When I visited Harvard???s Kennedy School of Government last winter as a presidential candidate, I mentioned how the Left — big bureaucracy and big unions — helps entrap the poorest Americans in permanent poverty.
I suggested that poor teenagers could be employed part-time in the safety of their schools to do light janitorial work or assist in the cafeteria or offices.
My belief was and still is that work would benefit young people — especially poor young people — by helping them earn money and develop a strong work ethic at an early age. In the following weeks, hundreds of people approached me to tell me the stories of their first jobs and how they personally had learned the value of hard work.
For the media elites, however, my suggestion was too much to handle. Liberal commentators mocked the idea, infused it with a racial subtext, and posited in the middle of a presidential debate that I was ???seeking to belittle people.???
After all the media-generated uproar that followed my discussion of work as a core American value, I was fascinated in June to see on CNN the story of a high school senior named Dawn Loggins. Dawn was a straight A student in Lawndale, North Carolina. She was also poor and homeless — having been abandoned by her parents earlier in the year. Every morning, Dawn arrived at school hours before her classmates for her paid job as a janitor. Through her work, Dawn earned a modest amount of money and managed to finish high school. In fact, she even earned a full scholarship and will be going to college this fall. At Harvard.
Dawn is a living tribute to one of the highest American virtues: hard work. Our heroes here are hard workers. We think of the early colonists, who toiled through long winters merely to survive. Of Abraham Lincoln, who was so poor he taught himself to read and write with the aid of just a few borrowed books. Of Andrew Carnegie, who like millions of other immigrants arrived in America with nothing and became one of the most successful businessmen in history. Of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, whose designs failed hundreds of times before finally succeeding, and of Henry Ford, who rose from humble beginnings to manufacture mass produced, affordable automobiles.
We???re inspired by stories like Dawn???s or like Henry Ford???s not merely because they achieved great things, but because they achieved these things through hard work.
In America, we believe that work is an indispensable good, that it is crucial to independence and self-reliance, that even menial work offers its own dignity. After all, for many of us, to support ourselves and our families, to better the lives of our children, is an achievement equal to those of Edison or Carnegie. Without work, our lives are incomplete.
When Barack Obama was a candidate for president in 2008, he seemed to indicate support for this belief. He told Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church that he had misjudged the welfare reform we passed in the 1990s, and that he now realized, ???We have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy, not only because ultimately people who work are going to get more income, but because [of] the intrinsic dignity of work, the sense of purpose ??? .???
But in a recent one week period and two revealing statements, President Obama shredded any last hope we may have had that he truly believes in this quintessential American value.
I???ll begin first with the latter statement, one week ago today, when the Obama Department of Health and Human Services quietly released a memorandum announcing a change to welfare policy. Though full of bureaucratese, the gist of the memo was clear: the Obama administration was unilaterally eliminating the work requirement from welfare, declaring it would grant waivers to states — and in doing so, tearing at the heart of the 1996 welfare reform.
The centerpiece of that reform was just what candidate Obama said it was: work. We required recipients to go to work after two years on welfare. This, experience and an entrapped generation had taught us, was absolutely necessary to ensure that welfare???s enervating dependency was only temporary.
An overwhelming majority of Americans — 83 percent, according to a recent poll — continue to support these work requirements. The Left, however, has long sought to subvert them. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found that some states had sought to categorize as work activities including ???bed rest, short-term hospitalizations ??? physical rehabilitation, which could include massage, regulated exercise ??? personal journaling, motivational reading, exercise at home, smoking cessation, and weight loss promotion.??? Congress subsequently acted to ban states from counting these activities as work, but the Obama administration???s new policy will remove the obligation completely.
If the memo that effectively eliminated welfare reform???s work requirement was opaque, it was President Obama???s revealing remarks a few days earlier that explained it.
Enlightening us as to why Americans with incomes of $200,000 are obligated to pay even more taxes, he said, ???If you???ve been successful, you didn???t get there on your own. You didn???t get there on your own. I???m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you???ve got a business — you didn???t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn???t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.???
In this one paragraph, President Obama clearly lays out his philosophy — a philosophy he shares with others on the Left and which guides the liberal opposition to work and provoked the elite media???s hysterical reaction to the idea of teenagers working in their schools.
What the president is saying is that society owns you. If you???re successful, you don???t own your success. The government does, because your success depended on others all along.
Notice, the president goes out of his way to chastise those who feel they have achieved anything by their own hard work. ???Somebody else made that happen,??? he says.
These ideas are, of course, fundamentally opposed to the American values of hard work and self-reliance, not to mention the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
But they are also the same ideas which justify, even compel, the welfare state. If, as the president suggests, it is the government to which we owe anything we might achieve, then we are all, rich or poor, dependents. If we have made bad choices, if we have failed, then this too must be the fault of others — others who didn???t help, who didn???t teach us well, who didn???t build the right bridges for us.
And if it???s society to which the successful owe what property they have and society to which the unsuccessful owe their condition, then the government is right to confiscate property from those with more and give it as maintenance to people they???ve never met, who???ve never earned it, who themselves might not work at all. Why work, anyway, if your achievements are not your own?
Mr. President, I invite you to take your theory to your alma mater in Massachusetts this September. Tell Dawn Loggins, the homeless, straight A student and janitor from Lawndale, North Carolina, that she didn???t get there on her hard work.