STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

What's one group that can have a huge influence on poverty policy? Business leaders.

In 2013, a group of business leaders in Oregon decided to take on an issue that many other business leaders often shy away from: poverty. Not only did they talk about it, they set a strategy, with specific goals in mind.

But the Oregon Business Council didn't take on poverty reduction as an exercise to show what wonderful, caring people they are. The council acted because poverty represents a long-term threat to a healthy business community. 

The Council's 2015 Policy Playbook laid out the case: 

Declining revenues from personal incomes – combined with growing poverty rates – were reducing state resources and increasing funding demands for Medicaid, human services, and corrections. This, in turn, starved funding for education, especially postsecondary education. Declining investments in education reduced opportunities for Oregonians to prepare for well-paying work, which fostered lower incomes and more poverty. This amounted to a self-reinforcing downward cycle – a circle of scarcity.

The Council, through its Oregon Business Plan, has set a goal of reducing the state's poverty rate to less than 10% by 2020. It's an aggressive goal, but if there's any group that can pull it off, business executives may be it. 

If there's a Michigan version of the Oregon Business Council, it's probably Business Leaders for Michigan. While Business Leaders for Michigan has not embraced the kind of anti-poverty agenda of its Oregon counterpart, it was heavily involved in the push to expand preschool options in our state. That's not nothing. Research has shown that preschool can have a huge effect on a child's chances of escaping poverty. 

And, by the way, it's good for business as well. 

As my colleague Jennifer Guerra wrote for a story in 2013

Employers like [PNC Bank's Sean] Welsh see these little three- and four-year-old preschoolers as adorable pint-sized kids, sure, but also as Michigan's future. That's why Welsh and other CEOs and Chambers of Commerce from across the state have slowly but steadily become some of the strongest advocates for early childhood education. Nearly 200 Michigan employers are behind a lobbying effort to get the state to pony up more money for the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s state funded pre-K.

The involvement of these business leaders had a huge impact on the increased funding for preschool in Michigan. For one thing, business support helped give political cover for Republican politicians who otherwise might have been inclined to see preschool funding as a just another example of government overreach (some saw it that way anyway). With business leaders behind it, preschool became a Republican issue. 

There are, of course, many issues affecting poverty that business leaders do not support. Increasing the minimum wage is one of them. Even the Oregon Business Council has yet to call for higher minimum wages. 

But on issues where business leaders do want to get involved, they can have a big impact. 

The Oregon Business Council has a list of seven goals for its Poverty Reduction Agenda in 2015. Other business leaders interested in building a future workforce might want to take a look. 

You can also tune in to an audio conference on April 8, sponsored by the Center for Law and Social Policy. 

(And, a hat tip to the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity Facebook page for spreading the word about the Oregon Business Council.)

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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