Closing the Cultural-Wealth Gap
June 1, 2000
by Ryan Streeter
Our recent booming markets keep showing up in the presidential campaign’s social-policy debates: while George W. Bush and Al Gore spar over how close to let Wall Street get to Social Security, their policy advisers argue about strategies for helping those left out of the current market boom. A group of presidential advisers and policy experts who convened in May at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., to discuss poverty issues did not fully agree on how best to serve the working poor, but they did agree on one thing: this is a problem the next president must take seriously.
In fact, each candidate has defined himself through this issue. Gore has staked his social policy on the maxim, “Our national prosperity should not leave anyone behind.” And Bush has built his compassionate conservatism on the claim, “The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out—to leave no one behind.” But do we know those “left behind” well enough to know how to help them? It has become fashionable to decry the “income gap” in America and rush in with quick-fix solutions, but this process assumes that we know the poor we’re trying to help. The real problem, however, may be a lack of understanding among those best able to help—employers.
Many employers and the poorest workers have historically had little to do with each other, but current hiring trends show that employers need more workers and will continue to need them, especially as baby boomers begin to retire. Unlike any time in recent history, employers are reaching out to poor, unskilled workers, many of whom face multiple barriers to employment. Government social policies should take this into account, because only increased earning power and the promise of a career will reduce the income gap and move the poor out of poverty, and only employers can provide better incomes.
Thus the economic situation of the poor will only improve to the degree that employers diminish the cultural gap between themselves and the poor. To make it profitable to retain unskilled workers, employers will have to invest in them as never before. This will involve getting creative about reaching out to the poor, training them in job skills and good work habits, providing unconventional human services, and, of course, paying decent wages.
Several organizations are helping corporations figure out how to do just that. The Jobs Partnership in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, brings business leaders together with urban churches to provide jobs for the less fortunate. More than 90 percent of program participants keep their jobs, but the real success, according to founding businessman Chris Mangum, is the program’s achievement in bringing down the cultural and racial barriers between rich and poor. He refers to program participants not as clients but as neighbors, and he exhorts fellow businesspeople to invest in them by providing livable wages and a broader spectrum of personal help and services. Another successful organization of this type is the Orlando Chamber of Commerce, which is working with Florida’s welfare-to-work program to educate area businesses in developing low-skilled workers into successful employees. This second-largest American chamber has been bombarded by businesses seeking to learn about the poor—more evidence of the potential for business outreach.
Here is what we do know about America’s poor: most poor workers eventually leave poverty, and they do so by finding the right career ladder. Employers are the ones that can get them climbing. Pressed by a powerful need for new workers, businesses are already beginning to rethink their ideas about the poor, and it is essential for policymakers to do likewise, and soon. They must put aside macroeconomic worries and consider ways to move the poor toward the one sure path out of poverty: steady employment.
The next president needs to know how to persuade the business sector to invest in the poor and how to persuade policymakers to revise the current system to encourage career development, which is in the interest of both employers and workers. And the next president needs to get on this yesterday.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.