President George W. Bush: 'Revive the Spirit of Citizenship'

Commencement address at University of Notre Dame, May 2001.

BY: President George W. Bush


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In 1966, welfare reform confronted the first of these problems, with a five-year time limit on benefits, and a work requirement to receive them. Instead of a way of life, welfare became an offer of temporary help -- not an entitlement, but a transition. Thanks in large part to this change, welfare rolls have been cut in half. Work and self-respect have been returned to many lives. That is a tribute to the Republicans and democrats who agreed on reform, and to the President who signed it: President Bill Clinton.

Our nation has confronted welfare dependency. But our work is only half done. Now we must confront the second problem: to revive the spirit of citizenship -- to marshal the compassion of our people to meet the continuing needs of our nation. This is a challenge to my administration, and to each one of you. We must meet that challenge -- because it is right, and because it is urgent.

Welfare as we knew it has ended, but poverty has not. When over 12 million children live below the poverty line, we are not a post-poverty America. Most states are seeing the first wave of welfare recipients who have reached the law's five-year time limit. The easy cases have already left the welfare rolls. The hardest problems remain -- people with far fewer skills and greater barriers to work. People with complex human problems, like illiteracy and addiction, abuse and mental illness. We do not yet know what will happen to these men and women, or to their children. But we cannot sit and watch, leaving them to their own struggles and their own fate.

There is a great deal at stake. In our attitudes and actions, we are determining the character of our country. When poverty is considered hopeless, America is condemned to permanent social division, becoming a nation of caste and class, divided by fences and gates and guards.

Our task is clear, and it's difficult: we must build our country's unity by extending our country's blessings.

We make that commitment because we are Americans. Aspiration is the essence of our country. We believe in social mobility, not social Darwinism. We are the country of the second chance, where failure is never final. And that dream has sometimes been deferred. It must never be abandoned.

We are committed to compassion for practical reasons. When men and women are lost to themselves, they are also lost to our nation. When millions are hopeless, all of us are diminished by the loss of their gifts.

And we're committed to compassion for moral reasons. Jewish prophets and Catholic teaching both speak of God's special concern for the poor. This is perhaps the most radical teaching of faith -- that the value of life is not contingent on wealth or strength or skill. That value is a reflection of God's image.

Much of today's poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy. And often when a life is broken, it can only be restored by another caring, concerned human being. The answer for an abandoned child is not a job requirement -- it is the loving presence of a mentor. The answer to addiction is not a demand for self-sufficiency -- it is personal support on the hard road to recovery.

The hope we seek is found in safe havens for battered women and children, in homeless shelters, in crisis pregnancy centers, in programs that tutor and conduct job training and help young people when they happen to be on parole. All these efforts provide not just a benefit, but attention and kindness, a touch of courtesy, a dose of grace.

Mother Teresa said that what the poor often need, even more than shelter and food -- though these are desperately needed, as well -- is to be wanted. And that sense of belonging is within the power of each of us to provide. Many in this community have shown what compassion can accomplish.

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