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Sen. Warren takes on Washington to give working class Americans ‘A Fighting Chance’

May 19, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
Sen. Elizabeth Warren joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her new memoir, “A Fighting Chance,” in which she criticizes the big banks and Washington politicians for weakening America’s middle class. Warren advocates for a hike in the minimum wage to ensure today’s middle class gets the same opportunities her family had, and discusses reform for banking and student loans.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now a conversation with the senior senator from Massachusetts about her new book, “A Fighting Chance.”

Judy Woodruff recorded this interview last week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A professor of bankruptcy law at Harvard University, a consumer protection advocate, the chair of the congressional panel created to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program after the 2008 financial implosion, and then after 20 years in and out of Washington, a successful turn to electoral politics, and now Elizabeth Warren has just published her memoir, “A Fighting Chance.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, welcome to the program.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN, D, Mass.: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we’re used to seeing politicians write a book when they want to get elected to office. But you just pretty recently have been elected to the Senate. You say you’re not running for president.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I’m not running for president.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why write the book?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I have spent my whole career studying what’s happening to America’s middle class, and later in those years trying to fight back.

America’s middle class is just getting hammered. The legs are being taken out from underneath it. And part of the reason for that is that there is a real tilt in Washington, policies that work for the rich and powerful, and not so much for everybody else.

And I write a lot about what it meant to grow up in an America that was investing in our kids, that was investing in the future. I feel like we have lost our way from that. And the reason I say that is, I really tell this as the eyewitness accounts of what happened when I went to Washington and what I saw and what I fought against.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s an example of one of the ways you think the working class, the middle class in this country has it worse today than they used to?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Oh, let me — I will give you an example right off the top.

So, my daddy had had a heart attack when I was little. I was 12. My three brothers were already off in the military by this point. We had a long period of time with no income coming in. The bills piled up. We lost the family station wagon. We were right on the edge of losing our home.

My mother was 50 years old, a stay-at-home mom, when she pulled her best dress out of the closet, put on her high heels, and walked over to the Sears and got a minimum wage job. In the 1960s, a minimum wage job would keep a family of three afloat.

And that’s what it did for us, and it saved our home. Today, a minimum wage job will not keep a mother and one baby out of poverty. That is a shift. We have lost that protection even for those working right at the bottom of the incomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to right now today, you have people arguing against the minimum wage, saying, if you raise the minimum wage to $10.10, which is what the president has asked for, that you will cost jobs, because employers will end up laying people off.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, I have two responses to that.

The first is, the data about whether it will cost a few jobs or not cost a few jobs, there’s really — it’s very mixed on the numbers. But what we do know is that, if we raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, that 14 million children would see their economic fortunes improve, because mom or dad would be making a little more money, and have a better shot at giving that family some economic security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You write a fair amount in the book, Senator Warren, about how the blame, much of the blame lies with the big banks.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You talk about the need to break up these banks, the power they have. You write about Washington politicians who protect the big banks.

What would you do about all of this?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, there are a lot of pieces that we could work on.

For example, I have a bill pending right now in the United States Senate with Senator John McCain for Glass-Steagall. And that’s the carry-over from the bill that came out of the Great Depression that said, look, you want to be a bank, then be boring. Do checking accounts, savings accounts. That’s what banks are.

And if you want to do high-risk investments, go to Wall Street, be what is called an investment bank. Do something different. Create that separation. It makes banks safer and less likely that we’re going to have to bail them out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think there is a realistic chance that something like that is going to happen in this environment?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Oh, listen, I got to tell you, we still have a lot of risk in the system.

You know, you talked about during the financial crisis we were told these banks are too big to fail. Today, the five largest financial institutions are 38 percent bigger than they were back in 2008, when they were too big to fail.

We are still taking on — right now, there is still a lot of risk in the financial system. Some of these biggest financial institutions are out there trading in commodities. They’re buying oil tankers. This is not a financial system that has calmed down and is there to serve the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just ask you one other thing. One of the reviewers I read who complimented many of the things you wrote in the book said, even though if you were to do a number of the things you recommend, you still, among other things, wouldn’t raise median family income in this country.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Who does Washington work for?

Right now, Washington works for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. They make sure that every rule, every regulation is there to promote and protect the biggest corporations and the richest individuals. Does Washington work for everybody else? Well, the answer is not so much.

And let me give you one quick example of that. Look at student loans today. Young people who are trying to go to college, right, the federal government charges them an interest rate that not only covers the cost of the loan, the bad debts, the administrative costs. They double it, then triple it in some cases, in some cases, go even higher, to produce tens of billions of dollars in profits off the backs of our kids.

So, we have a bill pending right now, just introduced it last week, that says we’re going to bring down that interest rate on student loans, and we’re going to pay for it by saying, we’re going to close some of those tax loopholes that help billionaires pay less in taxes than their secretaries pay.

I use that as one example, because I want to — I take this personally. There was no money for me to go to college. I ended up going to a college, a commuter college that cost $50 a semester. I borrowed money on an NDEA loan that was subsidized by the United States government.

I grew up in an America that said, we think first about opportunities for our kids, about building a strong and robust middle class, that will create opportunities, opportunities for the poor, opportunities so that our children and our grandchildren can do so much more than we did.

Today, we have a Washington that says, we’re going to put an extra tax on kids who are trying to get an education, so that we can keep the budget going and keep the loopholes open for billionaires for Fortune 500 companies that pay nothing in taxes.

This is really where our country is headed. And we have got to fight back. It’s why I wrote this book. It’s why I call this book “A Fighting Chance.”  I got a fighting chance. I want every kid to get the same thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A passionate Senator Elizabeth Warren. And, as she said, the book is “A Fighting Chance.”

We thank you for being with us.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you.