When Democrat John Edwards ran for president in 2004, he gained traction in the primaries by talking about “two Americas” — one wealthy and powerful, the other poor and weak.
The Occupy Wall Street movement followed in 2011, which introduced into the lexicon the derisive term “the one percent,” a reference to the upper elite who increasingly grow wealthy while a majority of Americans see wages stagnate.
Perhaps the last person you’d hear discussing such terms would be a representative from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, but that’s precisely the organization that is sponsoring a daylong event on poverty Tuesday in Tampa.
“I’m fully aware that this is not a popular conversation to have,” said Florida Chamber CEO Mark Wilson in kicking off the “Less Poverty, More Prosperity” conference at the Sheraton Riverwalk Hotel, sponsored by the Chamber’s Foundation.
To his knowledge, the Chamber is the only entity of its kind in the country who has taken up the mission of studying poverty as they work toward reducing impediments to job growth in the Sunshine State.
The effort began in earnest in January, when the Chamber Foundation launched its 2030 project; it’s expected to be completed sometime next year. The initiative aims to provide a step-by-step strategy to make Florida more globally competitive, create economic opportunity for all, and will lead to vibrant and sustainable communities.
A pro-business organization that, by nature, is considered economically conservative, Wilson said the Chamber is a nonpartisan organization and advised anyone who came to the event from a “far-right” or “far-left” perspective to leave their ideology at the door.
“This conversation only turns into results only if in fact we can agree what’s the challenge, what’s a good outcome and what can we all do to help our policymakers to get the changes that need to be made,” he said.
The statistics are daunting: while the state’s 15.8 percent poverty level is troubling, it doesn’t differ much from the national average of 13.5 percent.
In March 2016, Wilson testified before a congressional panel on how to seek ways to end generational poverty by lifting up Americans through economic opportunity instead of entitlements. He said he ended up getting hate mail following that appearance.
“It was the kind of people who were saying,’ what, have you become Bernie Sanders now? Why would the Chamber get involved in doing something about poverty?'” he said. “It just told me that people just don’t know what they don’t know.”
Wilson and other speakers who appeared on panels throughout the day discussed how poverty includes more than one’s income level — it also includes food, transportation and housing.
The chamber intuitive strives to study what can be done to raise the wages of people in poor ZIP codes. “Every person matters, and every ZIP code matters,” Wilson said.
He also said that some in the business community might be coming to the issue on an economic level, while others from a moral point of view.
Wilson said that there is a body of evidence arguing both philosophies are accurate.
The Chamber’s focus is to alleviate generational poverty, not “situational,” which will take generations to turn around. And he said that means tackling early learning in childhood, ticking off a statistic that a child at the age of three who is born into a college educated family has heard 30 million more words than someone born into poverty.
“Newsflash. You can’t make that up later,” Wilson said, adding that it’s up to the business community to address and alleviate that devastating disparity.
Halfway through his 28-minute address, Wilson asked what appeared to be a trick question: Whether it was better for the average person with two kids to be making $9 an hour, or $25 an hour.
He later explained how people could lose certain benefits once their income increases; that’s why in Florida, it’s better to make $9 an hour than $25 if you’re in poverty.
That said, the Chamber opposes efforts to mandate raising the minimum wage in the Sunshine State, including a move by Orlando entrepreneur John Morgan to put the issue on the 2020 ballot.