– A Renewed Commitment to Opportunity for All –
By: Congressman Paul Ryan
Keynote Address at the 2012 Kemp Leadership Award Dinner
Thank you, Bob, for that kind introduction. And congratulations to Senator Rubio on receiving this well-deserved honor.
You’re joining an elite group of past recipients – so far, it’s just me and you. I’ll see you at the reunion dinner – table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?
I’m sure the press won’t read too much into that.
Anyway, thank you all for your kind hospitality – and thank you, Jimmy, for hosting this event. It’s a special honor to address the Kemp Foundation. As many of you know, Jack Kemp was my mentor. And knowing Jack was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
We met at Empower America, where I was lucky enough to work with Jack and Bill Bennett, another mentor of mine. Jack and I both served in the House of Representatives, and over the years we both took our share of tough hits – Jack from playing quarterback in the NFL, and me from accidentally knocking into Bill Bennett.
Now Jack and I share something else in common: We both used to be the next vice president of the United States. And though I wish this election had turned out differently, I’m proud of the campaign Mitt Romney and I ran. He would have been a great president, and it would have been an honor to serve this country at his side.
We gave this race our all, and I’m grateful for the nomination. It’s thrilling when your team trusts you with the ball – and it’s humbling when you advance the ball as far as you can, only to come up a little short.
But losing is part of politics, and can often prepare the way for the greatest victories. Jack Kemp, were he still with us, could be counted on to quote Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
For all of us, the work goes on. We must carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea – the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise … to escape from poverty … and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve.
That is the promise of American life. And for too many Americans, it isn’t being kept. Poverty rates are the highest in a generation. Of the millions of children born into hardship, fewer and fewer are able to escape it. And some never learn to dream at all, which is a worse tragedy. When 40 percent of all children born into the lowest income quintile never rise above it, what does it say about our country?
To me, it says our economy is failing to provide basic security, much less rising wages. It says our schools are failing to provide a path out of poverty. And it says that our families and communities are breaking down where they are needed most – in those homes and neighborhoods where even a mighty government cannot match the power of one caring soul helping another.
At a time of great consequence, the American people have again chosen divided government. And it’s up to us to make it work. We’ve got to set aside partisan considerations in favor of one overriding concern: How can we work together to repair the economy? How can we provide real security and upward mobility for all Americans – especially those in need?
The problems are the same. But the old ways won’t do. We need new thinking and renewed efforts from all Americans.
It’s true that President Obama won re-election, and I congratulate him on his victory. But on January 20th, he’ll face a stagnant economy and a fiscal mess. You might even say he’ll inherit these problems.
In his second term, I hope he’ll offer fresh ideas and serious leadership. Failure would mean another four years of real pain for working families – and real danger to our national security.
House Republicans won our elections too. But we’ve also got some work to do. Now, I’m proud of our party, and I’m proud of Mitt Romney. He’s a good man who did our nation a great service by making a big election about big ideas and offering serious solutions to serious problems.
But the election didn’t go our way, and the Republican Party can’t make excuses. We can’t spend the next four years on the sidelines. Instead, we must find new ways to apply our timeless principles to the challenges of today.
As it stands, our party excels at representing the aspirations of our nation’s risk-takers. We celebrate that part of the American Dream that involves finding your passion and making a living from it.
But there is another part of the American creed: When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another. We do that best through our families and communities – and our party must stand for making them stronger. We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work – but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision. We need to do better.
In this effort, the Kemp Foundation will help lead the way – because you’re keeping Jack’s spirit alive. You’re supporting leaders like Marco Rubio – leaders who, like Jack, have set their hearts and minds to the task of expanding security and opportunity to all Americans.
Jack just hated the idea that any part of America could be written off. In the 1970s, when people spoke of malaise and scarcity, Jack was talking of an “American Renaissance.” Not everyone listened, but Ronald Reagan sure did, and you saw Jack’s pro-growth ideas at work in the economic expansion of the 1980s and 1990s.
It just wasn’t in his nature to accept limits to growth and opportunity for anyone. And nothing could be more foreign to Jack’s way of thinking than to accept poverty as a permanent way of life. When he saw people striving, he was on their side. He didn’t believe we all belong to some fixed class or station in life. When he was secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he went into a lot of troubled neighborhoods. And never once did he look around and despair. Others might think, “It’s never going to get better than this,” but not Jack Kemp.
He didn’t buy into that attitude. Neither do we, and neither do most Americans. America is exceptional for this very reason.
Both parties tend to divide Americans into “our voters” and “their voters.” But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American. I believe we can turn the engines of upward mobility back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America. But it’s going to require a bold departure from the approach that government has taken for the last five decades.
With a few exceptions, government’s approach has been to expand bureaucracy and spend lots of money on bloated, top-down anti-poverty programs.
The mindset at work here is that a nation should measure compassion by how much it spends – by the sheer size of its government.
The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this approach created a debilitating culture of dependency. It wrecked families and tore communities apart. This was so obvious to everyone that when we reformed welfare in the 1990s, the law was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president.
And what happened? Welfare enrollment dropped dramatically. Millions of people gained new lives of independence. Child-poverty rates fell over 20 percent in four years. And more single mothers found jobs. 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 it helped get government out of the business of fostering dependency.
Here’s the problem: We haven’t applied the welfare-reform mindset with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs. In most cases, we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much we spend – not by how many people we help.
Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to more than one trillion dollars. What does that mean in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000. Instead, we spent all that money trying to fight poverty through government programs.
What do we have to show for it? Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. During the last four years, the number of people on food stamps has gone up by 15 million.Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. And one out of every four students fails to earn a high-school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate. Half.
When Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, he predicted we would eliminate poverty in 35 to 50 years. Here we are, 48 years later, and poverty is winning. We deserve better.
We need a vision for bringing opportunity into every life – one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods, and an equal chance for every American to fulfill their highest aspirations for themselves and their children.
This vision leaves behind the failures of the past. It seeks instead to build on those reforms that have worked.
It calls on government to encourage, not displace, the efforts of free people to help one another.
It calls for a stronger safety net – one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance.
It calls for an end to the chronic inequalities in our education system.
And finally, it promotes economic growth through free enterprise – because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty.
Of course, not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone. Americans are a compassionate people. And there’s a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government – by voluntary action or by government action.
The truth is, there has to be a balance. Government must 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. This is where the needs of each are most clearly recognized – and met. Communities shape our character. They give our lives direction. And they help make us a self-governing people.
The campaign of 2012 was filled with moments I’ll always remember. One of my favorites was a chance to meet with a group of community leaders in Cleveland, Ohio. They’d been brought together by Bob Woodson, whose Center for Neighborhood Enterprise empowers community organizations to improve people’s lives.
Among those Bob brought to Cleveland that day was a man named Brian Wade. Brian’s story will always stay with me. When he and his wife felt called to open a homeless shelter, they didn’t just volunteer their time. They moved their family – a baby and two young ones – into the shelter and lived there for seven years.
When policymakers try to help struggling families, these are the kinds of leaders we should listen to. We must look first to those who have already done the hard work of fighting poverty. Their example must inform our approach. And government must work with them, not against them, or over them.
After all, government’s first duty toward civil society is to do no harm – to secure people’s rights, to respect their purposes, and to preserve their freedom. Nothing undermines the essential work these groups do quite like the abuse of government power. And nothing is more troubling.
But it’s not just the abuses of government that undermine civil society. It’s also the excesses. Look at the road we’re on – with trillion-dollar deficits every year. Debt on this scale is destructive in so many ways. And one of them is that it draws resources away from private charity.
Even worse is the prospect of a debt crisis – which will come unless we do something very soon. When government’s finances collapse, the most vulnerable are the first victims, as we’re seeing right now in Europe. Many there feel they have nowhere to turn. And we must never let that happen in America.
An election has come and gone. And the people have made their choice. But policymakers still have a duty to choose between ideas that work and those that don’t. When one economic policy after another has failed our working families, it’s no answer to simply express compassion for them or to create more government programs that offer promise but don’t perform.
Instead, we must come together and advance new strategies for lifting people out of poverty. Looking around this room – at the men and women carrying on Jack Kemp’s legacy, and at leaders like Marco Rubio, who will be our partners in this great effort – I know we will answer the call. Our cause is right, and the good fight for the American Idea will go on until it is within reach for all people.
Thank you and God bless.