Last Thursday, I attended the 2nd Annual Poverty Symposium organized by Enrichment Services Program Inc., a Georgia non-profit organization.
It was interesting that I had received an invitation to this free event. It turns out that I received an invitation because of my prior attendance of last year’s Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum. In that event, it attracted many people from both the private and public sectors who had an interest in leadership and the future of business.
I was impressed that someone would create an event and assemble an interesting roster of attendees to discuss the issue local poverty. Local politicians, representatives, public agencies, and non-profit organizations appeared to be the target audience. Whereas I, representing small business in the private sector, seemed to be in the small minority.
Although the Poverty issue is certainly not the most exciting or inspiring subject to learn and think about, I am not oblivious of its impact locally, regionally, nationally, and even globally. Poverty affects everyone even the affluent, wealthy, and the rich.
Unlike presidential candidate John Edwards, who made it a major issue in his campaign, I do not think that government and non-profit organizations can themselves solve this problem. They can provide some funding and services to assist in the effort and deal with the symptoms but fundamentally, businesses and private sector must ultimately get involved to make a huge difference.
Danny Bivins of The Fanning Institute at the University of Georgia in Athens was the opening moderator of a Panel Discussion that included representatives from the Housing Authority of Columbus GA, United Way, Columbus Public Library, and Open Door Community House.
It was interesting because I have interacted with each of these agencies to various degrees through my normal course of business. I listened as to what their opinions were regarding the local poverty issue.
A big part of the Panel discussion was finding and acknowledging the “root causes” of poverty, not simply the symptoms. Issues such as high school education, affordable housing, diversity, home ownership, teen pregnancy, and marriage were all touched upon as “so-called” root causes.
In my mind, I agreed with much of what they said but I also disagreed with a good portion of it. Most of the issues were politically-correct discussions that avoided the central and politically-charged issue: the Culture of Poverty.
In the audience, were a few people that were beneficiaries of government programs and non-profit organization services. So much of the day’s discussion focused on what the government, non-profit organizations, legistlation, and social programs could do help. There was almost NO discussion on what the private sector and businesses could do to help. There was also almost NO discussion of personal responsibility of what people in poverty needed to do to pull themselves out of poverty.
In the Poverty Symposium attendee folder, the Shriver Center included a packet that supposedly graded politicians and their performance in fighting poverty. Not surprisingly, Republicans got failing grades and Democrats got excellent grades. It was based on voting records on what the Shriver Center perceives as important bills to combat poverty. From what I could see, there was little regard to the costs of each social program. I have no doubt each bill have merit but I thought to myself, who pays for every single program that is going to be proposed?
In any case, it quickly appeared to me that the packet by the Shriver Center was clearly Democrat-leaning. For the record, I classify myself as an Independent. I cannot classify myself as a traditional Republican or a traditional Democrat. I disagree enough with both parties to keep myself Independent.
Although Congressmen and Senators were invited, none attended in person. Young representatives of each politician’s office were there to make their presence known.
Deborah Weinstein of the Coalition on Human Needs, concluded the day with her perspective on the national level. Admittedly, she said each community must do their part to deal with the poverty issue. Not everything could be handled on the national level. I agreed with her. But in her presentation, there appeared to be a “hole” in her presentation.
Like her non-profit peers, the focus seems to provide more services and more government programs. Being patient for most of the day, I finally tried to ask a question regarding why there was no discussion about how businesses and the private sector could be involved in a way that didn’t always require donating money. It seems that all businesses and private sector are good for are money donations which somewhat offended my sensibilities.
I also desperately wanted to know why no one wanted to tackle the Culture of Poverty and the Poverty Mindset which is ultimately what keeps many people poor, not necessarily the lack of services or opportunity.
Ultimately, a woman who came from poverty and a beneficiary of non-profit services got more “air-time” than others who had resources and fresh ideas to offer.
After the program ended, I had the opportunity to speak to Junie Christian who was a Host of the Poverty Symposium and Belva Dorsey, Executive Director of Enrichment Services Program. I asked about why there was almost no discussion of the Culture of Poverty issue.
I brought up the well-known saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Quite simply, I wondered why there are not more educational programs that deal with this.
I also shared the well-known tales of lottery winners who come into a lot of money through their winnings but ultimately run their lives into the ground. They do so not because they never had the chance to get money, they do so because they fundamentally are poverty-cultured.
They were surprisingly pleasant and engaged my discussion. I told them I was also concerned about the poverty issue but my “small business” and entrepreneurial perspective vastly differed from the non-profit sector’s approach. Nevertheless, I told them I was willing to keep an open mind to any information they might have since I cannot claim to be an expert on the poverty issue.
All in all, I did not regret my time at the Poverty Symposium. It did give me a different perspective on the poverty issue and it gave me time to reflect on how I might do my part to help. But I did know that I wasn’t going to simply throw money on the problem.
It should be interesting to see what happens now going forward