TAMPA — In a time of high growth but rising inequality, the Florida Chamber Foundation gathered business executives and community leaders Tuesday to pose a few big questions:
How deep is poverty in Florida? How broad? How can business create prosperity that reduces generational poverty?
The answers, organizers suggested, could have a lot to do with children and making sure that every family, especially the poorest, can find child care and early-education programs that enable their kids to enter school ready to learn and succeed.
"Most people think this is a federal issue," Florida Chamber of Commerce president Mark Wilson told about 100 people at the foundation's first "Less Poverty through More Prosperity Summit" at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel.
It's not, he said.
"This is a Florida challenge that, if we all banded together, there are some things that we could do to change the trajectory of the lives of, literally, millions of Floridians," he said.
The summit was an outgrowth of the foundation's once-in-a-decade project to figure out where the state will be — and where Floridians want it to be — in 2030, the year after today's kindergarteners will graduate from high school.
What emerged, Wilson said, was a "Tale of Two Floridas."
Out of a statewide population approaching 21 million, more than 3.1 million Floridians live in poverty, and more than a third of those in poverty — 944,415 — are 17 or younger, according to a foundation report. More than a quarter of those living in poverty, nearly 281,000 children, are younger than 5.
While a lot of the foundation's early conversation was about creating jobs, Wilson said it soon became clear that a major issue is generational poverty. In turn, that brought up the question of what can Florida do to help kids born into poverty. So the foundation began focusing on two issues:
• Child care. It's often the costliest impediment to economic stability for families with young children, according to a United Way of Florida analysis of Floridians who work but have limited assets and constrained incomes. In most Florida counties, the least expensive child care can cost more than the least expensive rent.
One program the foundation identified as a key player in this area is Florida's School Readiness program, which was created to help low-income working families pay for good child care and provide young children with early learning that leads to success in school later.
It's hard to overstate the value of early childhood education.
"Before there is an achievement gap, there is a readiness gap," said Brittany Birken, CEO of the Florida Children's Council. And research has found that children living poverty who are not reading on their grade level by the end of third grade are 13 times less likely to graduate from high school.
• The problem of "cliffs" in social service programs. In too many cases, according to the foundation, a small increase in income for working-class adults can disqualify them for programs such as the school readiness initiative. That creates reasons for job candidates or employees not to pursue higher-paying work for which they are qualified because they need to preserve their eligibility for a program that helps their children.
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"The labor market's distorted, said Jerry Parrish, the foundation's chief economist and director of research. "It's not fair to businesses, and it's not fair to individuals. That's a big issue that we have to deal with."
Social service providers agreed that rolling back poverty requires a holistic approach to help working class families build assets and fend off emergencies that can descend on them in swarms.
"People who are living in poverty are living in the tyranny of the moment," said Tim Center, CEO of the Capital Area Community Action Agency.
These are families who go to bed at night and get up for work in the morning trying to decide which bill they can afford to pay — the grocery bill, the rent or the car repair bill — said Mireya Eavey, Sarasota and DeSoto area president for the United Way of the Suncoast.
"The issues are beyond wages," she said. "They're housing costs. They're child care costs. … They're one chaos away from everything falling apart."
The problems that poor families face are complex, and can touch on transportation, job training, coping with disabilities and other issues in addition to child care, participants said. So forward-thinking policy and public private-coordination is key. CareerSource Florida, the state's workforce policy and investment board, invested $3 million to help local workforce development boards help low-income Floridians find jobs that boost their earnings, including by providing training and retrofitting equipment to help people with disabilities find work.
"The conversation is much bigger than giving an individual a job," CareerSource Florida president and CEO Michelle Dennard said, "but it's transformational."
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times