Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in his State of the Union Address, saying “Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.” He later echoed those statements in May of 1964 while visiting Ohio University in Athens.

Today, we’re still fighting the war on poverty, but our country took a small step toward progress last week, as my Democratic and Republican Senate colleagues voted to open debate on a bill that would renew unemployment benefits.

We’ve still got a long way to go. We know that if no compromise is reached, 1.3 million Americans – including more than 52,000 Ohioans who have lost benefits this year already and another 76,000 Ohioans who will lose them by the end of this year – will not regain the assistance that they’ve been depending on to make ends meet while they look for work.

Far too many Americans are still hurting. We are still emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’ve made progress, but there are still nearly 11 million Americans unemployed, and more than 4 million of them have been employed for 27 weeks or more.

When President Bush signed the latest round of emergency assistance into effect, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent – almost a point-and-a-half lower than it is today. And the long-term unemployment rate is more than double what it’s been at any other time Congress has let emergency jobless assistance expire.

We must renew unemployment insurance and provide families the resources they need to continue making ends meet. Helping them to get on their feet will also help the economy grow and create jobs.

These people should be able to focus on finding work – without the added stress of whether they can pay the rent and put food on the table. That’s what unemployment benefits do, and that’s why I’m calling on my colleagues in the House to bring this legislation up for a vote.

But that’s just the first step in bringing our economy back on track. There are three more steps we can take to reduce unemployment by creating jobs, and improve our economy without adding to the budget.

First, with too many Ohioans still unable to find work, we should be doing all that we can to ensure that our workers are qualified to fill Ohio jobs. I’ve held more than 200 roundtables across Ohio’s 88 counties, and many employers have told me that they are having a hard time finding skilled workers.

The Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success or SECTORS Act would help close the skills gap by creating partnerships between educators, industry and workforce training boards to ensure that workers have the right skills to get hired in local, high-tech, good-paying jobs.

It means community colleges – whether it’s Cincinnati State, Tri-C, and Zane State – and workforce investment boards, business, and labor are working together to fill local jobs and attract new ones.

Second, we know Ohio workers and business can compete with anyone in the world. But when countries manipulate their currency – to give their exports an unfair price advantage over American-made products – that’s not competing; it’s cheating. That’s why Congress must pass my bipartisan jobs bill to stand up to Chinese cheating by treating currency manipulation as an illegal trade subsidy.

An Economic Policy Institute report found that addressing currency manipulation could create more than 2 million jobs – including between about 95,000 and 200,000 in Ohio alone. The report also found that the U.S. GDP would increase by as much as $285.7 billion or 1.9 percent, and the U.S. budget deficit would decrease by up to $71.4 billion per year. And, our bipartisan jobs bill has no cost to taxpayers.

Finally, we can improve our economy by passing the Farm Bill. Agriculture – and related business, like food processing – is Ohio’s leading industry, representing one in seven jobs. As Ohio’s first senator to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than 40 years, I’m honored to be a farm bill conferee. My goal – and that of my Senate colleagues – is to send a bill that earns broad, bipartisan support to the President.

Ohio is home to approximately 130 companies that use agricultural crops to make new products ranging from natural pet foods to bio-based paint, soy ink, and toner. These companies create jobs – and new markets for our farmers and our manufacturers. The Senate’s Farm Bill strengthens bio-based manufacturers and spurs new agricultural innovations. And, the centerpiece of the bill’s deficit reduction is based on legislation I introduced with Senator John Thune, my Republican colleague from South Dakota.

As I’ve met with Ohio farmers, they’ve told me they don’t need or want direct payments. This program, the Ag Risk Coverage or ARC, streamlines the farm safety net, eliminates direct payments and makes farm programs more market oriented. It ensures that production and planting decisions are determined by the market, not the program. The Senate bill would save $24 billion over 10 years, compared to reauthorizing current farm programs. And I hope that we can pass this bill into law in the next couple of weeks.

There are a number of ways to ensure we can live up to LBJ’s words of “replacing despair with opportunity.” Renewing unemployment benefits, and this three-point plan, will help us to move our economy in the right direction.