Ending generational poverty has been one of the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s goals for years. So has boosting third-grade reading levels. And boosting diversity and inclusion at the workplace.
Since unveiling its Florida 2030 Blueprint, the Florida Chamber’s prime directive has been growing the state’s economy from the 17th largest in the world (if the state was measured as a country) to the 10th largest.
Lowering poverty levels, improving literacy rates and making progress on equality may seem like secondary — even tertiary — objectives when talking about economic growth, but the more involved the Chamber gets in those issues, the more it finds they’re integral to the state’s future success.
The Florida Chamber’s research has identified 10 root causes of generational poverty and found that educational opportunities and attainment vary wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood. If the gaps aren’t addressed, the state will struggle to become the No. 10 economy in the world by 2030.
Breaking the cycle of generational poverty has long been a goal of Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson, who has even testified on the issue before Congress. When former House Speaker Will Weatherford joined the Florida Chamber’s board, the organization’s efforts were turbocharged.
The Florida Chamber has published in-depth research on each issue. Perhaps the most impressive is the first-of-its-kind tool mapping childhood poverty and reading rates. The “Florida Gap Map” allows anyone to see poverty rates down to the ZIP code level and reading scores all the way down to individual schools.
The Gap Map and other data and research deep dives have drawn attention from businesses across the state, many of which are asking for ways they can pitch in within their communities.
Interest has also been piqued elsewhere, especially among the Florida Chamber’s out-of-state peers, which have coined the term “Florida Model” — mostly out of admiration, but with perhaps a bit of jealousy mixed in — to describe the Florida Chamber’s approach to boosting prosperity for all Floridians.
The Florida Model has a more concrete definition now. The Chamber defines it as a combination of innovative tools to help drive data informed solutions and coalescing efforts to align the business community.
Wilson told Florida Politics that his duties as Florida Chamber president as well as Chair of the National Association of State Chambers of Commerce, have only allowed him to give part-time attention to the Florida Chamber’s prosperity efforts even though they are a full-time priority.
He called it “the single most important initiative” he’s worked on in his career.
On Thursday, the Florida Chamber rolled out a new program that will keep those efforts front and center.
The Florida Equality of Opportunity Initiative will put the Florida Chamber’s poverty, literacy and inclusion efforts under one roof and it’s brought on Kyle Baltuch as Senior Vice President of Equality of Opportunity to lead the charge. Baltuch, formerly of Florida TaxWatch, will focus exclusively on making the Florida Chamber’s effort a success.
It has three main goals:
— Reduce the number of Florida children living in poverty in half, to less than 10%
— Ensure 100% of Florida’s 3rd graders are reading at or above grade level. Currently, 58% read at or above grade level.
— Work with Florida businesses to identify, promote, and provide the best practices in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, turning them into standard practices across Florida.
“This Florida Chamber Foundation initiative is aimed at unifying business leaders to ensure every Floridian is given an equal opportunity to secure their future,” Baltuch said.
“We are uncovering the hurdles that stand in the way of opportunity, building on the groundbreaking research developed by the Florida Chamber Foundation, pinpointing the neighborhoods that are impacted and identifying unique challenges they face, providing expert insights to determine the resources needed, and working with our network of Florida leaders to ensure those necessary resources are distributed.
“In doing so, The Florida Model can become part of the national model to address inequality everywhere.”
The Florida Equality of Opportunity Initiative drills down to the neighborhood level. Wilson and Baltuch said that businesses are stepping up in every ZIP code across the state and working on solutions tailored to their community.
Through the Chamber’s statewide network, including businesses as well as local Chambers of Commerce, the solutions that work in one area — what they call “Promising Practices” — can be identified and transplanted to areas facing similar challenges.
“The Florida Chamber Foundation is focused entirely on securing Florida’s future by advancing economic opportunity for all regardless of the ZIP code a person is born into. The groundbreaking research conducted by our Foundation’s Chief Economist, Dr. Jerry Parrish, is changing the way business views prosperity,” Wilson said.
“One’s ZIP code, race, gender, ethnicity, or any other factor should never determine their opportunity to prosper. With the Florida Equality of Opportunity Initiative, we along with our partners, are investing real resources and a platform behind implementing long-term solutions to finally break the cycle of generational poverty so that every Floridian and every American has the opportunity to pursue the American Dream.”
On literacy, for instance, the “ReadingPals” program designed by the Children’s Movement of Florida and administered by 17 chapters of the United Way has seen substantial buy-in from Florida Chamber partners — the initiative now draws more than 2,000 volunteers across 26 counties.
“The Florida Chamber Foundation has the unique blend of access, expert analysis, and coalition building experience to actually take such a massive problem and make it digestible,” said Todd Powell, Vice President of Real Estate Development at Weyerhaeuser and Chairman of the Florida Chamber Foundation.
“With the Foundation’s groundbreaking development of the Florida Gap Map and the Florida Scorecard, one-of-a-kind partnerships with business leaders at the county and ZIP code level, and existing thought leader summits like Learners to Earners and the Prosperity Summit, the Florida Chamber Foundation is tailor-made to address the issues around equality of opportunity in our state.”
The importance of this work and the Florida Chamber Foundation’s unique ability to unite the Florida business community has been embraced by Florida’s top business leaders.
“Focused on the alignment and combination of the Florida Prosperity Project, the Florida Business Alliance for Early Learning Project and the Florida Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Project, the Florida Equality of Opportunity Initiative aims to tackle the system obstacles that hinders opportunities both at the ZIP code level and statewide,” said Susan Towler, Vice President of the Florida Blue Foundation; Executive Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Florida Blue; and a Florida Chamber Foundation Trustee.
Charles Hokanson, Senior Vice President of Florida Community Engagement for Helios Education Foundation, added, “The need to prepare our future workforce is essential as we secure Florida’s future. To do this, we need the leadership of the Florida Chamber Foundation as they champion equality of opportunity for all and follow the Florida 2030 Blueprint to ensure our state is prepared for the 4 million more people who will call Florida home over the next decade.
The Florida Chamber Foundation is seeking business leaders to help lead the charge in securing the future of every Floridian, one ZIP code at a time. To get involved with the Florida Equality of Opportunity Initiative, contact Baltuch via [email protected]flfoundation.org or visit https://www.flchamber.com/EqualityFL/.