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Secretary Cuomo's Speech at the
National Summit on Churches and Welfare Reform
Call for Renewal

Tuesday, February 2, 1999

SECRETARY CUOMO: Thank you very much. Good afternoon to all of you. ... It's a great afternoon, isn't it?


SECRETARY CUOMO: First, Mr. Jim Wallace, God bless you, Jim, for everything you do, and for this convening, and with more for your inspiration. You couldn't have a better individual - or better call then the call for renewal - and Jim Wallace's leadership - at this time in our history. And Jim, I just want to thank you very much. Carol Finley, I've worked with her for more years then I choose to remember, God bless you for organizing this convention and for all you do, Carol, thank you, it's a pleasure to be here. And Jim introduced our radical Jesuit resident at HUD, Father Joseph Hacala, why don't you stand-up you radical you. Father Hacala is the only priest who is a political appointee of the Clinton Administration so he very much is the radical. And we couldn't have him at a better place than HUD.

I have two basic messages for you today. First message is that if we're going to make the kind of progress we're going to make, the Government has to listen and hear the message, listen and hear. There is a difference between listening and hearing; when you say something to someone, that is listening. Hearing is in taking the words and absorbing them and acting on them; government must listen and hear. And the second message is, that ultimately it's going to be up to you to make the difference and up to you to catalyze and facilitate public opinion and public action in your community - those are the two messages.

Two stories about the two messages. First on the differences between listening and hearing. For those who hear the stories in the confessionals. You know the fellow goes into the confessional - forgive me Father I have sinned it has been six months since my last confession, here are my sins: Father, I stole lumber. Father says, you stole lumber? Yes, I've stole lumber, Father. Father says, okay, two Hail Mary's, two Our Father's that's your penance. The fellow leaves the confessional, does the penance. Next week the same fellow comes back to the confessionals, forgive me Father for I have sinned, yes. Father I stole lumber, stole lumber. Okay. Five Hail Mary's and five Our Father's, that's your penance. Young man leaves the confessional, next week the young man comes back, forgive me Father for I have sinned, Father I've stolen lumber. Father said, well, wait, we have a communication problem here now. Let me put it this way because I have given you penance and it hasn't made a difference. Do you know how to make a Novena? He says, no Father I don't know how to make a Novena but if you can get the building plans I can get the lumber. The difference between listening and hearing. Government has to listen but Government also has to hear for a change.

The second message is ultimately it's up to you. The story of the farmer and the flood. Farmer down south is on his farm and it starts to rains. And it's raining, and it's raining, and the rain is nearing biblical proportions and the authorities now are afraid of floods. They come out with a large truck and they go out to the farm and they say to farmer, come on get in the truck, it's raining and the word is coming from the county they are talking about flooding and we want to bring you to safety. The farmer says, no, I'm a God-fearing man, I go to church every Sunday, the Lord will take care of it. The authorities are frustrated but they leave. And the rain keeps coming, the rain keeps coming and now it's about six feet deep, the water, and the authorities come back in a boat and they say to the farmer, we told you, now get in the boat, the rain is coming, the floods are coming, we'll take you to safety. The farmer says, no, I'm a God-fearing man, I go to church every Sunday, the Lord will take care of me. They say, we know that, that's nice, but get into the boat and we'll take you to safety. And he says, no, the Lord will provide.

Well the rain keeps coming, the rain keeps coming and now the farmer is standing on the roof of the farm house and the water is up to the farmer's neck and the farmer has his hands above the water and everything, there is water, just his head is above the water. And he's looking up and out of the clouds appears a helicopter and the helicopter throws down a rope and they say to the farmer, grab the rope we can still save you, it's not too late, grab the rope. And the farmer looks up, he says, no, I'm a God-fearing man, I go to church every Sunday, the Lord will take care of me. They said, grab the rope for crying out loud, he says, no.

Next scene the farmer is at the pearly gates of heaven. And he meets our Lord and the farmer says: Lord, I'm a little confused, I was a God-fearing man, I went to church every Sunday, I thought you would take care of me, what happened? Our Lord look back and said: You're confused, I'm confused. I sent a truck, I sent a boat, I sent a helicopter. Ultimately it's up to you. Those two stories in mind, let me make a couple of points and see if there is any possible relevance to them.

Welfare reform is the topic of the conference - a stepping off point and I think it serves that very well. If you take welfare reform as a specific, a lot of success has been achieved through welfare reform. The economy has been going great guns since then. But a lot of success has been achieved. If you look at the numbers on welfare reform: welfare rolls down 44 percent; single women down 20 percent; earned income for families is up. All the numbers speak of a good story of success. At the same time you can see real challenges within welfare reform. The same time you have the great numbers of success, you also have more cities saying the demand for emergency services is going up. And the numbers tend to show that while there has been a reduction in the welfare rolls, those who have left were the most mobile anyway, and those that are being left on the rolls are the hardest to reach. Well the existing welfare rolls, the remaining welfare rolls are becoming more and more minority. Hispanics are now the largest, growing percent within the welfare population, and it's more urban. So a great story of success on the numbers, but real challenges lie ahead.

And I think the reason why welfare is an appropriate stepping off point is because - the truth about welfare reform, and the reason it's a good metaphor for what's going on now, is welfare reform was never about a policy debate. I was on the Welfare Reform Task Force for President Clinton, believe me it had nothing to do with any form policy debate once the issue got to the United States Congress, it was a political debate. No one would say, how do we really help people on welfare. Let's design an intelligent program to move people from welfare to work - that wasn't the discussion. It was a political discussion and we were demonizing the people on welfare. They were the enemy and this was a retaliation against the enemy. That was what welfare reform was all about, that was the engine driving it. I would like to say that this was our nation at its best, saying �we want to help the people on welfare, we want to invest in the people on welfare,' that was not the discussion. It was a Congress pandering to some of the worst sentiment in the American people.

And the welfare recipient was really the icon for the enemy. Welfare recipient was a metaphor for the stereotypes. You know who gets welfare: those lazy welfare mothers. We're supposed to give them money so they can sit home on a couch and make babies. All the ugly mean stereotypes, that's what welfare was really about. And welfare reform then meant �punish that person who has gotten away with it for too long.' I would also like to say that was a unique circumstance, the debate over welfare, but it wasn't, it wasn't. That anger, that mean-spiritedness, is all too common. Welfare became the hot button for it. It became the vent for it, but it is there day-to-day. I would also like to be able to say: Well it was a problem of the Congress, elect a new Congress and we'll solve the problem, but frankly it's not that simple either, because Congress was only a mirror reflecting back what the people were showing to the Congress. We should have more leadership from Congress, we should have more strength from the Congress. But it was a mirror, that's what the representatives gave us back, the anger that they saw coming from the American people.

Now why the anger? Why the anger? We are essentially a nation that believes in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We go to church on Sunday, we go to temple on Saturday and we preach one set of values, we preach community and we preach compassion and we preach civility, but then why do we live such a different set of values, because that's all this thing called Government winds up being, it's just the common, it is a vehicle for the common will. Why the anger, when it is so opposite of all the virtues we espouse.

I think it's important to understand what's driving the anger, because unless we find what is causing it we will not be able to stop it. And unless we stop it we won't be able to get the progressive government to the scale that we're going to need it. Because there is no doubt that we are doing the right things in communities all across the nation. There is also no doubt that we're not doing enough of it and that we have to bring those efforts up to scale. And to bring those efforts up to scale we're going to have to bring the American people with us. So your charge is two-fold, not just to do the good work that you're doing within your own sphere, but to increase your sphere to bring more people, to bring that political will, so that Congress - which is a mirror - will then reflect that.

Why the anger? Why the anger? Complex set of briefs, we've been working on it for months at HUD. One reason I think is a sense that Government has failed. �Government tried and Government failed.' And the anger is a resentment towards Government for that failure and I'm not going to have Government try again because it failed once before. And the truth is there is some truth to that. Government did fail in some cases. Not across the board, it's not a total failure, but in some cases it failed. Good intent gone awry. And we were too late as a Government in recognizing that failure.

Here at HUD we do public housing. Talk about an icon of Government failure. People take public housing and would use it as an illustration of this anger. You want more money for the HUD budget, why, so you can build more public housing? You know what public housing did, we had a nice neighborhood, everything was fine, then they came in with public housing, they built these big high rises - or if you are out west or down south, these long complexes that went on block after block. And you took a good neighborhood and you destroyed it, and then you crammed people into the public housing, and you made their lives worse, not better, and the taxpayer paid the bill. Some truth to it.

Welfare system 20 years later, we said: Oops, we made a mistake. We wind up then blaming the victim. The Government failures were not the problem of the recipient, but of the Government that designed the programs in the first place. What the programs really did was dis-incentivize and penalize all the values and virtues that we espouse as American citizens. Look what the programs did: dis-incentivized ownership. Public housing put people in the housing unit and said: It doesn't matter how you treat the unit, doesn't matter how you maintain the unit, rent doesn't go up, rent doesn't go down, you can never buy it, you can never sell it. That is an unnatural experience for us as Americans; dis-incentivized ownership. Dis-incentivized marriage, it's what the welfare system did. Dis-incentivized marriage, dis-incentivized, dis-empowered the male, the wage earner. And then we wound up penalizing and blaming the people who participated in the program. But the aftermath, the leftovers, the American public now says the public sector failed and are not so quick to reinvest.

Why else the anger? Sorry to say, but I believe racism plays a part. You look at poor people in this nation, it's very often, it's too often synonymous with �minority people' in this nation. And it's therefore someone else's problem. It's their problem, it's someone different, and racism - which is very much alive and well in America - then plays a role in this problem. It's about an economic selfishness. All those years we heard about a deficit, this great deficit and we couldn't afford to reach out and help anyone else. Now there is a sense that the economy is going well and people are doing well, and it's okay for me, it must be okay for everyone. And on a higher level, I believe this is something I refer to as an aspiration deficit. Which is somehow we got to a place as a people where we no longer to aspire for better. We somehow say, maybe this is all it can be. Maybe this is as good as gets and we shouldn't even try to be any better as a people. An aspiration deficit. We don't even dream a bolder vision or a brighter future. It is a complacency, it is an anger which is pervasive and which is the real obstacle towards long-term Government and political action. We've got to knock down that obstacle.

How do we do it? Well the truth is, we do have the answers but we're going to have to make the case. The truth is Government did make mistakes in the past, but we've learned from those mistakes and we now know the right way to do it. We have Government programs that work because Government realizes that Government can't do it, you can do it. And the Government program that works best is the Government program that puts out its hand and says, let's do this in partnership. You community-based organization, you faith-based organization, we're not, this is not about an institution that is going to be able to do this, it's going to be person-to-person community, the community. Community-based organizations are the vehicle for change. Faith-based organizations are the vehicle for change. When you are going to help a person, or help a neighbor, help a community, you talk about holistic change. Unless you can not only help the body, but also the soul and the spirit, you won't really solve the problem.

And we know the kind of programs that we have to have that will make a difference. We know that work works. We know the best thing we can do is get a person into a job, give them that pride and dignity and sense of self that comes from their earning and they have a future ahead of them. We know, by the way, that that's all the person on welfare wanted to begin with. Welfare reform is �The person wanted the welfare check and you have to pull it out of their hands.' I've been all across this nation, I never once have had a person come up to me and say, �Mr. Cuomo, do me a favor, help me get a welfare check.' Help me get a job, help me get dreams, help me get transportation, but that's what people really wanted. Get those jobs programs, get the training, get private businesses located back in the community. Understand that you're going to have to incentivize private businesses to get them back there, otherwise they will not go. That's where Government can play a role. That's what empowerment zones are all about.

President Clinton's APIC, A-P-I-C - American Private Investment Corporation, in the State of the Union - an investment bank for poorer communities. We can subsidize development overseas. Why don't we subsidize [local efforts] right here at home? We know that homeownership works, homeownership works. Giving a person a stake in the community. Getting people out of rental housing and into ownership where they have equity, they have control. We know that that works. And we know that partnership with faith-based and community-based organizations, where Government provides resources, but the community-based organizations provide the programs and the initiative and the incentive, that's how it works. That has to be the formula for the future.

It's not going to happen otherwise, this is not about Federal, State, and local government anymore. It's community-by-community, making the organizations that are there grow and blossom. That's what we are trying to do at HUD. That's what Father Joe Hacala is all about at HUD. That's what the incentive for community and faith-based organizations are all about. Think about it: HUD today has no relationship with community-based organizations. We've talked either to governments, city governments, state governments or what they call public housing authorities. But there was no venue, there is no seat at the table for community-based organizations, not-for-profits. That was yesterday, that is not tomorrow.

You are the vehicle of tomorrow and that's what the Center for Community-based Partnerships is all about. Now we have 28 billion dollars per year in funding, 28 billion, that's billion with a "B", that is a lot of money. This year the President proposed the largest increase in the HUD budget in the past 15 years. We can make a real difference with these funds, but only if you are at the table, only if you are part of the program, part of the initiative. We have programs that can build housing, programs that can create jobs, programs that can do transportation, programs that can do welfare to work. But it's up to you, the farmer and the flood, we're there, Joe Hacala is there, we have our hand out, but let's form those partnerships and let's go forward together.

And as we are building the programs let's also remember the second goal and the longer term goal, which is we're also going to have to change that public opinion. We're going to have to end the anger. We're going to have to end the apathy. We're going to end the complacency and let people know that we can actually solve these problems that have defined resolution for so long. We're going to have to let people know that we can do better as a nation and as a people then we are now doing. This nation is not a success where it stands today and people know it. All this talk about the economy is going great, 18 million new jobs, lowest interest, poverty down, unemployment down, all of which is true, all of which is success on one level. It does not mean we as a nation are successful. And something within people tells them that. They don't feel that we are a success. They see real problems all around them. They just have to know that it can be better than this. They have to know there is still a possibility that we can aspire to a higher place. We don't judge each other. We never said that we are a success by the size of our bank account. We said we are a success as individuals by the way we treat one another, by what we believe, by our values.

Well then it's also true we judge the nation as a whole. The DOW Jones hitting record heights doesn't mean we're a success. The stock market hitting a new high doesn't mean we're a success. Tell me how you treat one another, tell me how you live and I'll tell you whether or not you're a success. My job to visit places that it's not even close. And to the Colonias on the Texas - Mexico borders, people live in hell holes. The Cabrini Greens, public housing in Chicago. People wouldn't let their poodle live in apartments that we have children living in.

You go to the inner cities ... and you see the same type of poverty, the same type of hopelessness that we saw 20 years ago. And you say, well, you know the economy is doing great in America, I don't know if you noticed 18 million new jobs. They didn't notice and it doesn't mean anything. You could be talking about a different planet. When you have those pockets of poverty, where you have that kind of need and you have that kind of despair then you are not a success.

We pride ourselves as a nation of laws, as a nation of justice. Central to our concept we are a nation of justice. Look what they are doing in this town today in the name of justice. The United States Congress consumed with justice. They want justice, they are going to have a trial. They are going to call witnesses, they are going to take depositions to find out if we are just as a society, because they want justice with this President. That's not justice, that is not justice, that is an injustice because it is a distraction. To call that justice, that is not the justice that the bible talks about, that is not the justice the great thinkers talked about, that's not the justice that the great leaders talked about.

They talked about a higher form of justice. How about economic justice, that's justice. We have the greatest economy in history on the planet but you still have one out of five children tonight sleeping in poverty. Is that your definition of justice? How about social justice. Where we've gotten to a place as a people where we can have our homeless brothers and sisters sleeping on the street, 600,000 of them, and it doesn't even faze us anymore. We've gotten to a place where it is okay, where we can now walk down the street and just walk by them and not even see them anymore. Where we've gotten to a place as a people, as a community where we'll pickup trash, we'll pickup an aluminum can to recycle before we bend down to help our brother and sister. That is not justice.

There are higher forms of justice. There is educational justice, educational justice. We said there should be justice in our education system, which is we have two educational systems right now. We have a private education system and we have a public education system. And you go to that private education system because you can pay the tuition and without question the future is yours. But whoa! beware to you who goes to the public education system because your future maybe closed by the time you enter the first grade. Because you're not going to have the skills, you're not going to get them.

Private education system's child goes in, first grade, they put you, sit you down at the computer, you're on the Internet. Public school they can't even figure out to get you a basketball net. Private education system, they sit you down, they give you a Pentium Processor. Public education system, the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is a metal detector that you walk through on the way to class. That is not, that is not justice.

There is environmental justice. There is racial justice, which is in many forms, one of the truest senses and forms of justice. And boy we have a long way to go on that. Just look what happened, looked what happens today, look what happened in 1998 in America. The sins that we committed. The racial in justice in Jasper, Texas. An African American man was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death like an animal, for no reason except for the color of his skin. A gay man in Denver taken, beaten, and hung on a fence. In New Jersey second night of Rosh Hashanah and a swastika is on the tombstones in a Jewish cemetery. You want to talk about justice, Lord, we have them already to go. That is also your job and your message. Run your programs, serve your community, and also get the word out. Remind people that there is a higher form of justice and that there is a higher aspiration. That this is not success as a people and that we can be better as a people.

We can strive to do more, we can strive to be closer. That words like community and civility and compassion are not a dream, they are something that can be real and we can make it real. We can be better than we are. We have to dare to aspire. We have to dare to dream. And you have to be the prophets and the change-makers for that inspiration. Because if we don't change the American people we will never change the political will and we'll never change this nation; it can be done, people want it to be done, people want it to be done. You can see the void, you can hear the vacuum, just give them the hope, the sense of possibility that it can be real. With that sense of justice that is political TNT. You put those together and there will be a real explosion in this nation for the better. Make it happen.

Thank you very much.


Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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