Beliefnet

Notre Dame's own Lou Nanni is the former director of South Bend's Center for the Homeless -- an institution founded by two Notre Dame professors. It provides guests with everything from drug treatment to mental health service, to classes in the Great Books, to preschool for young children. Discipline is tough. Faith is encouraged, not required. Student volunteers are committed and consistent and central to its mission. Lou Nanni describes this mission as "repairing the fabric" of society by letting people see the inherent "worth and dignity and God-given potential" of every human being.

Compassion often works best on a small and human scale. it is generally better when a call for help is local, not long distance. Here at this university, you've heard that call and responded. It is part of what makes Notre Dame a great university.

This is my message today: there is no great society which is not a caring society. And any effective war on poverty must deploy what Dorothy Day called "the weapons of spirit."

There is only one problem with groups like South Bend's Center for the Homeless -- there are not enough of them. It's not sufficient to praise charities and community groups, we must support them. And this is both a public obligation and a personal responsibility.

The War on Poverty established a federal commitment to the poor. The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide.

Government has an important role. It will never be replaced by charities. My administration increases funding for major social welfare and poverty programs by 8 percent. Yet, government must also do more to take the side of charities and community healers, and support their work. We've had enough of the stale debate between big government and indifferent government. Government must be active enough to fund services for the poor -- and humble enough to let good people in local communities provide those services.

So I have created a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Through that office we are working to ensure that local community helpers and healers receive more federal dollars, greater private support and face fewer bureaucratic barriers. We have proposed a "compassion capital fund," that will match private giving with federal dollars.

We have proposed allowing all taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions -- including non-itemizers. This could encourage almost $15 billion a year in new charitable giving. My attitude is, everyone in America -- whether they are well-off or not -- should have the same incentive and reward for giving.

And we're in the process of implementing and expanding "charitable choice" -- the principle, already established in federal law, that faith-based organizations should not suffer discrimination when they compete for contracts to provide social services. Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful.

Some critics of this approach object to the idea of government funding going to any group motivated by faith. But they should take a look around them. Public money already goes to groups like the Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, to Catholic Charities. Do the critics really want to cut them off? Medicaid and Medicare money currently goes to religious hospitals. Should this practice be ended? Child care vouchers for low income families are redeemed every day at houses of worship across America. Should this be prevented? Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should that be banned? Of course not.

America has a long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals. My administration did not create that tradition -- but we will expand it to confront some urgent problems.

Today, I am adding two initiatives to our agenda, in the areas of housing and drug treatment. Owning a home is a source of dignity for families and stability for communities -- and organizations like Habitat for Humanity make that dream possible for many low income Americans. Groups of this type currently receive some funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The budget I submit to Congress next year will propose a three-fold increase in this funding -- which will expand homeownership, and the hope and pride that come with it.

And nothing is more likely to perpetuate poverty than a life enslaved to drugs. So we've proposed $1.6 billion in new funds to close what I call the treatment gap -- the gap between 5 million Americans who need drug treatment, and the 2 million who currently receive it. We will also propose that all these funds -- all of them -- be opened to equal competition from faith-based and community groups.

The federal government should do all these things; but others have responsibilities, as well -- including corporate America.

Many corporations in America do good work, in good causes. But if we hope to substantially reduce poverty and suffering in our country, corporate America needs to give more -- and to give better. Faith-based organizations receive only a tiny percentage of overall corporate giving. Currently, six of the 10 largest corporate givers in America explicitly rule out or restrict donations to faith-based groups, regardless of their effectiveness. The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations, and neither should corporate America.

In the same spirit, I hope America's foundations consider ways they may devote more of their money to our nation's neighborhood and their helpers and their healers. I will convene a summit this fall, asking corporate and philanthropic leaders throughout America to join me at the White House to discuss ways they can provide more support to community organizations -- both secular and religious.

Ultimately, your country is counting on each of you. Knute Rockne once said, "I have found that prayers work best when you have big players." (Laughter and applause.) We can pray for the justice of our country, but you're the big players we need to achieve it. Government can promote compassion, corporations and foundations can fund it, but the citizens -- it's the citizens who provide it. A determined assault on poverty will require both an active government, and active citizens.

There is more to citizenship than voting -- though I urge you to do it. There is more to citizenship than paying your taxes -- though I'd strongly advise you to pay them. Citizenship is empty without concern for our fellow citizens, without the ties that bind us to one another and build a common good.

If you already realize this and you're acting on it, I thank you. If you haven't thought about it, I leave you with this challenge: serve a neighbor in need. Because a life of service is a life of significance. Because materialism, ultimately, is boring, and consumerism can build a prison of wants. Because a person who is not responsible for others is a person who is truly alone. Because there are few better ways to express our love for America than to care for other Americans. And because the same God who endows us with individual rights also calls us to social obligations.

So let me return to Lyndon Johnson's charge. You're the generation that must decide. Will you ratify poverty and division with your apathy -- or will you build a common good with your idealism? Will you be the spectator in the renewal of your country -- or a citizen?

The methods of the past may have been flawed, but the idealism of the past was not an illusion. Your calling is not easy, because you must do the acting and the caring. But there is fulfillment in that sacrifice, which creates hope for the rest of us. Every life you help proves that every life might be helped. The actual proves the possible. And hope is always the beginning of change.

Thank you for having me, and God bless.
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