01/31/2014 08:18 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

A Year of Action, a Year of Opportunity in Congress

On Tuesday, President Obama stood before Congress and the American people to deliver a message of optimism borne from the progress we have made over the past five years recovering our economy from the Great Recession. Millions of jobs have been created and saved, we enacted health reforms that are already benefiting many, and our housing market has rebounded.

The state of our union is undoubtedly stronger than it was when President Obama took office in the depths of a recession. But for the millions in poverty or struggling to stay out of it, this distinction matters little. Without a real and equal opportunity to join a secure and growing middle class, those among us who face the greatest hardships will see the American Dream grow farther and farther out of reach. With the Census Bureau reporting that 49.7 million Americans live in poverty, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the state of our union reflects our forebears' vision of a nation where one's hard work and personal responsibility can lift an entire family into the middle class.

Poverty in America is not limited to the chronically hungry or homeless. For so many working families, even two incomes are not enough to make ends meet, as the cost of living has outpaced a rise in wages. These families are increasingly experiencing the effects of poverty, and, for the first time in the program's history, households led by working-age Americans are the largest group accessing federal food assistance.

In his speech, the president made clear that the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is insufficient to enable working families to reach for the middle class. That's why Democrats in Congress are committed to raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Doing so would lead to higher pay for 28 million Americans, billions of dollars more in economic activity for businesses, and the creation of 140,000 new jobs.

At the same time, an increase in long-term unemployment has forced many families to go without an important source of income for months at a time, often depleting savings that would have been used to send a child to college or provide for a secure retirement. When the recession hit, Congress made emergency unemployment insurance available to workers who had lost their jobs and were seeking new ones. On December 28, Congress irresponsibly allowed this emergency insurance to expire, and now 1.6 million Americans are without critical assistance -- a number that will continue to grow by an average of 72,000 people a week for as long as Congress fails to act. Bringing it back ought to be the first order of business on Capitol Hill, and Democrats will not rest until this goal is achieved.

Neither will we stop working to address the widening gap between those who are doing well in our economy and those who are finding it harder and harder to get by. To close this gap, Congress must act to expand access to the opportunities that lead to economic security and success. That's what House Democrats' Make It In America plan is all about: increasing domestic manufacturing, expanding education and skills training so America's workers are prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow, and encouraging businesses to create high-skill, high-wage jobs here. In addition to passing Make It In America legislation, Congress must make a serious effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform this year that brings millions of workers out of the shadows and provides a pathway to citizenship. And it is critical that Democrats and Republicans work together immediately to prevent another economy-stifling default crisis.

No one can deny the deep chasm that often separates the parties in Congress. But that divide must be bridged for the sake of the millions for whom the American Dream now seems so remote. Congress has the ability to make 2014 a year of action in response to our economic challenges -- but it must also have the will. Democrats are ready to do our part and work across the aisle to expand opportunities to those left behind by the economy's recovery. I sincerely hope that Republicans will join us in carrying out this important work and, in the process, truly strengthening our union for years to come.