By Guest Columnist KIM ANDERSON, CEO of Families First, Inc.
This month, as temperatures plunge, it is impossible not to be aware of the number of vulnerable people in our community who are without basic shelter and the bare essentials of life.
We chafe at the notion of the homeless exposed to the bitter cold, and we wince at news coverage of house fires started by people who resort to using ovens to warm their bodies and souls. This stark reality undercuts the American Dream.
In the months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign, denouncing the widening gap between those living in our poorest and wealthiest communities. He warned us about over-reliance on the “boot-strap” myth that opportunity was something immediately accessible to every American. He said it’s like telling a poor child, “‘You’re free,’ and [leaving] him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do.”
Nearly 50 years later, despite enormous expansion in the prosperity of our nation, one in every five children lives in poverty.
Just last year, the Southern Education Foundation reported that children living at or below the poverty level now make up fifty-one percent of the U.S. public school population. Children are, in fact, now the largest single group of poor people in America.
In very real terms this means that on a daily basis parents must choose between paying for heating or replacing shoes their children have outgrown; between using water to bathe or to flush toilets; between paying rent and feeding their sons and daughters.
In a nation where more than 1.33 billion pounds of food is wasted every year, it is unconscionable that some children must skip meals because they do not have enough to eat while others feel free to throw away food just because they can.
Dr. King tried to tell us, “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life, liberty, nor the possibility of happiness. He merely exists.”
In our country, a child born into poverty is 10 times more likely to remain in poverty and is sentenced to life without possibility of hope or happiness.
As a parent, this pains me. As a CEO, I am staggered by the potential waste of talent and intellectual capital represented by persistent poverty and inequity. Simply stated, this is a problem that is too big to overlook.
Yet, it’s not a new problem. In his 1968 Sermon at The Washington Cathedral, Dr. King reminded us that, throughout the 1960’s, he had met with several presidential and congressional commissions, including the National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress.
Each time, specific recommendations were made on how to end poverty as a means of helping the nation progress. Since then, automobiles have become self-automated, and individuals have more computing power in their mobile phones than that which powered the Apollo Space Module.
However, we have made only minute strides to solving poverty in the U.S.
This is a major reason why Families First partners with business leaders like Arby’s Restaurant Group to address the root causes of poverty and hunger by providing services to break the generational cycles of poverty, mitigate disparities in physical and mental healthcare, and respond to the disruption and displacement of families.
Without a doubt, we should be having a vigorous political debate on how to address this issue, but there is no magic bullet to solve poverty. A single policy shift or regulation will not result in meaningful change. We need to step out of our silos and work together to address the underlying causes of this national shame.
It is incumbent upon leaders across all sectors to unite as working partners. We must commit our personal time and intellect to tackle these issues in a manner that will lead a shift towards a shared value of realizing a society where all children and families can flourish. Such active partnerships can be engaged if we have the collective will for meaningful change.
Perhaps our business executives can muster that will by recognizing the untapped market potential represented by the 22 percent of American children who live in poverty.
Since young people are our most profitable target customers (and clearly, they are our future), if we can ensure their success, we can transform them into productive consumers.
They represent the potential growth that will benefit Wall Street, they will also have a positive impact on Main Street, and most importantly they will positively transform and empower our families and communities so that we might finally realize Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community.
Note to readers: Before Kim Anderson became CEO of Families First, Inc., she served as executive director of AID Atlanta and senior director for BoardWalk Consulting. Prior to joining the nonprofit arena Ms. Anderson served with the law firm of Alston & Bird where she became the first General Counsel of Grady Health System. She subsequently served as vice president and assistant general counsel for Magellan Health Systems and senior legal counsel for the Atlanta Housing Authority. Ms. Anderson is a graduate of Oberlin College and Columbia University School of Law.