health care costs.

Insurance premiums have gone up nearly 10 percent annually in the last decade. And they’ll likely do the same in the next 10. The average family’s annual premium will jump from $13,000 to $25,000. We can’t let that happen.

The impact on small businesses is even bigger. Small businesses pay up to 18 percent more per worker than large firms for the same health insurance policy—a disparity that is hitting minority businesses especially hard.

As a result, many small businesses are getting out of the health coverage business altogether. Less than 50 percent of firms with 3 to 9 workers offered any type of health insurance to their employees in 2008—compared to 99 percent for firms with over 200 workers.

There has been so much misinformation out there about what healthcare reform will mean for small businesses, and I just want to briefly set the record straight.

President Obama has articulated three broad criteria for any healthcare reform. Reduce costs, protect Americans’ choice of doctors and insurance plans and assure quality and affordable health care for any American who wants it. The current draft legislation in Congress does just that.

I know many of you have endured difficulties finding insurance or seen your employees struggle to get good care. That’s why you need to know that health insurance reform will undoubtedly help small-business owners and their employees.

Proposals working their way through Congress include the creation of an "insurance exchange" where both small businesses and individuals can purchase coverage. These exchanges would pool risk and spread administrative costs over larger numbers of people, giving small businesses some of the same advantages as large businesses. This exchange will make available high quality plans at affordable rates, and will also include a tax credit for small businesses that provide health care coverage for workers—and subsidies for workers who buy it on their own.

Crucially, the reforms supported by President Obama will end once and for all the practice of insurance companies denying people coverage for pre-existing conditions.

At the end of the day, any bill the president signs will allow businesses to buy good healthcare for their employees, or individuals to buy on their own at affordable rates.

There is, of course, still much work to be done to make health insurance reform a reality, and Senator Kennedy’s voice will be sorely missed. But it is my hope that members of Congress will be encouraged by his memory to come together around the cause of progress—a cause that will drive down unsustainable costs, improve choice and cover the millions who lack health insurance. It is my hope that the senator’s enduring example will help deliver access to quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans.

The thing that people need to understand about healthcare reform is that this is a competitiveness issue for our businesses. The longer we wait to do something, the worse off we'll be.

For all the different things that the Commerce Department does—from protecting America's oceans and intellectual property to improving companies' efficiency and opening up markets—what we are really about is improving the overall competitiveness of American business at home and abroad.

We have tools to help businesses at every point in the cycle—from the birth of an idea, to starting a business with that idea, to finding markets once that idea has been transformed into a product or service.

If you're a small business, we want to help you become a medium-sized business. If you're a medium-sized business, we want to help you become a large business. And we've got the resources to do the job.

This department is working hard to help minority businesses and all American businesses reach their full potential.

Somewhere in this audience is the next Magic Johnson, Bob Johnson or Jerry Yang—minority business entrepreneurs who are simply the best at what they do. Ultimately, you'll succeed or fail on the strength of your ideas and your persistence. The private sector has always been and always will be a source of American prosperity. But if the Commerce Department and the Obama administration can help make your business a little more efficient, a little more innovative or get you access to a new market—then we'll have accomplished something we can be proud of.

I'm looking forward to working with you in the months and years. Thank you for having me.