Robert Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, delivered the keynote address at National Journal‘s “Pathways to Success” event on Nov. 7. A Democrat, he joined the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993 and has served as senator since 2006. Alternately, watch the video and the conversation that followed his speech. Below is a transcript of his prepared remarks.
Thank you for inviting me today and thank you to National Journal for having the foresight to see, understand, and address the profound social, cultural, ethnic, and political changes that will come with “the next America,” a more ethnically diverse America that will require all of us to adjust and make the changes we need to make to help make the next America a better America. National Journal is taking a realistic look at who we are, what America will look like, and what we can do to maximize the economic opportunity that will come with the seismic demographic shift we are seeing. It is recognizing the importance of making sure our public policies work for all Americans — and specifically for Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Native Americans, and other underrepresented groups — for these are the policies that will help America as a whole.
There is no doubt that the multicultural future we knew would someday come — is already here. The fact is — according to a study done by the Center for American Progress — “people of color already constitute the majority in 49 of the nation’s 366 metropolitan regions” and “by 2050, non-Hispanic whites will make up 47 percent of the population, with communities of color combining to form a solid 53 percent majority.” And it leads us to the inevitable conclusion that diversity is not something to tolerate, but rather something we must embrace for the good of all of us and for the good of our competitiveness in the global marketplace … and that doing right by communities of color is doing what’s right for the country.
The economic statistics and benefits related to diversity are astounding. Diversity actually drives innovation and creates new markets. It provides a significantly expanded consumer base for existing businesses and start-ups. The Latino market alone accounts for $1.2 trillion. African-Americans also represent a trillion-dollar market, and Native Americans and Asians contribute billions more to our economy each year. The impressive purchasing power of racial and ethnic groups shouldn’t surprise us given the growth in entrepreneurship in our communities: Between 2002 and 2007 the number of minority-owned businesses outpaced the national average, and revenues grew more than twice as fast.
But diversity also makes corporations perform better. We know that diverse teams solve problems better. They’re better at developing new ideas, and better at coming up with innovative solutions. There’s no question that diversity is a fundamental element of a good business model: A study commissioned by CalPERS found that companies with diverse boards exceeded Dow Jones and Nasdaq average returns over five years, and companies that did not have diverse boards were at a competitive disadvantage. Advocacy groups like Catalyst have found that Fortune 500 companies with higher percentages of women board directors financially outperform companies with fewer women directors. A Calvert study also found that those companies that demonstrate a robust commitment to diversity, in addition to competitive financial performance, are better positioned to generate long-term value for their shareholders.
At the same time that diversity spurs innovation and will create good, 21st-century jobs, we have to realize that our changing population will need the skills to meet the requirements of those jobs and that as our population changes our educational system must keep up with those changes. The face of our school-age population is changing with the times: Latinos alone now make up 25 percent of all U.S. public-school students and represent the largest racial or ethnic minority group on college campuses in the U.S.
But despite our growing numbers, graduation and attainment rates for minorities are still lingering behind. By the end of this decade — 66 percent of jobs will already require at least some postsecondary education. But despite the demand for high-skilled workers, only 19 percent of Latinos, 23 percent of Native Americans, and 27 percent of African-Americans have college degrees — all considerably less than the rate of college degree attainment among whites (43 percent).
If that continues the skills gap that already exists will only widen.
The gap becomes even clearer when we realize that African-Americans and Hispanics make up 27 percent of the workforce today and by 2050 that will rise to 42 percent of the workforce. Clearly, we’ll need to retool and rebuild to meet these challenges and find a workable framework for the development of partnerships based on equality and human capacity, giving every American a chance at a decent job, and a good education. It is time to get to work and realize the economic benefits and opportunities that come with diversity — and we can start with making sure we pass comprehensive immigration reform.
The Senate has worked across the aisle and taken a step forward — in a spirit of bipartisanship — to make sure there are no second-class citizens in this country, no one living in the shadows without a chance to contribute and make a better life for themselves. As a member of the Senate “Gang of Eight,” I can tell you the process was difficult, but it ended with a bipartisan compromise that — I believe — would fix our broken immigration system and bring 11 million immigrants out of the shadows if we could get the House to act.
The fact is, fixing the broken immigration system would increase America’s GDP by over $800 billion over 10 years. And it will increase wages of all Americans by $470 billion over 10 years and increase jobs by 121,000 per year. Immigrants will start small businesses. They’ll create jobs for American workers. At the end of the day, we have to find a way to harness that economic power. The CBO reported that immigration reform could reduce the deficit by $197 billion over the next decade and by another $700 billion more between 2024 and 2033 through changes in direct spending and revenues. We’re talking about almost a trillion dollars in deficit spending that we can lift from the backs of the next generation. What other single piece of legislation increases GDP growth, increases wages, increases jobs and lowers the deficit?
But, clearly, we’re not there yet. We have a lot of work left to do to get to comprehensive immigration reform, and the benefits that would flow from it. And, clearly, we have a lot to discuss today about making the “next America” a better, smarter, more innovative and productive America.
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