When I visited Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last winter as a presidential candidate, I mentioned how the Left — big bureaucracy and big unions — helps entrap the poorest Americans in permanent poverty.
I suggested that poor teenagers could be employed part-time in the safety of their schools to do light janitorial work or assist in the cafeteria or offices.
My belief was and still is that work would benefit young people — especially poor young people — by helping them earn money and develop a strong work ethic at an early age. In the following weeks, hundreds of people approached me to tell me the stories of their first jobs and how they personally had learned the value of hard work.
For the media elites, however, my suggestion was too much to handle. Liberal commentators mocked the idea, infused it with a racial subtext, and posited in the middle of a presidential debate that I was “seeking to belittle people.”
After all the media-generated uproar that followed my discussion of work as a core American value, I was fascinated in June to see on CNN the story of a high school senior named Dawn Loggins. Dawn was a straight A student in Lawndale, North Carolina. She was also poor and homeless — having been abandoned by her parents earlier in the year. Every morning, Dawn arrived at school hours before her classmates for her paid job as a janitor. Through her work, Dawn earned a modest amount of money and managed to finish high school. In fact, she even earned a full scholarship and will be going to college this fall. At Harvard.
Dawn is a living tribute to one of the highest American virtues: hard work. Our heroes here are hard workers. We think of the early colonists, who toiled through long winters merely to survive. Of Abraham Lincoln, who was so poor he taught himself to read and write with the aid of just a few borrowed books. Of Andrew Carnegie, who like millions of other immigrants arrived in America with nothing and became one of the most successful businessmen in history. Of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, whose designs failed hundreds of times before finally succeeding, and of Henry Ford, who rose from humble beginnings to manufacture mass produced, affordable automobiles.
We’re inspired by stories like Dawn’s or like Henry Ford’s not merely because they achieved great things, but because they achieved these things through hard work.
In America, we believe that work is an indispensable good, that it is crucial to independence and self-reliance, that even menial work offers its own dignity. After all, for many of us, to support ourselves and our families, to better the lives of our children, is an achievement equal to those of Edison or Carnegie. Without work, our lives are incomplete.
When Barack Obama was a candidate for president in 2008, he seemed to indicate support for this belief. He told Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church that he had misjudged the welfare reform we passed in the 1990s, and that he now realized, “We have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy, not only because ultimately people who work are going to get more income, but because [of] the intrinsic dignity of work, the sense of purpose … .”
But in a recent one week period and two revealing statements, President Obama shredded any last hope we may have had that he truly believes in this quintessential American value.