- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2001

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — President Bush yesterday proposed a sweeping new assault on poverty by challenging corporations to stop discriminating against religious charities and offering $1.6 billion in new federal spending on drug treatment.
In a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Bush credited former President Lyndon B. Johnson for initiating the War on Poverty and former President Clinton for reforming welfare. But he emphasized that those efforts have fallen far short of their goals.
"For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America," Mr. Bush told 2,500 graduating seniors. "Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in works of compassion that only they can provide."
While he proposed more federal spending to eradicate poverty, the president placed an equal onus on the private sector. He called on both the public and private sectors to dramatically escalate their work with "faith-based organizations," which many liberals distrust.
"Faith-based organizations receive only a tiny percentage of overall corporate giving," Mr. Bush said. "Currently six of the ten largest corporate givers in America explicitly rule out or restrict donations to faith-based groups, regardless of their effectiveness."
"The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations," he vowed. "And neither should corporate America."
The president said he will convene a summit at the White House this fall to pursue the issue with corporate leaders and philanthropists. Mr. Bush promised they will "discuss ways they can provide more support to community organizations — both secular and religious."
In a rare bit of praise for his predecessor, the president credited Mr. Clinton for signing the 1996 Welfare Reform Act after twice vetoing the measure.
"Thanks in large part to this change, welfare rolls have been cut in half; work and self-respect have been returned to many lives," Mr. Bush said. "That is a tribute to Democrats and Republicans who agreed on reform and to the president who signed it: President Bill Clinton."
Mr. Bush, who did not mention the anti-poverty efforts of Republican presidents, including his father, drew parallels between his own speech and a 1964 commencement address by Mr. Johnson.
"In that speech, Lyndon Johnson advocated a War on Poverty that had noble intentions and some enduring successes," he said. "Yet there were also some consequences that no one wanted or intended."
"The welfare entitlement became an enemy of personal effort and responsibility, turning many recipients into dependents," the president added. "The War on Poverty also turned too many citizens into bystanders, convinced that compassion had become the work of government alone."
Although the federal government has spent trillions fighting poverty since Mr. Johnsons Great Society programs of the 1960s, Mr. Bush proposed even more spending yesterday. He called for $1.6 billion in new federal funds for drug treatment and vowed to triple the $25 million budget for Habitat for Humanity, a low-income housing initiative.
"My administration increases funding for major social welfare and poverty programs by eight percent," the president boasted. "We are working to ensure that community groups receive more federal dollars."
Yet unlike previous presidents who relied mostly on governmental largesse to combat poverty, Mr. Bushs plan relies equally on the private sector. He implored private citizens to take up a greater share of the burden.
"A life of service is a life of significance," the president said. "Because materialism, ultimately, is boring. And consumerism can build a prison of wants."
Although Mr. Bush has been roundly criticized by Democrats for championing public-private partnerships with religious groups, he redoubled his efforts yesterday.
"Some critics of this approach object to the idea of government funding going to any group motivated by faith," the president said. "But they should take a look around them."
"Public money already goes to groups like the Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, to Catholic Charities. Do the critics really want to cut them off?" he said.
"Medicaid and Medicare money currently goes to religious hospitals. Should this practice be ended?" Mr. Bush asked. "Child-care vouchers for low-income families are redeemed every day at houses of worship across America. Should this be prevented?
"Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should this be banned?" he said. "Of course not."
Dressed in a royal blue graduation gown, Mr. Bush praised the school for its opposition to abortion.
"Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, carries forward a great tradition of social teaching," he said in his first commencement address as president. "It calls on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, to honor the family, to protect life in all its stages."
But Mr. Bush, a staunch proponent of the death penalty, was reminded that the Catholic Church opposes capital punishment. The president, who gave up alcohol and found God almost 15 years ago, is a Methodist who reads the Bible every day and sometimes prays in the Oval Office.
"World, why do you play God by killing the innocent, unborn ones and by executing the guilty ones?" said valedictorian Carolyn Weir in a speech before the president took the podium. She called for "a world in which human beings are treated with dignity and respect from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death."
Mr. Bushs speech was the latest example of the "compassionate conservatism" he promised in the presidential campaign. Although he is a conservative who advocates limited government, the president also believes that federal funding can reduce poverty, especially when funneled directly to states for distribution.
"Compassion often works best on a small and human scale," he said. "It is generally better when a call for help is local, not long-distance."
He added: "Government can promote compassion, corporations and foundations can fund it, but it is citizens who provide it. A determined assault on poverty will require both an active government and active citizens."
Mr. Bush made clear that while Democrats may have initiated the federal governments attempt to eradicate poverty, Republicans will now try to successfully complete it.
"This is my message today: There is no Great Society which is not a caring society," he said.
"So let me return to Lyndon Johnsons charge — youre the generation that must decide," the president added. "Will you ratify poverty and division with your apathy — or will you build a common good with your idealism?
"Will you be a spectator in the renewal of your country — or a citizen?" he concluded. "The methods of the past may have been flawed. But the idealism of the past was not an illusion."

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