U.S. Congressman Richard Neal was on the campus of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams Friday. As he often does during district visits, the Democrat taught a government class, spoke to students interested in travel and toured the college’s science center, which opened last fall. Talking to reporters, Neal says he isn’t thrilled about every aspect of the 2014 Farm Bill signed by President Obama Friday, but is happy to see something finally being done after the previous bill expired in 2012.
“I thought cutting back on the direct payments was a good idea,” Neal said. “I think it had become a bonanza in parts of the country. The problem was that the large agriculture companies, they were receiving much of the benefit. I disagree with some of the cutbacks in the TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] program and at the same time thought that it could have been more balanced. But, I understand that after two years, two years, of acrimony over the Farm Bill at least there is a final product.”
Neal continues his support for reinstating unemployment insurance benefits cut in December for roughly 1.3 million longterm unemployed Americans.
“It’s beyond me how we cannot extend unemployment benefits for members of the American family,” the Democrat said. “This challenge incidentally is compounded month by month. The unemployment rate, this morning published at 6.6 percent, I think everybody knows that is not an accurate description of those who have been out of work anywhere from three to five years. There is now a very stubborn problem in the American economy with men who are age 45 to 55 who have been out of work for four or five years. The question is will they be going back to work.”
The Democrat says federal money given to those who are out of work goes right back into the economy and refutes mostly Republican claims that extending the benefits makes people not want to work.
“I don’t know anybody who ever quit their job to get food stamps,” said Neal.
Neal says he sees President Obama’s commitment to raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for newly hired federal defense workers as more of a symbol of his ability to use executive powers than anything else, since most in that industry make more than minimum wage. Still, Neal says the federal minimum wage should be raised as it’s another issue that has languished in Washington.
“The issue in the American economy today remains demand or lack thereof,” Neal explained. “That’s the substantial part of this discussion that often times is complicated by political verbiage.”
MCLA’s four-story, 65,000-square foot Center for Science and Innovation cost more than $30 million, taking just about a year to build. Neal says he wants to make sure the federal government maintains a strong partnership with public higher education to encourage students to enter the science, engineering and mathematic fields.
“Globalization is not going to retreat,” Neal said. “The internet took care of that. I think that understanding that the role of competition as to what’s coming is critical. I think that young people need to be better equipped all of the time for the new challenges that are going to come about.”
MCLA President Mary Grant says Neal’s visit allowed him to see firsthand where and how federal support for higher education is being used.
“Students got a chance to ask him [Neal] questions about national health care, about environmental issues and about funding for the arts,” Grant said. “So for him to hear that we have a generation of students who are paying careful attention, are civically engaged and are being well-prepared, that’s a good discussion.”
Congressman Neal also toured the Thompson Health Center at Williams College in Williamstown.