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Opening Remarks By Vice President Al Gore
Family Re-Union Eight: Family and Community

Monday, June 21, 1999

Welcome. This annual family re-union, which Tipper and I began hosting eight years ago, has become so much more than a policy conference. It is truly a national conversation about the steps we all must take—family by family, community by community—to strengthen our nation's families, the hope and soul of America.

We begin today with a simple premise: many of the most important challenges facing the family cannot be solved by government, but must be solved by the family. It is the premise that led me to focus on family policy beginning a decade ago, and led Tipper and me to begin these family re-union conferences back when I served in the Senate.

No policy proposal can teach a child the right values. No law can connect a parent to his or her child's school—or reconnect a deadbeat dad to an abandoned daughter. No executive action can raise a thoughtful family conversation above the din of a blaring TV set. Not even a policy conference can create the kind of community where neighbors look after each other's children—where no child feels lost, disconnected, uncared for, or disrespected.

We can make such communities, but today's overworked, overstretched families need the right tools and enough time to meet these challenges.

When Tipper and I started working on these issues, we found that the challenges facing families were misunderstood by national leaders and oversimplified in public policy debates. Some said families should just be left to fend for themselves. Others automatically assumed that all programs should focus on individuals —and seemed not to notice that this approach frequently weakened families and communities. Tipper and I believed very deeply that both approaches were wrong. We found a better way together.

The very first Family Reunions, in 1992 and 1993, brought together experts and practitioners who shared this belief, and were pioneering new approaches.

We've come a long way toward grappling with what faces families: from tougher child support enforcement for deadbeat dads; to family-centered health care, the subject of last year's Reunion; to our focus two years ago on helping parents become involved in their children's schools. We are advocating and enacting the right policies to strengthen America's families.

One of the most meaningful conferences for me personally was the one we held in 1994 to promote fatherhood—for too long, the crucial role of fathers had been missing from the policy picture.

That has changed—I have some good news to report today: we have just learned that nearly 1.5 million men acknowledged paternity in 1998, an increase of 12 percent in one year —three times the 1993 figure of 516,000. A man acknowledging paternity does not make a father, but it is a start, the first step toward committing to a child the emotional and financial support a father must give to merit the name.

This concern with families' well being is a commitment that comes from our own lives, and our own values.

Over a decade ago, when we got to know a couple who both lost their jobs to be with their sick child, we knew something had to be done to make it easier for parents to care for their own children, especially in times of crisis and stress. I went back to the Senate and signed my name to the bill that was to become the Family and Medical Leave Act. I worked with my colleagues in the Senate to pass that bill, and after years of struggle, it became the first bill President Clinton signed into law. It has made countless families' lives calmer and more secure.

It was at the Family Reunion in 1996 that the President and I proposed expanding it, so that parents could go to a parent-teacher conference without risking their jobs.

Earlier, when Tipper saw how easy it was for one of our four children to buy a record or watch a TV program with clearly inappropriate content, we began to look for ways to give parents the tools they need to take back control of a chaotic culture. Ten years later, at the Family Reunion in 1995, we worked to promote tools such as the V-Chip that will soon be in all new TV sets, and TV ratings so parents can choose what to block out. That will give parents a sense of control that still eludes too many families when we click through the channels.

Now we all must go much further. Today we will. I want to be very clear: though government can provide the tools—government must never substitute for a parent's responsibility.

Yes, I do believe there is a crisis in the American family today. But we are Americans and it is our very nature to overcome any setback, any challenge, once we set our hearts to it. So let us set ourselves heart and soul to easing this crisis among us.

This year, we look at the family in the context of its community. It is hard to be a strong family in a weak community—one that is overrun by crime and drugs; one with failing schools and not enough jobs; one in which people no longer even know one another's names. Communities should be there for families, just the way family members should be there for one another.

When we think of "community" we think of a place. It may be in a town, or in the country; it may be large or small, rich or poor, but wherever that place is for us, there is something about it that when we return to it, makes us say, "I'm home."

It is a place we look back to with wonder.

For me, that feeling comes from Carthage. When I think of my hometown of Carthage, Tennessee, not very far from here—I recall the neighbors who would call our parents if they thought we were wandering off on our own. I remember the childhood friends with whom I played ball. I think of the neighbors who helped one another when there was clearing to be done after a bad storm. That neighborliness extends over the years—I think of the old friends who brought casseroles to my parents' house when my elderly father was ill.

To really help families, we need to strengthen community. A good community is a place where, whether you are affluent or struggling, neighbors know each others names, and look after one another's children. It's a place where there are parks and playgrounds and open spaces—places to walk and bike and play. It's a place with safe streets, and a healthy environment. It's a place where you don't have to drive for an hour to bring your child to school, or to go to a PTA meeting. It's a place where citizens speak up: they get involved in their local schools, and they have a say in their local issues. It's a place where faith and values are free to flourish—and where churches, synagogues, and mosques can reach out to lift up those who have been left out.

Too often, communities are dangerous or simply empty places physically and spiritually. Let's take back all our communities for the good of the family once more.

I challenge each of you to take the recommendations that will come from this conference to your own community and make them work. Today's conclusions are tomorrow's solutions.

And let us think beyond boundaries: problems such as crime, pollution, and violent culture do not stop at the county line—and neither should our solutions.

I want to start today's process by announcing several important steps to strengthen families and communities.

First, families need help getting guns off our streets, out of our schools, and away from children and criminals. And I say to every parent in America: let us create a family lobby as powerful as the gun lobby.

If we did that, then instead of fighting off new protections for gun manufacturers that would shield them from lawsuits, we can start passing legislation to actually shield our children from gun violence instead.

Today, I am announcing a new initiative to expand community-based efforts to reduce gun violence. This "Safe Cities Network" will link local leaders, community organizations, law enforcement and faith-based organizations' efforts to reduce gun violence, share the practices that are working, and provide technical know-how. We will soon hear more about these kinds of community-based efforts from Reverend Gene Rivers. Because of heroes like Reverend Rivers and his fellow faith leaders —and the law-enforcement community —Boston went 18 months without losing a single child to gun violence—in a city that knew all too well what it means to grieve a child.

This community didn't wait for Congress to do it for them; they seized the power of community and saved their kids themselves. That is the way. We will build on that.

Communities are stronger when families own their own homes. In too many communities, tenants and renters have no sense of ownership, and landlords don't care. Everything deteriorates.

Today, home ownership stands at record levels, and urban home ownership now tops 50 percent. Such neighborhoods thrive: a financial stake is also an emotional stake in the community. But we can do even more.

That's why I am pleased to announce $20 million in "self-help housing" awards, to help 2,000 families build their own homes. In the great American tradition, with these awards, homebuyers will actually help build the house that will become theirs.

Affordable housing helps, but even that is still not enough to make our communities as livable as they can be. If we want to renew and restore family life, we must create communities with a high quality of life: places where we redeem historic old neighborhoods, and also where farms, green spaces, and forests add vitality to the newest of suburbs; places where we can work productively, and still have that most precious of all commodities—time with our children, our wives and husbands, our fellow worshippers, fellow volunteers, and our friends.

Today, I am releasing a new resource guide for citizens who want to build more livable communities. It will help those who are seeking to revitalize their communities find an array of ideas gleaned from communities across the country that have decided to develop according to their own best values. These grass-roots ideas, supported by federal resources, can help us all build communities that have, in the words of one homeowner, fewer "arteries" and more heart.

Before I close, let me say that while my faith sustains me, and public service inspires me, it is my family that is the source of my greatest joy. All of us here feel that way. And it shouldn't be so hard to be a good strong family in America today—one where parents have the time and the tools to pass on their best values to their children.

Strong families are more than the shelter of individual decency, they are also the first foundation of a mighty nation. That is why the work we are doing here at the Family Reunion is so important to me and to this country. Together, let us fight for the changes we need in our policies—and in our own hometowns and in our own hearts. Let us build an integrity that reaches into every home, and sustains every family in America. That way, every family will have a chance to shape a future that is truly worthy of our children, our grandchildren, and this nation made of 100 million families' dearest dreams.


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