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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, United Ways of New England Annual Luncheon Meeting

Boston, MA

Let’s look at the macro perspective. We in the United States are the most powerful country there has ever been. We can debate whether Rome had as large of a global impact as we do. No society since has had the kind of impact. Average levels of income in the United States are higher than they’ve ever been for any group of human beings any time in the history of the world. It is a remarkable accomplishment, but it is an accomplishment that I believe carries with it a very great obligation. …

You look at a university like Harvard or any noted university in this country and you find that only about a tenth, maybe a sixth, not more, of the students come from families of the lower half of the income distribution. And if you look at the fact that we are the only major industrialized country where there’s anybody who doesn’t get health insurance, let alone 43 million people who don’t get health insurance; if you look at the fact that at least a few years ago when the latest statistics were available, a child born in New York City is less likely to live to the age of five and less likely to learn to read than a child born in Shanghai; when you look at the fact that we are growing apart and you look at the difference in the life prospects of children from the most fortunate families in the United States and children of the least fortunate in the United States, the gap in the way they live is increasing.

You look at all of that, and you wonder about our example to the world. You wonder about whether we’re doing all that we can for ourselves. That is most importantly a matter for our broad public policies. That is the subject of great political debate. It is the subject for our private institutions. That’s why we at Harvard have eliminated tuition for parents or any family with a family income below $40,000. That’s why so many of the hospitals in this area do so much in clinics to help those who are less fortunate.

But in a real sense, including everybody in America’s success is an obligation for every one of us, an obligation for every one of us because the strength and influence and standing of the United States depends on its cohesiveness. That depends on everybody being part of that success.

And it is an obligation for every one of us because it is right, because for we, the people in this room, there are safety rails as we go down the highway of life. You get sick, you have health insurance. We have employers who wait for us to return. You work as an administrator at Harvard and you have a parent who is gravely ill, you go to spend time at the bedside; people cover for you and we wait for you to return. You work as a secretary at a place like Harvard or the firms that are represented here and the school nurse calls because your child has a 102 fever, you go, and this organization makes it work for you.

But it is not that way for many, many of the people who live in this city. Read a book on the working poor. And what you learn is that for many, many people there are no safety rails as you go down that highway. Are you going to keep your job? Or are you going to visit your dying mother? Are you going to get your paycheck and be able to go to the supermarket to shop for next week’s food? Or are you going to pick up your child who is standing on a street corner outside her school? These kinds of questions, these kinds of agonizing choices, are the life experiences of many, many people in this city.

That’s what the efforts to come here today to celebrate are all about. We are not going to solve these problems. We are not going to create a perfect world in which no one fears for their family’s future. We are certainly not going to make all the people who are sick better or all the people who are illiterate able to read. What we can do, what the United Way does, is help those families to help those children in the moment of their greatest vulnerability. Surely for all of us, being a part of that, encouraging others to be a part of that, is an investment in the future of our country, an investment in our city and our neighborhoods, and is an investment in doing something that is very important for us as human beings.

Now this doesn’t mean that it is enough to care, it is enough even to care and to contribute. Good intentions and compassion are not enough unless they are translated into real results. That’s why the steps the United Way takes to make sure that the organizations that it works with are doing the best possible work are so very important. That’s why we, and all of you, and the work we support, try to be very selective and rigorous to make sure we are making the greatest possible difference.

I’ve had the chance to talk to people who are associated with the area that [President and CEO of United Way of Mass Bay] Marian Heard referred to when introducing me, and it’s been a very important area for Harvard in the area of after-school programs. I’m convinced that if the Duke of Wellington was right that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then it can truly be said today that the battle for America’s future will be won or lost in our public schools.

And yet in our public schools, we’ve had our students enter for less than 20 percent of our students’ waking hours. That’s why I suspect that if somebody writes a history of American education 50 years from now, it’s actually not going to be about what happens in the public school day. It’s going to be about all the things we made up to do before kids get to kindergarten, all the things we made up to do in the period of 2 to 6 in the afternoon when their parents were still working, all the things we made up to do during the summer when some of the kids slipped back and fell into trouble. The after-school efforts are a very, very important part of that.

I talked about that example because it’s one in which Harvard is principally engaged. But I could have spoken about taking care of the aged, could have spoken about meeting the health needs of people whose lives can be transformed by a single shot they don’t get, in this city. We can do what we were doing and do more.

You know, I am struck by the reservoir of idealism that is coming back among young people in our institutions — the number of our students who say they don’t want to just live their lives for themselves but they want to live their lives in part for others. They want to help educate. They want to help provide healthcare. They want to help those who are mentally ill. They want to help those who don’t own homes.

All of that energy is there, and all of those people are there, and if they want to give their lives to helping others, surely all of us who are so fortunate can help them by sharing a small fraction of what we take home so that they can accomplish their goals. The United Way keeps us the United States of America and we are grateful.

Thank you very much.