I want to talk about two Americas. I want
to tell you, first, that the poor are being left behind. Second, I want to tell you that
conservatives are not trusted right now by the American people to engage this problem.
And third, I want to tell you about a social justice agenda by conservatives to truly take
on the poverty problem in America and redress the two Americas crisis. So let’s get started.
Now, I said that the poor in America are being left behind and that’s just a fact. If you
look at the data, it’s actually one of the most striking things about the non-recovery
in the bottom half of the economy. Economists like me like to tell you that in 2014, we’re
going to see a slow but steady increase in GDP, about 2.5 percent growth. Now, that’s
true as far as it goes. The problem is there are actually going to be two growth rates
in 2014. The top half of the American economy, 5 percent, it’s terrific, fast growth. I just
read that Lamborghini sales are up by 80 percent. Hooray. Now, the problem is that the bottom
half is going to see 0 percent economic growth. If you look at the data on economic growth
over the past seven years, you’ll find that the bottom half of the American economy has
stayed stagnant or has lost purchasing power in inflation adjusted terms every year for
the past seven years. Imagine how exhausting this is for the bottom half. We haven’t seen
anything like that since the Great Depression. The numbers on the top half, they look pretty
good. Going back to January of 2009 until now, you see that the stock market has increased
in inflation-adjusted terms by 110 percent. It’s great. Those gains, 81 percent of those
gains have gone to the top 10 percent of the economic distribution. The top 10 percent
richest Americans have taken away more than 80 percent of those gains. But what about
the bottom? Well, since January of 2009, 32 million Americans who were on Food Stamps
then have ballooned up to 48 million Americans on Food Stamps today, a 50 percent increase.
One in six Americans today is so poor as to have to ask the government for help to raise
his or her children and to feed him or herself. That’s a scandal. Employment rates: 63 percent
of the American workforce is employed, the lowest levels since the late 1970s, the bad
old days of the Carter administration. Now, that’s nothing for us to feel good about right
now, especially during this time of policy that’s supposed to lift the poor up. African-American
unemployment among teenagers, 37 percent. We haven’t seen numbers like this in decades.
We are becoming two Americas. Progressive policy, since 2009, has not helped. The poor
are getting worse off, while the rich get richer. I do not begrudge the rich one dollar
of their gains because this is America. But we’ve got to do something about people in
the bottom half, and the progressive policies of this administration aren’t helping. What
are we going to do? Well, if you ask Americans about the crisis today, they’ll say, yeah,
America’s on the wrong track. Almost seven in 10 Americans today say this country is
not on the right track. We have to do something different. The problem is they’re not all
running to a new solution. Why? Because they don’t trust conservatives. They don’t think
that conservatives actually care about the poor. I don’t want that to be true, but I
have to face the facts. The Associated Press, last year, did a poll asking Americans, do
you think that the Republican Party is compassionate? The fact that you’re laughing right now is
not a good sign. Sixteen percent said yes. How are you going to look like you care about
ordinary people when 16 percent of the population thinks that your party is actually compassionate?
A good UCLA study from a few years ago found that among conservative citizens the majority
feel like their leaders are somewhat heartless. You can’t win when people think you don’t
care about them. That’s got to change. Now, the first question is why do they think that?
Why do Americans think that conservatives don’t care about poor people? You ask conservatives
and they will all say the same thing, we’re getting a bad rap. The press is stacked against
us. They don’t like us. They’re always talking about the mean things that we’re doing and
it’s true that when somebody says something bad about you and the press or the other party
or something says that you don’t care about poor people, it’s not going to look very good.
But that’s actually not the big problem. The problem is not what other people say about
us. It’s what we say. Listen to conservatives arguing about poverty. Listen to conservatives
thinking about public policy and they’ll say something like this. Here’s the complaint:
we cannot continue to remain on this unsustainable trajectory of public spending. You’ve heard
it a million times, right? You’re poor, what do you hear? You hear, I care about money.
I don’t care about poverty. I don’t care about you. I care about money. Right? What should
they say? Let’s think about it. You hear people arguing sometimes, right? Anytime you hear
two people arguing notice who’s getting the better part of the argument and who’s getting
the worse part. The side that’s losing is always fighting against things. The side that’s
winning is always fighting for people. And that’s the secret. It’s time to stop fighting
against things. Here’s what conservatives do. Here’s the value proposition of too many
conservative politicians. If you elect me, I’m going to fight against government spending,
deficit, debt, the size of government, and regulation. Right? The big evil five for conservatives.
I’m going to fight against all these things, right? It’s time to give that up. I mean,
look, I have a Ph.D. in that product line of fighting against those things. I’m against
runaway government spending, so are you. But that’s not going to win and it’s not going
to win because it’s not actually fighting for people. It’s time for conservative politicians
and people of good faith to say, I’m going to fight for you and your family with conservative
policies whether you vote for me or not, and actually mean it. Because fighting for people
is the reason we’re in the movement. It’s a reason I’m in the free enterprise movement.
I don’t come from this background. I didn’t come from a family that’s conservative or
Republican or business oriented at all. No. I come from a family that thought a lot of
the reverse on the topics that we’re talking about tonight. But I started doing a lot of
reading about what actually helps poor people. And what did I find? I found that the free
enterprise system has lifted more people out of poverty than any of the system in history.
Billions of people are not poor today because of your American free enterprise system that
spread around the world after 1970. I want to fight for that. I want to do more of that.
But instead, the movement is just frittering it away. This opportunity is leaving and people
are listening to contrary ideas simply because it looks like we don’t care. It’s time to
start fighting for people. And then, here’s the catch. Then we got to back it up. Then
we got to have good policies. Then we have to have ideas that will actually work to lift
up the bottom half. Forget bringing down the top. Let’s lift up the bottom. And we have
to have ideas on how. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. When you’re in the world
of scholarship, like me, when you’re in academia or think thanks, it’s remarkable how little
we understand what actually helps poor people. We have theories of people in poverty, right?
It’s — I remember I had one of my best friends, when I was teaching at Syracuse University.
He had done his doctoral work; he’d written his dissertation on poverty, on how to help
poor people. And he was working at a large Midwestern university, writing his dissertation
in the Poverty Research Center with the big marble pillars, right? And he’s in there in
a complete silence with all his colleagues, you know, typing away on his dissertation
how to help poor people, right? And one afternoon, an actual poor guy walks in, right? And nobody
knows what to do. You see, it turns out that this is a man on the street and he sees Poverty
Research Center. He says, maybe I can get help paying my rent, right? So he walks in
and people are just baffled. You know, like call security. Nobody knows what to do with
an actual poor person. That’s a problem. That’s a problem. It’s time for us, for scholars
to go into communities where people are lifting themselves out of poverty and that’s what
we’re doing. That’s what we’re doing in our work these days. And it’s very interesting,
talking to people who’ve rebuilt their lives, people who started out poor and have lifted
themselves up and asking, what do you need? What policies do you need? What cultural change
do you need? And they say a lot of the same things over and over again. They talk about
the necessity of personal moral transformation, of getting their lives in order. They talk
about the necessity of a safety net that’s reliable, that includes a safety net from
the government, which is something, I believe, conservatives should fight for and work to
defend with a solvent economy. But most of all — most of all — they talk about hope.
See, this is what’s lacking in the lives of poor people, the belief that if I work hard
and play by the rules, I can actually get ahead. The truth is that fear is well founded.
If you look at the data, mobility, economic mobility in this country has been declining
since the 1980s. It’s declined by at least a third since the 1980s. The deck is stacked
against poor people more and more. And they say we must have hope. So you know what we
need? You know what the social justice agenda is for conservatives today? It’s a hope agenda.
And a hope agenda has three parts: work, entrepreneurship, and education. Let’s start with work. You
hear it all the time. To bring America back, we need jobs, jobs, jobs. All the politicians
talk about jobs. But jobs aren’t really it. It’s the sanctification of work. It’s the
fact that work is a blessing to give people’s lives value, so that they can create value
in the lives of other people. And you know it and I know it. You know what the greatest
threat to that is today, besides meddling government and the nanny state and an overregulated
economy? It’s a culture that says, you better not have a dead end job. You hear about dead
end jobs all the time. The problem of Wal-Mart? They create dead end jobs. The problem with
McDonald’s? Dead end jobs. Better go to college, because if you don’t, you get a dead end job.
You hear that from government. You hear that from leaders. You hear that on TV. Dead end
jobs, really? How many of started out in dead end jobs? Me, too, I started out making pizzas.
Ended up okay for me. Ended up okay for you. The truth of the matter is there aren’t any
dead end jobs. Look, we got to find ways to make work pay. We have to find better policies
to make sure that poor people who work hard and play by the rules can actually get ahead.
But the idea of telling people they’re working in dead-end jobs when people aren’t working
at all and their welfare is somehow better, you know that’s wrong and we have to fight.
The second is entrepreneurship. Now, conservatives love to talk about entrepreneurs. They’re
American heroes. Look around, everything was built by entrepreneurs. This is our gift to
the world, right? The trouble is we’ve forgotten what it really means. See, entrepreneurship
isn’t starting a massive business. Entrepreneurship is the enterprise of building your life. It’s
the dignified endeavor of building your life bespoke the way you see fit. Now, I hear Republican
politicians talk about this all the time. They tell this story. You know, I met a guy
in New Hampshire and he started a sandwich shop. And he’s kind of down and out. He put
all his money into it. He dropped out of school, but he works really hard. And then, dot, dot,
dot, then he made $1 billion. That’s always the punch-line, $1 billion, right? That’s
not the punch-line. That’s not the point of entrepreneurship. The point is and then he
supported himself. And then he supported his family. And then he was independent. And then
he looked at his life and said, I built that. That’s entrepreneurship. That’s the American
dream. That’s what your ancestors came to America to see. They weren’t steaming in the
New York harbor saying, thank God I’m in America, where I can finally get a better system of
forced income redistribution. No, they said, here I can build my life. Here I can do it
my way. That’s what we need to remember. The last it’s education. It’s the civil rights
struggle of our time. You know, think where we are. We’re in the capital of the greatest
city of the greatest country in the history of the world. Think what it means to be poor
in the public schools in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., spends $21,000 per year
per kid here. And what do we get? What percentage of eight graders in the Washington, D.C.,
public schools read at national rate level? Eighteen percent. That’s what we get for 21
grand a year per kid. It’s not about the money. Hey, just tell me the number. Tell me the
number to get excellent kids that lift the poor out of poverty, to get them ready for
the workforce, so they can build their lives. Is it 36,000? Is it 92,000? Is it 114? Fill
in the blank, man. We’re a rich country. You know we’ll pay it. It’s not about the money.
You can flush the money down the toilet all day long and it’s not going to get better
because the problem is that we have a public school infrastructure in this country that
serves adults, not kids. If I ran my business that way, the market would hunt me down and
kill me like a dog. You know it’s true. Great companies, they have two things in common:
choice and innovation. Every great company, for profit, nonprofit, choice and innovation.
That means giving people what they want and need and doing it bigger, better, stronger,
faster, and cheaper. Choice and innovation. Those are the two things that we miss because
of the way that we structured our public education system. And who pays? Not my kids. Poor kids.
The bottom 25 percent of the income distribution that’s systematically being denied their simple
rights because we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to take on the entrenched interests
that hold the poor down. If you believe in the civil rights struggle that made this country
exceptional and great, you’ve got to get in the fight on this again today because this
is the civil rights struggle of our time. So where are we? The first thing I told you
is the poor are being left behind. You can’t find data that contradict this. Are the poor
actually okay? They’re not. The last five years of predominantly progressive policy
in this country have left the poor further behind and have been almost a plutocratic
tour de force in making the rich richer. Two, people don’t trust us. People don’t trust
us to solve this problem. People don’t trust conservatives and the reason is because of
what we say, because we’re not fighting enough for people. So number three, let’s fight for
people and let’s do it with a hope agenda, with a true social justice agenda, based on
work and entrepreneurship and based on education reform. Now, if we do these things, we can
really transform this country. It’s not just about politics. Because look, you’re like
me. You’re in the movement because you want to fight for people. Who cares which party
wins? We’ve just got to make sure that poor don’t lose because if we do, poor people lose,
they will be the generation that pull the ladder up behind us and that’s not morally
permissible. The struggle of our time is to make sure that that is not true. So here’s
what I leave you with. The question is not, are you angry enough to fight for better policy?
I know you are. So am I. I wake up every morning quite mad about all the mistakes we’ve been
making in public in this country. I’m the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
I want to fight because I’m mad. But that’s not the point. I’m mad; so are you. The question
is not if you’re mad enough to fight for change. The question is do you have enough love on
your heart for everybody to fight for change. See, what leaders and patriots do is they
fight for the weak, no matter how the weak vote. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter
if they like the other guys. You’ve got to fight for them because that’s what leaders
do. Do you have enough love written on your heart for everybody to get in the fight? If
you do, this country can win for the poor. This country can deliver on its promises.
This country, once again, can be a beacon of hope for everybody, whether they’re coming
here as immigrants or they’re not even here yet, but they’re Americans in their hearts,
or whether they’ve been here for a long time and they’ve been left behind. We are the generation
that can make this occur. We can pass this on people who are younger than us and they
can be the heroes. They can be deputized to the heroic activity that is the patrimony
left to us by the great founders of this nation. I urge you to join us and I thank you so much
for being in this fight. God bless you. Hi, I’m Arthur Brooks, thanks for watching. We’d
love to hear your ideas about fighting poverty. So tell us in the comments below. Then please
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