When I was growing up, my now 93-year-old grandfather would hold the paper — just right, in plain view — at the breakfast table every day. He looked like an executive, or a doctor, or an attorney, hoping an impressionable young man would see the benefit of education.
But my grandfather could not read. The circumstances of life forced him out of a segregated classroom in the third grade to a cotton field so he could help support his family.
He has now lived long enough to see a grandson elected to Congress, and a great-grandson graduate from Georgia Tech and start graduate school at Duke.
That is the power of opportunity in America. In a single lifetime, families can go from not being given a fair chance to read to graduating from college. We only need a level playing field to start from, a fair chance to succeed, and an appreciation for education and hard work.
Last week, I rode a public bus through Charleston. It is clear people are hurting. I consistently hear deeply personal and unique stories of struggle as I travel our state. People want to work, they want to get ahead and they want a better life for their children and grandchildren. They want to believe the greatest of all America’s promises: that life will be better for those who come after me if I do right.
America was built and is still being built by folks just like this. They stand up in the face of adversity and create a better life from it.
The questions for those of us in government are simple: Are we part of the solution or part of the problem? Are we an ally in this struggle to get ahead, or do we unwittingly make it more difficult? Are we trying the same tactics with the same results?
Those results — not motives — are worthy of challenge. After 50 years of a government-led “War on Poverty,” poverty rates are increasing. Our country faces a poverty rate of 15 percent as 46.5 million Americans live in poverty. Those numbers represent significant increases from 2008, when 39.8 million were living in poverty. In 1974, the poverty rate was 11.2 percent. These numbers reflect a hard truth: Regardless of intentions, government-centric efforts to alleviate poverty simply are not working.
Were this a military conflict we would have changed strategies decades ago. But somehow we fail to learn and continue to believe that if only we spend more, criticize others’ ideas more, and become even more dogmatic about our own perceived solutions, next year will be different. It has not been different in half a century.
So I propose a new way forward: robust initiatives giving our students and workers the greatest chance to succeed — an agenda of opportunity.
In the coming months, I will work with anyone else committed to building a better future to develop bold ideas that break away from our past failures. This includes targeting micro-financing and tax reform to increase economic freedom, expanding school choice so every child has a chance at a quality education, and providing alternatives for single parents to work their 40 hours a week by allowing for wider use of comp time.
I will also work to find ways to help redevelop our poorest areas without pushing current residents out, bring down energy costs that consume a quarter of after-tax income for families making $30,000 or less, help young offenders and those aging out of the foster care system to receive the vital opportunity for education, and ensure our kids who want to attend college can do so without incurring debilitating debt.
With these ideas, and others to come, communities can grow and thrive.
I have lived a family’s journey from cotton to Congress. I know the sense of empowerment and optimism it provides. I know that once the standard is set in a family, a community, a state, that generations to come will set even higher expectations for themselves.
Success is created in studio apartments and garages, at kitchen tables, and in classrooms across the nation — not in government conference rooms in Washington.
Tim Scott, a Republican, represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate.