Gratitude and Grit

Washington, September 2, 2019 Contact:

“I believe we live in a great country, a country that’s great enough to help a man financially when he’s in trouble. But lately, I’ve had some good fortune, and I’m back in the black. I just thought I should return it.”

That country is our own United States of America.

The quote is from Russel Crowe, portraying the real-life story of James Braddock, an American boxing sensation. The 2005 film, Cinderella Man, chronicles Braddock's struggle to provide for his family during the Great Depression and portrays him ultimately returning the relief money he took to ensure his family could eat.

It's a scene that has stuck with me over the years. To me, it epitomizes the grit and gratitude that has made America the country that it is, and that makes us all who we are as Americans. It doesn't mean we don't fall on hard times. We've had our "dark nights of the soul" as a nation and our economic depressions along with our prosperity. But those dark times have not had lasting determination over our destiny any more than Braddock's financial struggles defined his legacy. Overall, we stay scrappy and we stay grateful. It's that indomitable American spirit, which led President Harry Truman to famously state, "America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand." It's who we are.

Our country's critical safety nets are also part of who we are — "a country that's great enough to help a man financially when he's in trouble." Appropriate safety nets are a necessity for any functioning society. They are intended to both provide for the most vulnerable and to help hardworking citizens, like Braddock, get back on their feet in desperate times. Unfortunately, too many of today’s programs have done little to meaningfully break the cycle of poverty and often serve to further entrench systems of dependency that disadvantage the very people they were designed to help. I believe we can do better. We will always assist our fellow Americans who are physically or mentally unable to work. However, for Americans who would be able to work if they had the opportunities or education, I believe we need to redefine success. Success should not be simply assisting more Americans in need, but rather as working towards fewer needing assistance.

The reality is most Americans don't want that dependence. There is pride in being able to say, "I earned this." I remember meeting a young man who had been released from prison and recently re-entered the workforce. He told me: “For the first time in my life, I’m a taxpayer.” For him, becoming a taxpayer was a milestone, a victory. There was incredible pride in being able to contribute to our country with his labor and tax dollars, and in being able to support himself and a family.

Our goal should be providing more disadvantaged and underserved American populations with the opportunities, education, and resources necessary to break free from generational poverty, provide for themselves, and build futures for their families — instead of being entrenched further into dependency. It’s not about guaranteeing equal economic outcomes for every citizen, but rather about structuring a society where economic opportunity is available for anyone who is willing to pursue it, regardless of who you are or where you come from. If we fail to do this, too many of our fellow citizens will remain trapped in systemic poverty, missing out on what our country has to offer. Our country also misses out on the value, creativity, invention, and ideas these citizens are quite capable of contributing.

This weekend, we commemorate Labor Day all around the country. For those of us who are able to work — whether you are waiting tables or running your own company — let us adopt James Braddock's gratitude. It's a privilege to wake up every morning in this land of opportunity. On the wall in my office in Washington, D.C., I hung a painting that depicts working men and women. It says: “To rejoice in his labor – this is the gift of God.” No matter what your forum of work, you are providing something that someone wants, and someone needs. And, we all need each other. Let's work harder to open doors for all Americans to access the education, experiences, and economic opportunities they need to earn their own living and reap the rewards of honest labor. I believe we can do it. As James Braddock would say, we live in a great country.