Thank you very much for that warm welcome – and thank you Jimmy, for that great introduction. I want to thank everyone at Cleveland State University for your kind hospitality. I especially want to thank President Berkman for his help in making this happen. And of course, none of us would be here today without the extraordinary work of Bob Woodson and the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Thank you, Bob, for bringing us together today.
We are here in partnership on behalf of an idea – that no matter who your parents are, no matter where you come from, you should have the opportunity in America to rise, to escape from poverty, and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve.
In so many ways, our nation’s history has been a long struggle to bring opportunity into every life. Our nation was founded on the creed that “all men are created equal” – that we all possess equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But, of course, equality of opportunity hasn’t always been a fact of life in our country – it’s been something we’ve had to constantly fight for. It’s a cause that continues to this day.
Even though so many barriers to equality have fallen, too many old inequities persist. Too many children, especially African-American and Hispanic children, are sent into mediocre schools and expected to perform with excellence. African-American and Hispanic children make up only 38 percent of the nation’s overall students, but they are 69 percent of the students in schools identified as lowest performing.
That’s unacceptable. We owe every child a chance to succeed. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, we owe them “an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America. But right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should.
Mitt Romney and I are running because we believe that Americans are better off in a dynamic, free-enterprise-based economy that fosters economic growth, opportunity and upward mobility instead of a stagnant, government-directed economy that stifles job creation and fosters government dependency.
There is something wrong in our country when 40 percent of children born to parents in the lowest fifth of earners never know anything better. The question before us today – and it demands a serious answer – is how do we get the engines of upward mobility turned back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America?
To answer that, we have to take a hard look at the approach government has been taking for the last five decades, and ask ourselves whether it’s working.
With a few exceptions, government’s approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs.
The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends.
The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this top-down approach created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.
This was so obvious to everyone by the 1990s that, when a major welfare program was finally reformed, the law was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president.
Instead of seeing increases in hunger and poverty, we saw welfare enrollment drop dramatically, as millions of our fellow citizens gained new lives of independence. We saw child poverty rates fall over 20 percent in four years – and we saw employment for single mothers rise. Fewer welfare checks going out meant more money for states to spend on child care, so more moms could go to work and support themselves.
Welfare reform worked because it encouraged the best in people – it appealed to their desire to shape their own destiny and advance in life. And it made major strides toward getting the government out of the business of fostering dependency.
Here’s the problem: The welfare-reform mindset hasn’t been applied with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs. In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty.
Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars. How much is that in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000.
Instead, we spend all that money attempting to fight poverty through government programs. And what do we have to show for it?
Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s nearly one in six Americans – the highest poverty rate in a generation. During the last four years, the number of people living on food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. And one in four American students fails to attain a high-school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate. Half.
In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better. We deserve a clear choice for a brighter future. So what is the alternative approach that Mitt Romney and I are offering?
Well, to hear some tell it, we think everybody should just fend for themselves. But that’s just a false argument – a straw man set up to avoid genuine debate.
The truth is, Mitt and I believe in true compassion and upward mobility – and we are offering a vision based on real reforms for lifting people out of poverty.
I am a proud Republican. Our party does a good job of speaking to the part of the American Dream that involves taking what you’re passionate about and making a successful living from it.
But part of what makes America great is that when we don’t succeed, we look out for one another through our communities. My party has a vision for making our communities stronger – but we don’t always do a good job of laying out that vision.
Mitt Romney and I want to change that. Each of us understands the importance of community from experience. I come from a town that’s been hit as hard as any. A lot of guys I grew up with worked at the GM plant in my hometown, and they lost their jobs when it closed.
What happened next is the same thing that happens in communities around the country every day. The town pulled together. Our churches and charities and friends and neighbors were there for one another. In textbooks, they call this civil society. In my own experience, I know it as Janesville, Wisconsin.
As for Mitt Romney, he not only understands the importance of community – he’s lived it. He’s a guy who, at the height of a successful business, took the time to serve as a lay pastor for his church for fourteen years, counseling people in Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods, especially when they lost a job. He’s a man who could easily have contented himself with giving donations to needy causes, but everyone who knows him will tell you that Mitt has always given his time and attention to those around him who are hurting.
He’s the type we’ve all run into in our own communities – here in Cleveland, too, and all around America. Americans are a compassionate people, and there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics. Most times, the real debate is about whether they are best met by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington.
The short of it is that there has to be a balance – allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.
Earlier, we talked with some of the people who define civil society and make it work – folks like Bob Woodson, whose Center for Neighborhood Enterprise empowers community organizations to improve people’s lives. And Dr. Marva Mitchell, who has been ministering to people in the inner cities for decades. And the Reverend Willie Peterson, whose NewBirth Project has helped almost 200 ex-offenders gain and maintain employment.
We have Brian Wade here with us today. When Brian felt called to open a homeless shelter in Elyria, he didn’t just volunteer his time there. He and his wife moved their family – a baby and two young ones – into the shelter and lived there for seven years. He and his volunteers didn’t just provide hot meals and clean clothes – though that alone would have been a lot. At his youth outreach center, he didn’t just give kids a safe place to come in from the streets. In all of this, Brian gave himself. He didn’t show people in need the right path – he walked it with them, not just as a guide, but as a friend.