President's Message from Pew Prospectus 2011

By Rebecca W. Rimel
President and Chief Executive Officer

Message from the President, Pew Prospectus 2011 (PDF):

In these challenging times, it could be easy to lose hope. This nation and many others throughout the world are still struggling with historic economic woes. Most of us can relate personal stories of our own or know of someone who has suffered a setback. Our workforce is contending with too few opportunities and our businesses need the resources to bring about a new entrepreneurial spirit. There are increasing demands for government services and declining revenues to pay for them, and there is no strong consensus among policy makers about how to address our economic problems.

Yet in this difficult period, there are lessons in history for us all. In the first half of the 20th century the issues were strikingly familiar: Our nation was still suffering after the depths of the Great Depression. America was undecided about how to respond to the threats of World War II with many people preferring isolationism over engagement. Workers faced high unemployment and, as the nation entered the war, there was an urgent need to create new industries to support our nation’s defense, requiring inspired thinking and imaginative innovations.

In the midst of the war years one of our founders, Joseph N. Pew Jr., gave a speech on free enterprise that explored the history of our hard-won freedoms in the United States. In his remarks, he made a succinct and profound observation:  “America is searching for a better life, not an easier life.” Indeed, our country’s past is filled with examples of his thoughtful aphorism: government leaders developing partnerships to work through differences and advance the common good, families and individuals learning the value of hard work and living within their means. The continued search for a better life, not an easier one, is the best evidence we have of our resilience in times of hardship.

Since its creation in 1948 by the two sons and two daughters of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph N. Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew, The Pew Charitable Trusts has remained dedicated to the spirit of entrepreneurism and optimism that characterized their lives. Through astute and conscientious work, the family created an enterprise that helped the nation, respected workers and promoted technological innovation. The Pews stewarded their resources wisely,  with a vision to serve the public interest. From its earliest days, Pew also had international ideals, from providing financial assistance to Chinese intellectuals seeking freedom of speech to aiding organizations helping refugees from Eastern Europe find new homes after World War II. This vision recognized that the most important issues facing society are not limited by the boundaries on maps.

Indeed, Americans are not alone in the search for a better life. Throughout the world, people share in this desire. For more than two decades, Pew has worked globally to support pragmatic, science-based policies that protect oceans and wild lands and to address energy issues in order to ensure a strong and healthy environment now and for generations to come.  An example of this commitment was Pew’s strong advocacy for the United Kingdom’s creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean last year.  The 55 islands and their surrounding waters cover 210,000 square miles, more than 60 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, making it the largest no-take marine reserve in the world. Despite some opposition, the United Kingdom’s government took the harder, not the easier, course to protect this delicate ecosystem.

Equally difficult is cooperation when differences are deep and long-standing. To find common ground among conflicting concerns, Pew seeks to encourage respectful discourse and a search for new solutions, always with the goal of achieving the greatest good as determined by research and rigorous data. Last summer, we facilitated an agreement between nine leading conservation organizations and 21 logging companies to protect 178 million acres of Canada’s boreal forest. The region is a treasure for us all: It is the world’s greatest avian nursery, producing three to five billion new birds each spring, and is home to caribou and dozens of other mammal species. It is crucial to the ecological health of the planet, inhaling carbon and exhaling oxygen in such quantities that scientists believe it is the largest vault of carbon on land. Balancing apprehension about lumber industry jobs with the need to protect the environment for the future, environmentalists and loggers overcame their long-held disagreements to create the world’s largest forest-conservation agreement.

We also work across the nation in the 50 state capitals and in Washington, DC, through the efforts of the Pew Center on the States. The difficult decisions that lead to a better life are frequently fiscal ones. Unfortunately, for decades many states have been spending beyond their means. This year, dozens of newly elected governors and legislators face enormous budget problems as costs continue to rise, often in such areas as public employee retirement benefits and corrections where expenditures can be better controlled through disciplined investments. Our staff  are analyzing the data that can help officials make sound decisions to put their states on the course to both short-term and long-range financial stability. The decisions that are required are frequently painful and politically unpopular, and the center’s research helps policy makers explain to the public how and why states find themselves in this unsustainable fiscal situation. As Joseph N. Pew Jr. once said, “The judgment of the American people can always be trusted when they know the plain unvarnished truth.”

Working with an alliance of consumer groups, industry organizations and food-borne illness victims and their families, Pew spent two years urging Congress to see the “plain truth” about the shortcomings in the U.S. food safety system. Lawmakers listened and last year passed the most significant overhaul of laws to protect the nation’s food production since the Great Depression. The success of this initiative shows the strength of employing sound scientific research, creating broad coalitions and emphasizing nonpartisan agreement to effectively achieve notable and lasting results. Indeed, those strategies were employed effectively on food safety as policy makers reached across partisan divides to find agreement on a new law that will benefit the public for generations—providing an example of what is possible for this nation when we face our challenges as problems that we can solve together.

Even closer to home, Pew has long been committed to helping the neediest and most vulnerable members of our Philadelphia community. The Pew Fund for Health and Human Services, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, helps organizations serving the homeless with shelter and assistance with mental and physical disabilities. It supports organizations working with disadvantaged youngsters that provide education and literacy programs. Additionally, it funds efforts to offer seniors on limited incomes the help they need to manage their own affairs in order to remain independent.

When Mr. Pew made his observation about America’s quest for a better, not easier, life, he was basing it on his own sharp instincts, intimate knowledge of history and deep love of his country. Today, he could rely on the rigorous data of the Pew Research Center. The Washington-based “fact tank” conducts survey research in the United States and around the world to inform the public on topics ranging from political attitudes to religious beliefs, from Internet developments to demographic trends. That data show Mr. Pew was right about Americans’ desire for a better life. We value successful careers and a sense of accomplishment, marriage and service to others over material gains. In essence, these values are the core of the American character and serve as a source of optimism as we face the future—as they have throughout our history.

As we look back on the years after World War II, we see that America entered a period of tremendous growth. We had survived adversity to thrive in peace.  The world became smaller as innovations in technology developed aircraft that could circumnavigate the globe. A new willingness for debate and conciliation, rather than fighting and unrest, brought leaders together to form the United Nations. To rebuild devastated Europe, the United States and its allies worked together to implement the Marshall Plan. The GI Bill created a better-educated workforce. The Greatest Generation came home from war, went to work and launched the baby boom. They created businesses and jobs. They built homes and established new communities.

Those postwar years illustrated America’s inherent resiliency. That steadfast belief in core values of hope and optimism continues today. The newest generation of 18- to 29-year-olds is called the millennials because it is the first cohort to come of age in this new century. Last year, the Pew Research Center studied in depth the attitudes, beliefs, attributes and desires of this group and found that while the members of this generation face a tough job market, they remain upbeat and positive about their prospects. These young people place greater emphasis on being good parents and helping others than they do on accumulating personal wealth. This bodes well for the future because these attributes show that the millennials, who will have a profound impact on our nation in the years to come, seek not an easier life but a better one.

At Pew, we are committed to advancing the search for a better life, and we welcome partners and collaborations to maximize our impact and results. We continue to see our role as helping policy makers address the challenges we face with a clear-eyed belief in unbiased research and analysis. In an era of divisiveness, we will emphasize what unites us. In a period of unease, we hope to inspire confidence that solutions can be found to our most challenging problems now and in the future. We remain certain that citizens, entrusted with the power of knowledge, can overcome any obstacle to find a better life for themselves, their families and their nation.

Read more about Pew’s accomplishments of 2010 in Milestones from Pew Prospectus 2011.  

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