William J. Clinton photo

Remarks at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee

October 27, 1996

Thank you very much. Thank you. I am delighted to be here at the reunion of the Vice President's family, friends, and medical support team. [Laughter] I would like to keep this crowd with us for the next several days. [Laughter]

I'm delighted to be back at Vanderbilt. Chancellor Wyatt, Vice Chancellor Robinson, thank you very much for making us feel so welcome here. Congressman Clement, thank you for coming with us. I'd also like to acknowledge our good friend Justin Dart, who leads our national effort to mobilize people with disabilities. Thank you, Justin. Thank you for being here.

Noah Liff, thank you for your example and for your fine words and for your support of welfare reform. And I thank the other business leaders who are here as well.

Governor McWherter, thank you for being my friend and my colleague over all these years. You know, you Tennesseans can say that he was the best Governor Tennessee ever had. I don't know that because I never lived here. But I can tell you this: He's the best politician I ever met. The first time I ever met him, he put that "aw, shucks" deal on me that he does, you know. I wanted to reach in my pocket and make sure the billfold was still there. [Laughter] And if he'd wanted it, I would have given it to him. [Laughter]

I think it's fair to say that those of us who served as Governors with Ned McWherter thought at the time there was no State that was better run, no State more oriented toward the proper balance of continuous change and sensible management and old-fashioned common sense and good values. And I'm honored by his friendship and his support, and I'm delighted he's here with us today.

I want to say a special word of thanks, as we move to the end of this election season, to the Vice President. I was watching him on the debate the other night and thinking that I knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. And we've spent so much time together now, it's almost like we can begin to speak in code, you know—two or three words and I can finish the sentence, and vice-versa. I think there has never been a relationship quite like this in American history between a President and a Vice President. But I must tell you, it's been one of the most richly rewarding things of my life, and I think it's been very, very good for the American people.

His leadership is the principal reason that we have been able to reduce the Government to its smallest size since the Kennedy administration, eliminate more regulations and Government programs, and privatize more operations than the previous two administrations combined. And no one has noticed a decline in Government services. In fact, our Federal employees are doing more with less and doing it better than ever before, thanks to the Vice President's leadership in reinventing Government. He was responsible for many of the most important provisions of the landmark telecommunications bill. He's helped us devise a budget that would continue to increase our investment in research and technology, even while we cut overall spending to balance the budget. He has made a major contribution to our efforts to finish the unfinished business of the cold war, especially in his work in Russia. There has never been a Vice President with more responsibility, who has achieved more, and who has done more to advance the cause of America than your native son Al Gore.

As all of you know, 10 days from now the American people will go to the polls to choose the last President of the 20th century and the first President of the 21st century. Tonight and over the next several days, I will ask the American people not just to come to rallies and cheer, although we all need that, especially in the last days of a long, hard effort, but to think again about how we are going to meet the challenges of the 21st century, how we are going to seize the opportunities of the 21st century, how we are going to preserve our values and the things we hold dear in the next century, how we can make it the age of greatest possibility in human history. Our central goal must be to work together to give our people the tools they need to master the changes that are taking place.

In the next week I'm going to talk about four of the biggest challenges we face: How we finish the job of balancing the budget while preserving our values; giving our children a world-class education; opening the doors of college to all Americans; and making at least 2 years of education after high school as universal by the dawn of the 21st century as a high school diploma is today. And I want to talk about making our families stronger by helping all Americans to succeed both at home and at work, in safety and security. And tonight I want to talk about ending the cycle of welfare dependency, family breakdown, and crime by carrying on our historic efforts to reform welfare.

I first came to Vanderbilt to give a speech nearly a decade ago now, when I was invited to come here and talk about what it was like to be a Governor in a time of change in the global economy. I remember it very well. I expect I'm the only person in this audience who remembers it very well—[laughter]—but nonetheless, I do. It was about that time that I was asked to represent the Democratic Governors, along with my colleague, the Governor of Delaware—the Republican Governor of Delaware—and working with Congress and the Reagan administration to try to help reform the welfare system.

Those efforts produced the Family Support Act of 1988, which itself was a substantial improvement over the previous law, and which gave the President very, very broad powers, which before I took office were rarely used, to work with States and communities to change the rules of welfare, to try to develop a system that would move people from dependence to independence.

Four years ago when Al Gore and I came to Nashville, I said I wanted an America in which every person responsible enough to work for it has a shot at the American dream, an America still the world's strongest force for peace and freedom, an America coming together and relishing its diversity through its shared values.

We have pursued a simple but profound strategy. We have worked to expand opportunity for all, to demand responsibility from all, and to build a stronger American community, to make that America's basic bargain. Four years ago, the Vice President and I asked you to take us on faith. Tonight, you can look at a record.

Our Nation is clearly moving in the right direction. We have 10 1/2 million new jobs, over 270,000 of them here in Tennessee. Unemployment here has dropped by about a third, to 4.1 percent. We have the lowest combined rates of unemployment, inflation in home mortgages in 20 years—28 years. After inflation, household income is up about $1,600 in the last 2 years. There are 4 1/2 million new homeowners. The inequality among working people just declined by the largest amount in 27 years. Childhood poverty dropped the most it has in 20 years. The incomes and poverty of households headed by women had its most dramatic drop in 30 years. And we just recorded the lowest poverty rates ever recorded for African-Americans and all our senior citizens. We have 4 1/2 million new homeowners, record numbers of new small businesses, record exports. We are moving in the right direction.

We are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in ways that will benefit all of us. Here at the medical center, in science labs, biotech firms, and universities all across our Nation, in millions of homes in the everyday miracle of the Internet, we see the leaps of science, technology that are no less dazzling for being so widespread.

Just today before I came here, I met with a lot of people who work with the problems of cancer. I met with cancer survivors; I met with physicians; I met with researchers; I met with people in support groups. Among other things, I announced that we will be dedicating 30 million more dollars this year to genetic breast cancer research, because—and this is just one example—we have identified two of the genes in the human structure that cause breast cancer. And when you put that with the fact that we are now using the very sophisticated imaging technology we use in our satellites for defense and intelligence purposes on the human body, so we can detect, prevent, or stop early the spread of all kinds of diseases, we are literally on the verge of breakthroughs we never could have dreamed of just a couple of years ago.

Not very long ago, we had movement for the first time ever in a laboratory animal whose spine has been completely severed; the animal had movement in its lower limbs when there were nerve transplants from other parts of the body to the spine. We've developed the first treatment for stroke ever in the last 4 years. The average life expectancy of people with HIV has more than doubled in the last 4 years with research and more rapid movement of drugs to market. It will soon, I believe, become a manageable chronic disease, not a certain death warrant. All these things have happened in the last 4 years.

But we have much to do, and we have to choose a decision about how we're going to walk into the future. And one of the major decisions before the American people in this election— and not just the race for President but many others as well—is what are those things which we should do together? To what extent do we believe we're better off on our own? To what extent do we believe, yes, it does take a village to raise our children and build our future? To what extent do we think we can find our way on our own into the 21st century? To what extent do we need to build a bridge that's clearly marked and big and wide and strong enough for us all to go over together?

We have tried to define what we think we should do together and what we think the Nation's responsibilities are. We've cut the deficit by 60 percent. Now we can finish the job of balancing the budget and do it in a way that reflects our values, that preserves the fundamental structure of Medicaid and Medicare, education and the environment, research and technology.

We have cut taxes for 15 million working families. And because our economy is on the right track, we can balance the budget with a targeted tax cut for families where they need it the most, for education, childrearing, medical care, and buying that first home.

We've improved our educational standards, expanded college scholarships and loans. Now we have to reform education at every level, raising standards, increasing accountability, making sure that every 8-year-old can read independently, every 12-year-old can log into the Internet in every classroom and library in America, every 18-year-old can go on to college.

We're making our families and neighborhoods safer. We're in the process of putting 100,000 more police on our streets, getting gangs and guns and drugs off the streets. Now we have to finish the job of putting those police on the street and crack down on teen gangs with the same focus and the same law we are using to break organized crime.

We now have the lowest crime rate in 10 years—4 years of declining crime rates. But all of you know there is still a long way to go before the American people really feel safe and secure again. Now is not the time to back up; now is the time to bear down with an approach that is working.

We've helped to strengthen our families with the family leave law; 12 million times families have taken a little time off from work when a baby was born or a family member was sick, without losing their jobs. And I think America is stronger because of it. I thank the Vice President and Tipper for the work they did to advocate that here in Nashville at the family conference.

Now it's time to expand family leave, I believe, so that parents can take a little time off to go see their children's teachers twice a year or to make regular doctor appointments for their kids. And because people are working harder than ever and so many people have trouble juggling the demands of parenting and work, I think we ought to give workers the option of using overtime they accumulate and taking it either in cash or in more time with their families at their own discretion. That will help us to be a stronger country.

But we also have to finish the job of welfare reform. For many reasons, most of which have already been explained by previous speakers and especially the Vice President, our welfare system has failed a lot of people. To be frank, a lot of people—it worked as well as anything would because they were just in a temporary difficult position. They got on welfare; then they got off again and went on with their lives. But yearin and year-out, especially as more and more children were born into single-parent homes, more and more people became trapped in a permanent cycle of welfare dependency in ways that literally physically isolated generations of people away from communities with mainstream values, mainstream opportunities, and mainstream futures, exiling people from the world of work that gives structure, meaning, and dignity to the lives of the rest of us.

The system—for those people for whom it did not work, the system hurt them a lot more than it did the other taxpayers who often complained about it loudly and publicly. Children who are born to a life on welfare, we know from study after study, are more likely to drop out of school, fall afoul of the law, become teen mothers or teen fathers, raise their own children on welfare.

For too long, welfare has been the object of partisan debate rather than collective common effort. Too many people in politics, especially the further you get away from the people on welfare, if you get all the way back to Washington, DC, ask who is to blame instead of what to do. For too long, a lot of other Americans assumed there was nothing that could be done about it; you simply could not make it any better than it was. Welfare, teen pregnancy, crime all seemed destined to go on and grow forever.

That's why Al Gore and I pledged to end welfare as we know it 4 years ago. We did not believe that these problems would not yield to sensible, persistent human effort. As a Governor, for 16 years—12 years as Governor, now 4 years as President—I have worked on welfare reform and worked personally face-to-face with people on welfare. I knew better. I knew how bad those people wanted a different deal and a better, brighter future. I knew from the beginning we could change this system for the better.

The old system, yes, it wasted taxpayers' money, but even more tragically, it trapped millions into a lifetime of dependency. Well, that system is now over, but the question is, what are we going to do now?

We have shown that we can restore our communities and renew our values, but the job is not done. As the Vice President said, we gave special permission to 43 States to get out from under a whole variety of Federal rules, to redesign systems that would help move people from welfare to work more rapidly. This has made a real difference. We also had some rules, including requiring teen mothers to live at home and stay in school, or lose their welfare benefits.

We also recognize that governments can't raise children, parents do that. One of the main reasons people go on welfare in the first place is that parents run away from their responsibility to support their own children. Do you know, tonight, if every parent who is legally obligated to do so paid all the child support they had been legally found able to pay, 800,000 people would be off the welfare rolls tomorrow? That's why we stiffened Federal child support enforcement, worked with the States more closely than ever, and why I signed an order directing Federal employees to pay their child support or have it paid for them. I wanted us to set an example.

We required hospitals to have programs to identify the father at the time of birth, insisted that welfare recipients name the father or lose benefits. We posted deadbeat parents in post offices, on the Internet; we're going to deny them Federal loans. We used the IRS to collect a record $1 billion in child support, worked with States on a new computer system to identify those who switched jobs or moved from their home State to avoid paying child support.

I might say that 35 percent of all delinquent child support cases involve people who have crossed State lines. In the first few months of this new system, we identified 60,000 deadbeat parents who now must pay.

All of these efforts are bearing fruit. The welfare rolls are down by nearly 2 million in the last 4 years. Tennessee has 75,000 fewer recipients, a 25 percent drop. Just this week new statistics were published showing that all across America child support collections have increased by 50 percent in the last 4 years, up in every single State in America. That's $4 billion a year more going to children and parents who otherwise would have to fend for themselves and depend more on the taxpayers to support them.

Another thing you can be proud of in Tennessee is that Tennessee is one of the top five States in the country over the last 4 years— here, child support collections have doubled. They're up 100 percent in the last 4 years.

And believe it or not, while too many young people are still having babies outside marriage, even on that front America is making progress. Teen births have gone down for 4 years in a row. And last year the out-of-wedlock birth rate declined for the first time in nearly 20 years.

That brings us to where we are now, a people determined to get back to our basic values, even as we modernize our economy and face the future. This welfare reform law gives us an historic chance, but not a guarantee, to restore the basic values of work, responsibility, and families and to end the literal exile of millions of poor people from the mainstream of American life and all of its promise. The new law imposes strict time limits on welfare. It requires those who can work to go to work. It mounts the strictest crackdown ever on child support collections. But it also says we will continue to provide as a national guarantee health care and nutrition for poor families and, when the welfare recipient goes to work, more for child care than ever before, so that families will get the help they need when they move from welfare to work. The new law gives us a change to make welfare what it was intended to be, a second chance, not a way of life.

But let me say again, we say from now on people who can work have to go to work; no one who can work can stay on welfare forever. We're making work, family, and responsibility a way of life. We are not going back. Our welfare legislation, however, is just the beginning. That is the important thing that every single American citizen has to understand. Maybe it's because I was a Governor before I became a President, but I know that there's a lot of difference between passing a law and changing lives in the neighborhoods and streets of every community in the United States. You have to help us change those lives. You have to help us implement this welfare reform law and make it work the way it was supposed to.

We're not going to walk away from these children. We're not going to walk away from these families. We're going to take them by the hand and walk with them into a bright new future. And you're going to help. [Applause] Thank you. Thank you.

Let's look at where you are in Tennessee right now. You've heard this talked about before tonight, but I want to say again, there are 12,000 Tennessee families who have signed new personal responsibility contracts. Now, they've promised to be personally responsible. And the people of Tennessee, through their elected officials and those who work for the State, have promised to keep up their end of the bargain to give those people a chance to act on their responsibility, like these fine folks who stood up over here and whom we clapped for tonight. So as we require people to take responsibility and go to work, we have to make sure they have the opportunity to work.

One of the reasons that I wanted to sign this law so badly, maintaining the guarantees of health care and nutrition and child care but giving the welfare money back to the States and ultimately to the local communities, was so we could take poverty out of politics and substitute reality for that old rhetoric. Now, everybody who has ever said a bad word about the welfare system has nothing left to cuss; there is nothing there anymore. [Laughter] And now, there is no politics in poverty any more; there are only people. And they are our people. They are our children. They are our future.

This law says to them, "We're not going to keep you on modified life support forever anymore. It's a lousy deal for you and a bad deal for us." But here's where you come in. This is not the New Deal in the Great Depression anymore, either. The Government has to balance the budget to keep interest rates down, to keep the economy strong, so we can keep creating jobs for everybody. We cannot have a Government-created program that hires all these folks. You're going to have to do that.

Sure, there will be some hired into public jobs, and in areas of densely high unemployment we're going to give extra help in the early years to make sure that people have a chance, but by and large, over the Nation, people will have to be hired by employers in the private sector, in the nonprofit sector, churches, and great universities like Vanderbilt, both public and private.

But that is better—it is better that people be hired, 10 or 15 or maybe even 1 or 2 at a time, and given a chance to just be integrated into the normal flow of American life, rather than being hired 1,000 at a time to do one thing off here to the side. We want everybody to walk together into the future. But to do it— to do it—we have to have an upsurge of personal responsibility from the private sector.

Now, as I said, under the new law States can take this money the Federal Government used to give for the monthly welfare check, and they can use it to help businesses provide paychecks. Seven hundred people have gone to work in Kansas City at the Full Employment Council that I visited in that system. That's a good deal for businesses; they can create more jobs for less money. And it's a good deal for taxpayers; they save money every time someone leaves welfare to work. It's a good deal for the people on welfare; they get a job.

The National Government has tried to make work pay. We've raised the minimum wage. We dramatically expanded the earned-income tax credit. We have made—clearly made now work a better deal than welfare. That tax credit alone is worth about $10 billion this year, and it's reducing the poverty rate among working people dramatically. It only goes to people who are working. And it is reducing the poverty rate dramatically by saying we're not going to tax people into poverty anymore.

The Vice President has helped us to create a national network of community development banks, 105 empowerment zones and enterprise communities to get more private capital into the areas where there are large numbers of unemployed people, including many who are unemployed who are not on welfare—a lot of single men, for example.

I have proposed a plan now that will create another million jobs. Number one, we want to give business a new tax credit for every person hired off welfare. Number two, we want to give the same private job placement firms that Americans use to get better jobs for themselves when they're already working—we want to give those firms a bonus for helping people on welfare find their first job. And we want to help States and communities give businesses more incentives to hire welfare recipients.

These are the things that we can do. We can also give greater investments into those areas, as I said, where there are a whole lot of people who are unemployed, including large welfare populations, because we may not be able to get enough private sector jobs in the short run.

But in the end—we can do all this, we can do every bit of it, but if we don't have more people like Noah Liff, we're not going to make it. If we don't have more people like the nearly 50 business leaders who have already agreed to participate here in Tennessee, we're not going to make it.

So I ask you, every one of you, just think what would happen if every business, every nonprofit, every university, every school, and every church, synagogue, and religious institution in this country took what used to go to the welfare recipient in the welfare check as a supplement and hired just one person—just one person— and took responsibility for training that person, making sure their kids were okay and going forward. Just think about it. Think what we could do. We can revolutionize this. This would be over. Just one person.

I should emphasize—Governor McWherter reminded me, you know, he plays like he's not interested in policy, but he's a policy wonk in his rural clothing. [Laughter] He said, "Now, when you get up there tonight, Mr. President, don't forget to tell them that in Tennessee we also guarantee that if these people have to go to work in a place that doesn't have health insurance, we set it up so they can keep their health insurance under Medicaid for a good while. And then after a certain amount of time, under TennCare, they can buy in at a rate they can afford to keep their health insurance even more." That's also important. You're doing that.

It's amazing to me, the excitement here. The Governor of North Carolina told me he was in Charlotte the other day talking to 4,000 people at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, and he said before he got out the door, 25 percent of them had volunteered to help.

The other day in Missouri, the CEO of Monsanto asked all his division heads to study every aspect of their company to see what they could do to hire as many people off welfare as possible in Monsanto, and to—I hesitate to use the word, but "lean on" their suppliers and other business contacts to ask them to do the same thing.

The CEO of Sprint pledged to provide an 800 number that any employer in America can call to find out how to move people off welfare. A few weeks ago in Connecticut, hundreds of business leaders pledged that their companies would help us to meet this challenge. Last week in Louisiana, the CEO of Northrop Grumman, a company that makes a lot of products important to our national defense, did the same.

But this Tennessee Business Partnership is especially impressive. From Fortune 500 companies to Opryland, to companies like the recycling business that Noah described, it represents your whole business community. Just remember what I said: If every company would just hire one person, and not just companies but nonprofits and universities and religious institutions, we would whip this thing. And if every State will form a partnership like the Tennessee Business Partnership, we will work with them to get this job done.

I want to say again: We passed a law; that's a good thing. The law didn't change anybody's lives. And if we don't change the lives, benefits will someday be cut off, but we won't be creating jobs and building new futures for those people and their children. That's the important thing.

The other day I was in Florida, where I met with four very impressive women who were working themselves off welfare. And it was phenomenal to me—I asked them all, "Why are you doing this?" And they gave all of the obvious answers. And I said, "What's the most important thing about it?" And all four of them said, "We want our children to look up to us. We want our children to be proud of us, and we want to feel good because we know we're supporting our kids." All four of them said that.

And you know, more than 10 years ago— I've told this story many times, but I was at a Governor's meeting when we were talking about reforming the welfare system, and I brought a woman from Arkansas there, and I asked her what the best thing about being off welfare was. And she said, "When my boy goes to school and they say, ‘What does your mama do for a living,' he can give an answer." He can give an answer.

Now, I have kept in touch with that woman for 10 years, and she introduced me the day I signed the welfare reform bill. She has four children now, this lady who was trapped in welfare. One of them has a good job; one of them is studying to be a doctor; one is in a technical school; the other one is a high school honor student. I'd say welfare reform worked for her. And it will work for nearly everybody if the rest of us will just create enough opportunity for all of those people who are dying to have it.

Now, I want to say, finally, we have got to take this law and make it live in the lives of our people. We can take poverty out of politics. We can give it back to the community. There will always be a time when the economy is better and the economy is worse. There will always be people who will hit a little rough patch in life and have trouble. But we do not need to have a nation with a huge number of people who are physically isolated from the rest of us living lives they can never break out of. We have all permitted that to happen; now it is time for all of us to stop that from happening and chart a bright new future to the 21st century.

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 6:41 p.m. in the Langford Auditorium at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In his remarks, he referred to Joe Wyatt, chancellor, Vanderbilt University; Roscoe Robinson, vice chancellor for health affairs, Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Justin Dart, former Chair, President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities; Noah Liff, chairman, Steiner Liff Iron and Metal Co.; and Ned Ray McWherter, former Governor of Tennessee.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/222314

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