Remarks by Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation Announcing a New Investment in America’s Working Families Capitol Hill Reception
March 3, 2020
As delivered on Wednesday, February 26, 2020, at the National Museum of the American Indian Washington, D.C.
Good evening. How are you? Please do come close so that – because it is – with the echo, we’d love to just feel like we’re all together. Thank you, Michael, for your extraordinary leadership.
I don’t know how many of you have known or worked with Michael Myers in the past. I should almost ask for a show of hands – oh, good. Good. Excellent. And I don’t know how many of you are running these ultramarathons with him, but he has changed since he started running these like, hundred-mile marathons. And Michael, congratulations with all the work that you’ve taken on and successfully pursued, including setting up our policy and advocacy program, and now launching our Washington office. So we really appreciate your leadership.
There are so many people I wish I could thank that are here tonight. It’s exciting that Speaker Pelosi is on her way. And I’m also excited that Lieutenant Governor Rutherford from Maryland is here with us. We do hope that that represents what we want to represent, which is the ability to come up with solutions that bring people together, not tear ‘em apart, and try to get things done in a practical and pragmatic manner. And so thank you both for lending your leadership to this event and this moment.
And later, you will hear from two of our extraordinary partners, Janet Murguía of UnidosUS, who needs no introduction in this crowd but will get one later. And Sharon Davies of Spelman College, an institution that the Rockefeller family and Foundation keeps very, very close to its heart and its values for a whole lot of reasons. And you’re going to love hearing from her.
This week we’ve had a number of our grantees and partners here in Washington, D.C. as part of an effort to announce our new $65-million investment by The Rockefeller Foundation in America’s working families. We believe this investment will help directly more than 10 million low-wage workers in this country lead better lives and be more hopeful for their kids.
But more than the direct impact of the projects that so many of you are pursuing with enthusiasm and optimism and technical excellence, we actually hope that your work serves as a demonstration of what’s possible: when you believe in being an innovator; when you stay committed to serving folks in communities like Anacostia that you just saw in the video; when you bring evidence and data and a commitment to deliver results to the way you do your work; and ultimately when you reach across party lines, public-private, different parts of society, to bring people together to create more access to the American Dream.
And I have so much respect – I just got out of a discussion with 30, 40 of our grantee-partners, and it’s just awesome to hear how optimistic and hopeful you are that we can in fact change policies, come up with community development strategies, entice private investors to take on big challenges to lift up the 40 percent of American households who are working hard every single day, but can’t meet their basic needs – for education for their kids, healthcare for their families, childcare for their young children, food, and shelter – here in America, the wealthiest and most prosperous country in the history of humankind.
So it’s an honor for The Rockefeller Foundation to get to partner with you. And it’s exciting for us to really reinvigorate our own commitment to work in the United States. I see some colleagues in the room that I know have done exceptional work addressing poverty, inequality, climate change, and opportunity all around the world as part of our nation’s global development efforts. And The Rockefeller Foundation is proud of the work we do in that arena as well. But tonight, and the last two days, have really been about reengaging this Foundation’s commitment to helping working American families.
And we know that the American Dream, which used to be accessible to a fairly broad percentage of Americans – not all minority communities: certainly not African American, Hispanic American, and here we are in a museum dedicated to Native Americans; they did not always have access to the dream.
But the basic idea that children born in this country would do better than their parents was taken for granted, because for decades after World War II until about the mid-Eighties, it was true: 90-plus percent of Americans born in that era would do better than their parents. Today, it’s less than 50 percent. In the past, half of American children born into poverty would end up in the middle class. Today, it’s less than 25 percent. And when you take four or five big cities that have been transformed by technology and investment and job creation out of that equation, it’s much, much worse for the rest of the United States of America.
And we believe whatever the causes – globalization, technology, public policies that have preferenced markets and capital over labor and people – whatever the reasons, we are in a place where that reality creates some of the underlying tension and hostility that sometimes we see reflected in our politics. So we’re excited to be making this investment. And we know that our efforts will rely on your success.
I’m excited that so many of you are working to advocate for transforming, and making more accessible, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. We know that that is the most effective way to address poverty in this country. And we know there are working mothers in particular across the nation that would benefit dramatically from the work you are doing. And frankly, I think – I love telling the stories of your success. Of how, you know, you’ve motivated expansions of those policies in Maine and California. How you’re going to get red states and blue states to stand up and be innovators. How you’re helping to expand access to minority communities and individuals, in addition to families with children. All of that work is going to make a huge difference, and we’re proud to be supporting you.
We’re proud to be supporting those of you working on the Opportunity Zones. You saw the video. You’ve also read all the articles that show how this unique bipartisan element of what is otherwise a $2.3 trillion tax cut – 8 percent of which goes to the top 1 percent – has the actual chance of being something that supports people who live in low-income communities. And without getting into all the details, I’m proud that those of you that were telling us about your work just a few hours ago are doing what you’re doing. Because it’d be easy to be a cynic. It would be easy to read The New York Times and see who’s profiting, who’s benefitting, who’s investing, to know what their last names are and where they work, and think that, gosh, this is another example of the lack of fairness in our economy. But those of you that are working on the Anacostia project; those of you that were working with Mayor Greg Fischer, who was here and I think just stepped out, in Louisville; those of you working on Pittsburgh Yards in Atlanta: you are making a difference in the lives of working families in those communities. And even though we haven’t figured out how to get your stories on the front page of The New York Times yet – that’s Eileen O’Connor’s job and she’s working on it – we know that you’re succeeding, and you therefore give us hope.
I know there’s a community of partners here that works on food and hunger. I see David Beckmann in particular. And I just want to offer you a special shout-out, because it is just wrong that in this country, in this moment, 1-in-5 children tonight will go to bed hungry. It just – it’s insane. And I know the work you do, I know the heart you’ve put into it over a long period of time. We’re excited to be working both on hunger for children and working with school districts that represent 3.5 million kids, [many of whom] get their main sustenance from a free or reduced school lunch, and trying to make that a point of access to healthy, nutritious meals. Because that shouldn’t just be for those of us that can afford a more expensive diet.
I could go on and on. One of my favorite projects, the Benefits Data Trust, is represented here by a former Rockefeller Fellow and now its CEO, Trooper Sanders. But there are $60 billion of public benefits every year that go unused in just five major programs. And you guys are figuring out how to use artificial intelligence and data science and technology to target those households that [could] benefit and make it easy for them to gain access. One of my favorite days in this job was sitting in the call center in Philadelphia, calling up families and saying, “Hey, we saw you qualified for a prescription drug benefit here. We think you might qualify for home heating oil.” And just hearing how important that was to a family that otherwise would go through the winter literally freezing in their own homes.
So, you all are doing work that we’re really proud of. And we have opened this office in Washington, D.C. because you deserve a bigger voice. You deserve more attention. And your ideas deserve to be followed by leaders in this town that make policies that affect all of us. So it’ll take us some time to figure out how to make sure that office here becomes a platform to amplify your voice. But I’m confident if Republicans and Democrats, public-sector leaders, private-sector leaders all hear more from you about the practical things you’re doing in the dozens of cities and dozens of states in which we work around the country, they will be more hopeful, then in fact you can make change happen at a federal level.
And I’m so proud that you guys are not losing faith, you guys are staying motivated, and that together we can be one team working to expand access to the American Dream.
So thank you again for being here. Thank you for welcoming The Rockefeller Foundation. And I will turn this back over to my colleague, Michael Myers. Thank you very much.
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