President George W. Bush: 'Revive the Spirit of Citizenship'
Commencement address at University of Notre Dame, May 2001.
In that speech, Lyndon Johnson advocated a War on Poverty which had noble intentions and some enduring successes. Poor families got basic health care; disadvantaged children were given a head start in life. Yet, there were also some consequences that no one wanted or intended. The welfare entitlement became an enemy of personal effort and responsibility, turning many recipients into dependents. The War on Poverty also turned too many citizens into bystanders, convinced that compassion had become the work of government alone.
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.