Success – success that means something – is overcoming, not succumbing.
"I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed," wrote Booker T. Washington in his autobiography, "Up from Slavery."
But one of the great tragedies of our day is that the federal government measures the success of its anti-poverty programs by how many people utilize them. To truly combat poverty, all efforts must start with a goal of self-reliance.
I learned this as a young boy growing up in the historic inner-city Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta. And throughout my education and career, the most important lesson was that it wasn't enough to memorize what was in the books or to do just enough to get by. It was that education must be functional and relevant, and it must promote a sense of entrepreneurship so that individuals have the opportunity to sustain themselves in life.
Those two pillars, education and entrepreneurship, are the foundation of self-reliance.
Washington, the "Father of Black Conservatism" and founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (today known as Tuskegee University), is my intellectual hero. He taught these same principles in his day, and he gave his students an education that prepared them to enter the workforce and earn their own way.
Washington also stressed the education of character and personal responsibility. In "Up From Slavery," he makes it clear he saw personal moral character and the dignity of labor as important aspects of education. He sought to ensure his graduates were truly well-rounded.
He's not merely a role model for myself and generations of Black Americans. His life and his philosophy are also the foundation for a new nationwide initiative by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The Booker T. Washington Initiative will seek solutions to the problems that have plagued underserved communities for far too long – poverty, dependence, inequality, crime, low skills – by aiming to improve self-reliance through education and entrepreneurship.
We start with education. Too few Americans have access to the kind of quality education most likely to enable them to succeed and prosper. The Booker T. Washington Initiative will advance the data-driven policies of educational choice, which rely upon parents to decide what's best for their children. And we will fight for the freedom of communities to make their own choices, unhampered by federal bureaucrats.
To foster entrepreneurialism, Washington need look no further than right here in Texas. The Lone Star State is a model for economic freedom, innovation, and regulatory reform, and has created more than a quarter of all U.S. jobs since the 2009 recession. Thankfully, the new administration has already made tremendous progress by removing regulations that kill jobs and prevent growth. We will help to continue this effort by focusing on greater energy development, ending corporate subsidies, and reversing regulatory favoritism.
The gains of welfare reform have faded since its historic passage over two decades ago, so it is past time renew efforts to fix a system that traps so many in an endless cycle of poverty. We should foster self-sufficiency and support – and reward — individual initiative. In the spirit of Booker T. Washington, we will begin a new discussion and debate on combatting the dependence that sustains poverty.
The federal government should also replicate the Texas model of effective, efficient, conservative, humane, and successful criminal justice reform across the nation. The burden of punitive "tough on crime" policies, widely adopted by both parties, has fallen disproportionately on poor Americans. Lawmakers should work to reform all aspects of the justice system that often cause more harm than good, including: pretrial justice and fees and fines policy; juvenile justice; over-criminalization; and reentry policy.
And finally, we must return to health care reform – for no life can be lived in full without health and wellness. Americans have seen their choices taken away from them, as the federal government has taken a bigger and bigger role. Access and affordability of care – at the local level – is far more important to real health outcomes than federal policies and bureaucratic oversight. That's why we will work to fund federal programs with block grants, so that states can customize programs to better serve health care providers and patients.
In what was perhaps Washington's greatest speech, to an expo in Atlanta, he spoke of laying a firm foundation for his people's success:
"It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges."
That is the way we will measure the success of this new approach to overcome poverty, build self-reliance, deliver a foundational education, and foster entrepreneurship for all.