The Dignity of Work

Torch of Learning Award Dinner
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thanks, Fred—thanks, everybody. I’m delighted to be here. And the first thing I want to do is congratulate the man of the hour, Bill Kilberg. In the time I’ve known Bill, I’ve found him to be an incredibly smart and hardworking guy. There’s a reason they call him a “super lawyer”—which, in this town, is meant to be a compliment. And what’s most impressive about Bill is that he uses his knowledge of the law to protect and promote free enterprise. He knows better than most just how precious—how fragile—opportunity is, both to the employer and to the employee.

And you might not know this about Bill, but he actually went to college on a scholarship from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. So it seems rather fitting that, in receiving this award, he joins a long line of distinguished honorees, including the only president of a labor union to be elected president of the United States: Ronald Reagan.                                                                                       

But perhaps Bill’s greatest achievement is that he married up. There have been many great Bobbies in our history: Bobby Kennedy, Bobby Knight, Bobby Darin. But Bobbie Kilberg is in a league of her own. To say she is accomplished would be to put it mildly. Not too many people can say they’ve worked for a president. Bobbie’s worked for four. And no one is more generous with her time and talents. So please join me in recognizing Bill’s better half, Bobbie Kilberg.

Finally, I want to thank all of you. Like Bill and Bobbie, you all have done your part to build up a great institution. It’s amazing to think that this one university has done so much good for the world. Your scholars are making one breakthrough after another: developing a new treatment for Parkinson’s, designing a driverless car, teaching the blind to see by sound. So I want to salute Hebrew University—this testament to human progress, this beacon on the mountaintop.

I only wish the rest of the world looked so bright. Every week seems to bring news of yet another tragedy—yet another setback for the friends of freedom. And if there were any doubt about the need for a strong America, the events of this year alone should have dispelled that doubt. But I’d like to think we’ve reached a turning point. I’ve been pretty tough on this president for his lack of leadership. But in his speech last week, he seemed to set a new course. He recognized a threat. He laid out a plan to confront it—and there’s certainly room for improvement. But now we as a country should band together. We should work together to defeat ISIS and to show the world the strength of American resolve.

But as you know, we can’t be strong abroad unless we’re strong at home. And there’s no getting around the fact that our economy is in bad shape. Too many families are living paycheck to paycheck. They’re working harder and harder to get ahead and falling further and further behind. Deep poverty is near its highest recorded level. When you stop and take a look at all this, you just have to think, “We can do better.”

So for the past two years, I’ve been traveling across the country with another one of our friends who’s here tonight: Bob Woodson. Bob has been a great mentor of mine—and a good friend of the Kilbergs. He’s taught me a lot. And two years ago I went to him and said, “You know, I don’t think Washington has all the answers. I want to meet the people who do. I want to learn from people who are fighting poverty every day.” So Bob took me on a listening tour. We went to different communities all across the country—from a homeless shelter in Denver to a rehab center in San Antonio, from a high school in Milwaukee to a church in Indianapolis.

I met people from all points of view and all walks of life. Everyone had a different story, but every story had the same lesson: Deep poverty is not just a form of deprivation; it’s also a form of isolation. The poor are cut off from key sources of support: family, education, employment. And I saw the same thing time and time again: Once people found their niche and put down roots, they drew strength from the people around them, and they grew.

And government has a role to play here. But the question is, what kind of role? At what point does government stop helping and start hurting? Well, I tried to answer that question. And I began to draw on many sources: economics, history, personal testimony. And one of those sources was my own Catholic faith. I found that Catholic social teaching was a helpful lens for looking at poverty—for understanding what the problem was and what to do about it.

And in my travels, I met with many different faith-based organizations. I knew we shared a lot in common. But soon I began to realize just how much. Yes, there were different traditions. But we shared some fundamental beliefs. In Catholic social teaching, we recognize there’s no set answer to a lot of these questions of public policy. Good Catholics can disagree—and, boy, do we ever. But it’s not just us Catholics. You know, David Ben-Gurion used to joke, “Two Jews, three opinions.” And we should respect these different opinions, because all people have a right to their own “prudential judgment.” (That’s a fancy term for “wiggle room.”)

So tonight I want to talk about those shared beliefs and what they mean for public policy. Look, I make no claim to any ecumenical expertise. But sometimes the similarities are so striking that you can’t help but notice. And in forging this renewed bond, I think we can find renewed hope. 

In both the Christian and the Jewish traditions, there’s a common thread running through them. And that’s the belief in human dignity. It’s the recognition that people aren’t just another factor of production—they aren’t just another means to an end. They are the end. They and their happiness are the center, the focus, the very purpose of our lives. And everything we do—every law we pass, every transaction we make—should enhance human dignity.

And the dignity of the individual rests in large part on the dignity of work. It goes all the way back to creation. The Torah says God made man “and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Even before the fall—even before God had told us, “By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread”—God wanted us to work. Paradise is something more than a beachfront resort. And we are something more than spectators. We are, in the rabbinic teaching, “partners with God in the work of creation.”

So while unemployment has an economic effect, it also has a moral effect. When you cannot work, you can’t fulfill your God-given purpose. You can’t make use of your God-given talents. A healthy economy is large and expanding, yes. It’s also inclusive. It allows every person to reach their full potential—to participate fully in our national life. And public policy should promote this culture of participation.

The question is, how? In Catholic social teaching, there are two key principles to keep in mind: solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity is a shared commitment to the common good. It’s the belief that we’re all in this together, and we don’t let anybody slip through the cracks. Subsidiarity, meanwhile, is a prudent deference to the people closest to the problem. When there’s hardship, we first look to the people in the local community to solve it. And only if they can’t solve the problem on their own do we ask a broader authority to step in. And even then, government must work with the people in the community, not against them.

The idea is not that this is the more efficient way or the more practical way—though it very often is. (And sometimes it isn’t.) The idea is that this is the most personal way, the most humane way—and therefore the best way—to solve our problems. By keeping power close to people in need, you give them a chance to take part—to come up with their own solution, not just to follow someone else’s master plan.

These two principles work together. They reinforce each other. They both recognize the inherent worth of every person. And they both empower people to make use of their God-given talents. To use a sports metaphor, solidarity is the team spirit, and subsidiarity is the game plan.

That’s how I think about it in the Catholic tradition. And I’ve learned there’s a similar teaching in the Jewish tradition.

The rabbinic scholar Maimonides taught that there were eight degrees of charity, each one higher than the last: The first was to give reluctantly. The second was to give willingly but not enough. The third was to give enough, but only after being asked. (Bobbie knows all about those types of givers.) The fourth was to give enough before being asked. The fifth was to give without knowing whom you helped, though they knew you. The sixth was to give while knowing them, even if they didn’t know you. The seventh was to give without either person knowing the other.

And the eighth degree of charity—the highest of all—was to make that person self-sufficient—to give them a gift, a loan, or a job. I should point out that this gift was not an entitlement. It was an opportunity—a chance to make something of themselves. And when you think about it, that’s the heart of subsidiarity: the belief that every person at all times has something to contribute.

That’s how I think about these principles. And the great thing is, I’ve gotten to see them in practice. Let me give you an example. One of the places I visited in my travels was Pulaski High School in Milwaukee. They have something called the Violence Free Zone program. The school hires a couple of recent alumni to mentor their students. These are young men and women who grew up in the area. Some of them used to belong to gangs. Others have seen violence at first hand. And they don’t have education degrees or state certification. They have something more important: credibility. They can tell the students, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.” They understand what the students are going through, and so the students listen to them.

The results speak for themselves. Fourteen gangs used to roam the school grounds. Today, they’ve all but disappeared. The school tried all sorts of things to keep students safe—more police presence, more cameras. But only this program worked.

Now I’m not saying there’s no role for government. This is a public high school after all. But in this case government helped the community come up with its own solution. Government didn’t impose a solution from on high. We could’ve passed a law that said, “Every public high school must offer a mentoring program.” The Department of Education could have hired the mentors and doled out the funding. It would have been hailed as a breakthrough. And it would have been a total failure.

The reason the Violence Free Zone program works is that it’s home-grown. And there’s something more at work here—something less obvious, but no less important. These young men and women aren’t just providing a “service.” They’re setting an example. They’re showing their community—and their country—that anyone can be redeemed. And if government were to push them aside, we would lose that example. All this potential would just be sitting on the sidelines. It would be a failure of policy and of principle.

It’s a key insight—one that we lose sight of in the constant back and forth. Far too often we look at public policy as an eternal tug of war between government and the market. But laws and markets are tools. We use them for our own purposes. They don’t have to pull in the opposite direction. In fact, they can pull in the same direction. Our job, then, is to make government and the market work together to enhance human dignity.

And I know a great place to start. Today we spend nearly $800 billion a year on 92 different programs to fight poverty. And yet over 45 million people are living in poverty today. Here’s the problem: Federal aid is fragmented and formulaic. Washington looks at each person’s needs in isolation, like food, housing, energy. It doesn’t see how their needs interact. And what’s worse, Washington looks at each person in isolation. It doesn’t see how people need to interact.

So what we need to do is coordinate assistance to families in need. Get the public and private sector working together. Respect the poverty fighters on the front lines. And along those lines, I recently put out a proposal to reform our safety net. My proposal would be budget neutral. The federal government would spend the same amount of money as before. But I would give states and communities more flexibility with that money, so they could come up with their own solutions. In short, I would inject some market competition into the federal safety net.

Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers; nobody does. The goal here is to start a conversation. And in any conversation, it’s always best to start with the points of agreement.

So in that spirit, I want to end on one more point of agreement. There’s another common thread running through these traditions. We believe there’s a limit to human ambition. Six days a week, we’re supposed to make the most of our talents—to create and build and grow. But God commanded us to rest on the seventh day—to stop working, to stop building, to stop all the hustle and bustle. That’s because we’re supposed to take time to reflect—to remember that all we have is ultimately a gift from God. And so the proper attitude toward life isn’t pride. It’s gratitude.

And on a night like this, surrounded by our friends like Bill and Bobbie, I think it’s safe to say we all are grateful. We’re grateful to God for giving us a great country—and for giving us the opportunity to make it even greater. Thank you.