Leader Cantor's Speech: A Fair Shot at the American Dream and Economic Growth

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EVANSTON, IL - Today, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) will deliver a speech at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. The text of his speech, as prepared for delivery, appears below:

Thank you for having me. Thank you to Dean Sally Blount for the invitation. It’s great to be in the Chicago area, at such a world-class center of business education.

I want to congratulate Kellogg for its leadership in promoting entrepreneurialism. I have read about programs like INVO - the Northwestern University Innovation and New Ventures Office - that are focused on innovation and serve as a model of success. With your help and energy we will drive this great nation back to the top.

Today, however, I come to you at a very controversial time in our nation’s history. A lot of us are asking what the future holds for our country, and in a much bigger way, wondering what kind of country do we want to be?

When I think about the kind of country I want, when I think about the kind of country I want to leave my kids, I think about my grandmother’s story, and how my family got to America in the first place.

My grandmother and her family fled religious persecution to come here at the turn of the last century. Like so many of her generation in Eastern Europe, my grandmother faced a future where no matter how hard she worked, no matter how much she studied or learned, no matter how smart she was, there were limits. Just because of who she was, who her parents were, and where she was born, there was only so far she could go, only so much she could do.

But our country isn’t like that. America offered opportunity. My grandmother eventually made her home in a working class section of my hometown of Richmond. As you can imagine, in the early 20th century, the South wasn’t often the most accepting place for a young Jewish woman. Widowed by age 30, she raised my father and uncle in a tiny apartment above a grocery store that she and my grandfather had opened.

She worked day and night and sacrificed tremendously to secure a better future for her sons. And sure enough, this young woman - who had the courage to journey to a distant land with hope as her only possession - lifted herself into the ranks of the middle class.

Through hard work, her faith and thrift, she was even able to send her two sons to college.

All she wanted was a chance - a fair shot at making a better life for her two sons. And if she were still alive today, I know she would be blown away to know that her grandson is not only a Member of the U.S. Congress, but now the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In deciding as a country who we're going to be, we need to be sure that the opportunity my grandmother realized is here for all of us. It really is about that fair shot - no matter who you are or where you're from, all of us should have access to the opportunity to earn the success that we’re after.

The basis upon which America was founded and the basis upon which America thrives is providing people with the equality of opportunity - not equality of outcome.

There is a ladder of success in America. However, it is a ladder built not by Washington, but by hard work, responsibility and the initiative of the people of our country.

My grandmother worked her fingers to the bone so that her sons could have a better life than she did. Her sons - my dad - didn’t disappoint her. He respected her sacrifices to send him to college. He took that opportunity and started his own business in real estate with little more than the drive to succeed. Emulating my grandmother’s work ethic, he was able to provide a quality life for my mother, brothers, and me. Why? For the very same reasons that inspired my grandmother. He wanted a better life for all of us.

It is this foundation - hard work, faith, family, and opportunity - that provides each of us with the prospects of unlimited potential in America. Each generation is able to get a little further ahead, climbing up the ladder of success in our society. How quickly you move up - or sometimes down - should be completely up to you.

Much of the conversation in the current political debate today has been focused on fairness in our society. Republicans believe that what is fair is a hand up, not a hand out.

We know that we all don’t begin life’s race from the same starting point. I was fortunate enough to be born into a stable family that provided me with the tools that I needed to get ahead. Not everyone is so lucky. Some are born into extremely difficult situations, facing severe obstacles.

The fact is many in America are coping with broken families, dealing with hunger and homelessness, confronted daily by violent crime, or burdened by rampant drug use. Recently I was asked, “What does your party say to that 9-year-old, inner city kid scared to death, growing up in a life of poverty? What can you do for that little girl?”

Well, we know there are no easy answers. But I believe that child needs a hand up to help her climb the ladder of success in our country. She also needs some guarantees in life. She needs to know that the rules are the same for everybody. That although she may have to work harder than many of us, she needs to know that she has a fair shot at making it in this country. She also needs the advantages of a solid family around her and a community that encourages her to learn and work hard. She needs some semblance of stability.

The question for us is how can we help provide it? Stability starts in the home, but it can extend to places of learning as well. Especially for those children facing the toughest circumstances, we need to ensure access to the best schools available in their areas. If that is a public school - great. Some say charter schools help to provide greater stability, and I wholeheartedly agree.

In fact, President Obama has also expressed support for charter schools. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act” that encouraged states to support the development and expansion of charter schools. It also streamlined federal charter school funding to reduce administrative burdens.

In California, parents have banded together to ensure that schools are being held accountable and can transfer their kids to better schools or even start a new one where it’s needed. Kids in many cities actually line up for lotteries for open slots at better schools. No child should be forced to stay in a school that is failing her. We should give that little girl a hand in attending a better school, providing a chance at greater stability, thereby increasing her opportunity for success and happiness.

We also need to help parents. Take the single mom living down the road in Elmwood Park. After she puts her kids to bed, and rests her head down at the end of each grueling day, she may be wondering if her job will still be there in the morning. She’s probably stopped dreaming about moving up the ladder. She is more likely just worrying, hoping, praying that she doesn’t fall down or off of it. We need to find a way to restore her faith that moving up the ladder, even slowly, is still possible in this country.

That mom sacrifices most of her life for children. She lives paycheck to paycheck. Maybe she works two or even three jobs and has to worry about how she can take her sick child or parent to the doctor when they get sick. Maybe she’d like to attend a school play that her little girl is performing in, but has to work.

What is this working mom to do? How can we provide both her and her children just a little more stability? When asked, many working moms say what they need most is just a little more time to be with their kids. We should find ways to encourage employers to provide working parents the flexibility to attend to their children’s needs.

One option is to allow private sector workers the ability to negotiate with their employer to choose between comp-time or overtime pay - a benefit that federal, state and local government workers have had for years.

Does this solve all problems? Of course not.

Maybe, with a little hope and a helping hand that makes life just a little easier, that single mom can send her children to college. Maybe one day, her children will be like all of you.

As students at Kellogg, you will be much better positioned than most to land a job of your choice after graduation. But for the majority of young people, small businesses will give them their start. These employers are the restaurant owners, health care providers, or small high tech start-ups.

Small business men and women are the key formula for success and opportunity in America. Each one of them took a risk and did whatever they needed to do to make it work. They dipped into their savings or borrowed from family to start their dream. They committed countless hours and determination. They committed their lives in pursuit of that dream.

They may employ just a few people, but each one of those people is able to start building a better life for their families just because one individual took a risk. We should make it easier for them to start their dream. Next week, the House of Representatives will be moving a bill to ease regulations on access to capital so we can give these risk takers a hand up to achieve their dream.

In America, happiness is defined as a pursuit, and that definition comes from our Founders in the Declaration of Independence. Pursuing both happiness and independence derive from the ingenuity and grit of the American people, not the American government.

America is a special place and different than any other place on Earth. Here’s an illustration. Last year, I received a letter from a Stanford MBA student who was working in England. He was amazed how differently entrepreneurs are regarded in Europe, how opportunity seemed limited, how existence seemed dull, and how hope was missing. The friends he met said they couldn’t even imagine an entrepreneurial hotbed like Silicon Valley existing in Europe or how they would handle such an amazing chance to advance.

He wrote: “Starting a business, even if you fail in the process, is a badge of honor in the U.S. But in Europe, entrepreneurship is often frowned upon, and consequently, the best and the brightest are afraid to take a risk.” Even though they are “very smart and educated, when I ask them about their career path, no one ever mentions starting a business.”

Think about it, in America, starting a business isn’t something that’s only possible, it’s something that’s expected. However, today that is now being questioned. People have become afraid to take a risk. Many have lost their optimism about the future.

They are frustrated and the core of this frustration stems from a belief that the same opportunities afforded to previous generations no longer exist today. In a recent poll, 82% of Americans think that their children will be worse off than they are.

What happened to the hope of surpassing the success of your parents? What happened to the unyielding American exceptionalism and the sense that in America impossible dreams are possible?

There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society. They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven't paid their fair share.

But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream. I believe that the most successful among us are positioned to use their talents to help grow our economy and give everyone a hand up the ladder and the dignity of a job. We should encourage them to extend their creativity and generosity to helping build the community infrastructure that provides a hand up and a fair shot to those less fortunate like that little 9-year-old girl in the inner city.

These groups of innovators are the leaders of companies that create life saving drugs for our sick parents and children. They are also the social entrepreneurs who support the charter schools, the opportunity scholarships, the private job training programs, the community centers, and other elements of community life that provide stability and constructive values to children and their families who are struggling.

They are trailblazers like Steve Jobs. A man who started with an idea in his garage and ended up providing iPhones and iPads to millions, and changed the world. Job building and community building are what successful people can do. Through his example, you can see that America needs more than just a jobs plan. It needs a Steve Jobs Plan.

In a Steve Jobs Plan, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat doesn’t matter. In a Steve Jobs plan, no American - regardless of their current condition - believes that they are unable to rise up. And in a Steve Jobs plan, we don’t believe that those who succeed somehow take away from those still working their way up the ladder. Why? Because those who earn their success not only create good jobs and services that make our lives better, but they give back and help everyone move just a little bit further up the ladder and everybody wins.

So, instead of talking about a fair share or spending time trying to push those at the top down, elected leaders in Washington should be trying to ensure that everyone has a fair shot and the opportunity to earn success up the ladder. The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to meet in the middle of the ladder. We should want all people to be moving up and no one to be pulled down.

How do we do that? It cannot simply be about wealth redistribution. You don’t just take from the guy at the top to give to the guy at the bottom and expect our problems to be solved. A recent survey of over 500 successful entrepreneurs found that 93% came from middle or lower-class backgrounds. Most of them were the first in their families to launch a business. And those at the very top? Of the very first members of the Forbes 400 list published 29 years ago, less than 10% remain.

In other words, people are moving up and down the ladder.

That is precisely why we must ensure fairness at every level of the economic ladder. We must ensure that those who abuse the rules are punished. We must ensure that the solution to wealth disparity is wealth mobility. We must give everyone the chance to move up. Stability plus mobility equals agility. In an agile economy and an agile society, people are climbing and succeeding.

From how we help those who are unemployed, to ways to encourage entrepreneurs and start ups, to encouraging the best and brightest to stay here in America - there are many solutions that will help people succeed and grow the economy. As Americans, we care about everyone. We should want everyone to be successful. We want everyone to see the path forward.

Our country faces big challenges. We have always been a country of risk-takers and innovators. We need Washington to remember that and to believe in innovation and the kind of innovative leaders who are here at Kellogg. When this happens, more people will be moving up the ladder.

Viktor Frankl, who wrote “Man's Search For Meaning,” one of the most influential books of the 20th century, had a vision that I share. On the East Coast stands the Statue of Liberty, but on the West Coast, said Frankl, should stand a Statue of Responsibility. In my vision, when these two statutes join hands, the American people create a bridge that spans the whole country - a bridge of opportunity. And on the pillars of that bridge, we must erect our ladders with those who are successful extending their hands to those who wish to climb.

It is students like you - the successful leaders of the future - who can be the designers and builders of those ladders. It is you who can determine the dimension, durability and direction of America’s ladders. Each of you will move on from Kellogg and enter the workforce. Many of you will take a risk and earn your success.

And who knows, some of you might forever change the world like Steve Jobs did. But as you do, don’t forget that we want everyone to be moving upward. As you do, hold out your hands and help pull others up the ladder. Help them move up in your school, in your community and in your workplace. That’s who we are as Americans. We should all be committed to America rising.

Thank you.

 

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