Congress enacted The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in August 1996.
This sweeping federal legislation radically reformed the public welfare system in the United States. Actually, in view of the ongoing debate and rhetoric about welfare reform, the act is well named and ought to be instructive to thoughtful citizens.
Of course, who would choose to argue against personal responsibility?
The healthy impetus behind the move (and at least some of the mood) to re-engineer the nation's welfare system relates to a national recognition of the importance of each person deciding to act responsibly and to assume responsibility for his/her own life and future. After all, several of the foundational principles undergirding "the American Dream" are rugged individualism, personal resourcefulness and determined hard work. While many people do not seem to understand the implications of this new era of welfare reform; one of the early, positive, noticeable changes evident among people who live in the inner city neighborhood where I work is enthusiasm about finding work. Coupled with this initial excitement is a new found hope that good jobs will be available to those who act responsibly in taking advantage of new opportunities.
But, just how realistic is this emerging hope?
For responsibility to enjoy its full effect, opportunity must be multiplied in our society. Again and again I have found it to be true that most people who live in poverty, when presented with genuine opportunities for a better life in which they can find ways to assume more personal responsibility, move quickly to take advantage of such new possibilities.
For example, right now in our organization, we have employed fourteen inner city women to serve as middle level managers in a service project that will last until after the Christmas holidays. Many of these women have received welfare. All are unemployed. All would be considered "poor". We expect a great deal from these women. They must manage twenty or thirty other people, organize and staff an office, develop strategies for community service, recruit workers and find service venues in the neighborhood. In exchange for their hard work, they will each receive a "shopping spree" to provide holiday gifts for their families. Their response to this unique opportunity has been nothing short of amazing. Talk about personal responsibility! The innate capacities of each of these women prove that people will respond well when presented with opportunities that promise to make life better.
So, what about the "responsibility of the whole" in American life?
In other words, what should we be saying and thinking about our national, corporate responsibility? It is easy to piously discuss, and even bash, unwed teenage mothers, irresponsible fathers who flee, and bankrupt federal "give-away" programs. It is quite another matter to honestly evaluate the underlying causes of some of the seemingly intractable problems we must now face as a people.
Where does my responsibility begin and end as a citizen who has enjoyed much more than my share of opportunity? How do I manage my position of privilege as I face that I am not at all responsible for most of the benefits I continue to receive?
At some point, people like me, who access and control so many of the portals of opportunity, must embrace a larger, communal responsibility.
The particular brand of responsibility I have in mind will involve people who encounter opportunity daily working in partnership with those who experience very little opportunity. The result should be an exciting, creative, energetic national enterprise opening up the radical expansion of new opportunity to all the citizens of the nation who desire more than anything else to be responsible, but who simply need the benefit of real opportunity. For business leaders the challenge will be the creation of new job opportunities with livable wages.
But even more important, will be the development of a new managerial mindset committed to understanding the world view and the life experience of those who will enter the workforce in these new positions. For educators the challenge will involve the development and funding of a new kind of training that combines hard practicality with new flexibility. For religious leaders the responsibility will involve retooling congregational culture to embrace new people while redesigning congregational mission to be at least as outer-directed as insider-concerned In short, if everyone is to enjoy opportunity, all of us must assume responsibility. The challenge is enormous. And, it belongs to all of us.