When Will Weatherford takes the podium this morning to open a Florida business economic summit in Orlando, his message will be straightforward and clear.
Everybody needs a real chance at having a secure future, Weatherford will tell those attending the Florida Business Leaders’ Summit on Prosperity and Economic Opportunity.
The way to do that is to attack the issue of generational poverty. That won’t be easy.
“When people hear about 4 percent unemployment rates, or the stock market performing well, or real estate doing well, they forget there is a large section of the population that doesn’t have a large portfolio. They might not have real estate,” he said.
It’s a serious problem in Florida.
A 2016 report by the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs estimated that nearly 15 percent of adults and 24 percent of children here live in poverty.
Weatherford, a Land O’Lakes Republican, is the former Speaker of the state House of Representatives. He is not a newbie to raising awareness of systemic poverty that keeps some families locked in lifelong economic despair.
As Speaker, Weatherford spoke about that topic on the opening day of the 2014 Legislative Session. He also can talk with the authority of personal experience.
He was the second-oldest in a family of nine children. Money was scarce. The family moved often.
Education was his key to achieve a better future. He played football at Jacksonville University, where his roommate was the son of a state representative. That relationship helped open the door to a political career, but that wouldn’t have been possible without education.
“Poverty is a problem that has plagued society as far back as history goes,” he said. “I don’t know that there is a way to completely eradicate it, but we should be creating a society where someone born into poverty doesn’t have to stay that way. It won’t happen overnight.”
Weatherford said that education doesn’t necessarily have to come from college to create opportunity.
“It all starts with choice. It’s about empowering kids and parents to see there are multiple pathways to success,” he said. “Your child does not have to go to college to be successful in life. There are other avenues that are available to them.”
Increased vocational training is one major avenue for acquiring specific job skills, and there is a new emphasis on that. But training alone won’t bust the cycle.
“Yes, we need to get creative in our educational system, but there are other significant challenges to the way we handle poverty today. We have created disincentives for some people to work their way out of it,” he said.
“I’m not here to say government doesn’t play a role in this because it certainly does. But in the 21st century, we need to re-evaluate how we do this.”
And then there is this nugget: “Our criminal justice system is outdated,” he said.
It’s true. Currently, a relatively minor offense committed as a youngster can be a red flag for potential employers and dog someone into their adult years.
The business community should be involved in finding a better way that isn’t one size fits all. Leaders could find that advocating for more than tax or regulatory reform could create a better long-range workforce.
That helps everyone.
That’s the message Weatherford plans to share.
“It’s not just me. The idea of a prosperity summit is not to think of creative ways for people who have achieved prosperity to receive more. It’s about finding ways to lift people out of poverty,” he said.
“We want to raise the level of awareness and engagement. And we need to get people who want to jump into the ring and help.”