Good morning. I'm speaking to you from my home State of Arkansas, a State that, like many across our Nation, depends heavily on agriculture. America's farm communities are more than a critical part of our economy. They are places where American values have deep roots and flourish: faith and family, hard work and respect for neighbors, devotion to community. Every American has a stake in the strength of rural America.
With family incomes rising, the lowest unemployment in nearly 30 years, the highest homeownership rate in history, most Americans today are enjoying the dividends of the strongest American economy in a generation. Unfortunately, life on the farm is not so easy today.
For 5 1/2 years, I have worked to expand opportunity for our farm families. We've strengthened crop insurance, provided critical disaster assistance to ranchers who have lost livestock, doubled our use of export credits from last year, improved our school lunch programs by buying surplus commodities, and worked to diversify the sources of enterprise and income in rural America.
But with the economic crisis in Asia weakening some of our best customers for farm products, and with strong world crop production bringing prices down, and with farmers facing floods and fires and drought and crop disease, our farmers face a difficult and dangerous moment. Many farm families have been pushed off their land, and many more could suffer the same fate unless our Nation revives its commitment to helping farmers weather hard times.
When I signed the 1996 farm bill, at a time when farm prices were very strong, I made clear my concern that there was not an adequate safety net for farmers. The bill had to be signed to avoid putting our farmers in an even more difficult situation under the old 1949 farm bill. But sooner or later, prices were bound to fall so low that we would need that safety net. That day has come. With prices for many farm products plummeting, America's farm families face a crisis, and we have an obligation to help.
At the same time we see a very different crisis in some parts of the world, a crisis of hunger, where too many families face famine and starvation. For decades, American Presidents have addressed such crises. That's what I'm doing today.
Today I am acting within my full authority as President to take immediate steps to help our family farmers and to reduce crop surpluses at home. Within days, the United States Government will begin to purchase more than 80 million bushels of wheat, which could lift prices as much as 13 cents a bushel. With this wheat, I've instructed Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman to launch a new food aid initiative to press the world struggle against hunger.
Secretary Glickman, working with our Agency for International Development, will use the authority granted to him by Congress to oversee substantial donations of U.S. wheat to countries where the need is greatest, places such as Sudan and Indonesia. Donations will also be made to private humanitarian groups. All told, this is in the best humanitarian tradition, an action based on human need to help save lives as it opens new links of trade with these nations. It's good for American farmers, good for our economy, and it's the right thing to do.
This effort will provide a much needed boost to U.S. wheat farmers, but we can and must do more. I'm pleased that this week Congress took prompt bipartisan action to exempt agricultural trade from U.S. sanctions against India and Pakistan in the wake of their nuclear test. But more congressional action must follow. We should expand eligibility for direct and guaranteed loans, extend marketing loans when crop prices are low or transportation problems make marketing difficult, give farmers more flexibility to plant other crops when their primary crops fail. And above all, we must keep the market for our products growing by paying our dues to the International Monetary Fund so that we can stabilize and help to reform Asian economies that are such important customers for America's farmers and for our other exporters who are responsible for 30 percent of the remarkable growth we've enjoyed since 1993.
In my State of the Union Address, I urged Congress to do this for the sake of our own economy. Six months later, the need is greater than ever. We must pay our dues to the International Monetary Fund so that our people can sell their products abroad.
The steps I take today are in the best tradition of America. From our beginnings, we have recognized that the agricultural tradition strengthens the national community. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "No cracked Earth, no blistering Sun, no burning wind are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers who inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity, and their courage." Today, at a moment of broad prosperity for our Nation, we have an obligation to expand opportunity for all Americans as we move strongly into the 21st century.
Thanks for listening.