Murray Shares Her Family's Story at One Spokane Poverty Summit

May 28 2002

In personal terms, Murray addresses, "What's at Stake in Welfare Reform"

Thank you Mayor John Powers, Governor Gary Locke, Senator Maria Cantwell, and most of all, I want to thank all of you who have come together to build One Spokane.

Tonight I want to share with you a story about a family that was working hard, playing by the rules, raising their kids, and feeling confident that all would be well for them in the future. But one day, completely unexpectedly, they fell on hard times.

Suddenly, the father, the breadwinner, was no longer working. Their mom, who had stayed home for many years to raise a family, had to go to work, but she didn't have the current skills to earn enough money to support the family. After years of taking each day for granted, this family had to suddenly figure out how to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, and how to keep their kids in school.

The situation I'm describing could fit a lot of families in Spokane. The father could have worked at Kaiser or maybe he got laid off from Boeing after years of hard work. Many of you here tonight are on the front lines every day helping families like that to get back on their feet. I'm sure you could tell their stories off the top of your head.

But I'm not talking about one of those families. I’m talking about my own family.

To be honest, it's not something I talk about in public very much. But tonight, I want to share my story with you because it shows just what's at stake both here at this conference, and in the debates going on back in Washington, D.C.

As many of you know, I was born and raised in Bothell, Washington, in a big, loving family. I had six brothers and sisters. I was one of the oldest, and we were all very close. My dad ran a five and ten cents store on Main Street, and everyone in the family helped out at the store. We lived in a wonderful rural neighborhood in a big house. Well, actually, it wasn't as big as we needed. Nine people. One bathroom. In fact, the bathroom was at the bottom of the staircase. I can remember every morning all of us were lined up on the stairs waiting for our turn in the bathroom.

But we were a close family, and although we did not have a lot, we did not feel deprived in any way. When I was 14 years old, the questions were simple. What kind of car are you going get when you turn 16? When do we get to go shopping? Which college are you going to go to?

But when I turned 15, things started to change. My dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. In a few short years, my dad's illness got so bad that he couldn't work any more. My mom, who had stayed home to raise her family, had to take care of him. But she also needed to get a job so she could support our family. She got a job, but it wasn't enough to support seven kids and a husband with growing medical bills.

So by the time I was 19, the questions were more difficult: How’s mom going to work and take care of the younger kids? I wondered: Am I going to be able to stay in college? Or am I going to have to go home, get a job, and help raise my brothers and sisters? My youngest sister had just started kindergarten.

Without warning, our family had fallen on hard times. Now, fortunately for all of us, we live in a country where the government didn't just say "tough luck." It extended a helping hand to us in hard times.

For several months, our family relied on food stamps. They were meager, but it kept food on the table while we figured things out.

To get a better paying job, my mom needed more training. Fortunately, at the time there was a government program that helped her attend Lake Washington Vocational School where she got a two-year degree in accounting, and eventually, a better job.

My twin sister, my older brother and I were able to stay in college through Pell grants and student loans. And all of our family was able to stay in school because we are lucky enough to live in a country that has a public education system.

We had the support we needed -- whether it was food, training for a better job or help to pay for college. It wasn't easy though, especially for my mom. She was going to school, working a part time job, raising seven kids, and taking care of my dad. But we got the help we needed, and it made a difference.

Today, I know that help was the difference between seven kids who might not have graduated from high school or college -- and the seven adults we've grown up to be today: All college graduates, all working hard and paying taxes, and all contributing back to their communities.

Because our government was there to help us through a hard time, today those seven kids are: a firefighter, a lawyer, a computer programmer, a sportswriter, a homemaker, a junior high school teacher, and a United States Senator.

In my book, that was a good investment. I don't think that government can or should solve every problem, but when families are having a hard time, a government that extends a helping hand makes all the difference. I know what a difference it makes and I carry that with me every day in the United States Senate.

But I've got to tell you, I've become very concerned about the direction things are moving when it comes to helping families get back on their feet. Just look at some of the things my family relied on like school loans. This month, the Administration proposed making student loans more expensive by preventing students from getting a lower rate when they consolidate their loans. That would cost graduates an additional $10,000 over the life of their loans. That could easily mean the difference between a young person going to college or taking a lower paying job.

During this conference, we're asking: What does it take to help lift a family and a community out of poverty? I think the answers are the same here in Spokane as they are in any community in America. I think it requires four things.

First, you've got to have a sense of commitment that brings the entire community together in the effort. You've got some great resources here in Spokane. As I've worked with this community the last nine years as a United States Senator, I've been impressed with the skills and dedication of so many community leaders. This isn't going to be solved just in the housing community or just in the education community or just in the health care community or just by the business community. It's going to take all of us working together, and this conference shows that Spokane has that first ingredient.

Second, you've got to have leaders who will bring people together, and you have that in Mayor John Powers. And I want to say a word about him because he has really provided the leadership this community needs. I will never forget the conversation I had with John a short time after he was sworn in as mayor. He could have talked to me about any number of issues, but in his first meeting with me as mayor, the very first thing he said to me was: I want to have an impact on poverty in Spokane. He recognized that helping those at the bottom will help the entire community. It's been his vision from his first day on the job, and he's followed through on it. And thanks to his leadership, tonight we are beginning a journey that has the possibility to change thousands of lives. So John, thank you for having the vision to create One Spokane, and thank you for bringing us all together to make that vision a reality. You've got the commitment and you've got the leadership.

Next you need the third ingredient: realistic solutions. There are a lot of ideas that sound good when you hear them, but they don’t work in reality. For example, we are hearing a lot about proposals to raise the work requirements for families on public assistance from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week. That sounds good, and it sounds easy. But if all you do is raise the requirements without the support, it's not a realistic solution. What if there are no jobs to be found? What if people don't have the skills for the full time jobs that are available? I know that was the case with my mom. What if there's no help with child care and the kids are left home alone – or out to wander on the streets? What if there's no help with transportation so folks can get to work?

As you can see, sometimes a proposal sounds good, but unless you provide the support systems, the proposals will fail. So the third ingredient to overcoming poverty is to take a realistic approach and a comprehensive approach. I'm concerned that in Washington, D.C. too often the debate is being waged in sound bites instead of sound policy.

Which brings us to the final ingredient: making the right choices. We've got to make the right choices at the local level. That means locating low-income housing near public transportation so folks can get to and from work. It means ensuring child care is available in the off-hours for parents who are working the night shift. It means providing access to training facilities so families can earn enough to pay the bills and not just get further behind.

Today, Washington state still has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. If we want families to be working, we need to also create and support jobs and companies who hire them. That means providing infrastructure like transportation and telecommunications that will attract and keep businesses here in Washington State.

In Washington, D.C., Congress is getting ready to make some very big decisions on the future of welfare and on the future of support for child care. What happens in Washington, D.C. is going to affect your efforts here in Spokane, and right now we're in the process of updating our Welfare policies -- specifically Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). We're also updating the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

The House has already passed a Welfare bill, but I'm very concerned about some of the proposals. It raises the work requirement to 40 hours a week without providing enough support for training, transportation and childcare. In fact, over the next five years, the House bill spends more money on programs to promote marriage than on childcare. Promoting marriage sounds good, but my friends, the kids are here.

In the Senate, there are several proposals that will be considered within the next month. As I review the bills, my top priorities as we consider TANF are: making high quality child care more affordable and available, increasing access to education and training, protecting victims of domestic violence, and restoring benefits to legal immigrants.

The Welfare bill and the childcare bill are going to be debated and amended over the coming months. I want you to know that I will play a vocal and active role in that debate so I can support your efforts here in Spokane.

So you can stay on top of what we're doing, every Friday I send an email newsletter to people throughout our state. You can sign up for my email newsletter on my website, which is

Let me just end tonight by reminding you that out there in Spokane is a family, a family who has fallen on hard times, who want to get out of poverty, who want the best for their kids. The choices we make today will determine whether or not those kids end up living in poverty on a street corner in downtown Spokane, or whether they have the opportunities to become a firefighter or a teacher or a lawyer or even a United States Senator.

Thanks to Mayor Powers' leadership, we're all in the same room, focusing on the same issue. You've got a mayor who’s committed to helping Spokane, a room full of community leaders who have rolled up their sleeves to make a difference, and a governor and two senators who are fighting on your behalf in Washington, D.C. Together, we can make the right choices and the right decisions for our future and for theirs.