Building a Social Enterprise Movement as a Path Out of Poverty – Carla Javits

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Since we started our War on Poverty series in January, the need for innovation to address poverty in the US has become increasingly apparent. This became even clearer to me while attending a conference convened by Dr. Raphael Bostic last week at USC.

Conference participants, including scholars and practitioners from all over the country, echoed many of the themes that we brought to the fore in our multi-part blog series. Despite having varied political perspectives, all coalesced around the urgent need to create jobs and greater opportunity in the face of a reduced economic and social mobility – mobility that is at the heart of the American Dream and our democracy.

Like most of our bloggers and the conference attendees, I do not believe that poverty won the ‘war on poverty.’ But that does not mean that we do not have to do more – while being cognizant of the big picture — larger economic forces of globalization and technological change, which have resulted in lower wages for most and limited job opportunities for many.

The stark facts:  while we can celebrate today that fewer than one in ten elderly people are poor, sadly one in five American children grow up in a poor family.

California has the highest rate of poverty in the country.  And while the poverty rate for African-Americans has fallen from 42% in 1966 to 27% today – it is still twice the overall poverty rate. Additionally, black job applicants are still less than half as likely to be considered for front-line positions today than are white applicants.

Given these realities, what are the tangible steps we can all agree on to reduce poverty?

Notably — what most excited War on Poverty authors and conference participants is social enterprise and its potential impact on economic disparity and poverty.

At the conference, for example, Kabira Stokes, the inspiring CEO and founder of Isidore in Los Angeles, spoke of how she has launched “Electronic Recycling with a Social Mission” to employ people exiting prison.  With growth opportunities on the immediate horizon, Kabira is a compelling new advocate on the scene for this powerful approach. Her passion reveals the hunger for innovation in addressing poverty, and the need for closer ties between social enterprises and the business community.

Patrick McCarthy, the Annie E Casey Foundation’s CEO, then concluded the conference by urging us to ‘stick with it until we can get it scale.’ His examples and perspective pointed to the need to perfect and improve the social enterprise system.

To get to the vision mapped out in our series and at the conference we need a new system to help people move into the workforce and advance as far as possible – we will need to build on social enterprise and continue to innovate.  Further, our updated models for addressing poverty must work for people who have been homeless or incarcerated and the long-term unemployed.  Social enterprises must also offer real engagement with employers and for entrepreneurs to deliver the chance to work to many more people.

The academics at the USC conference noted that the counterpoint to all of the pessimistic statistics was the optimism of people working on the ground and the resilience and spirit of people who are dealing with poverty in their own lives every day.  Our blog series showed that optimism and that commitment to change, and I thank everyone who was willing to share their voice and their passion.

Now, it’s time to get on with this ‘war’ in the context of the urgent need of people who need jobs, and economic conditions that while daunting, offer new possibilities to progress.

This is part of REDF’s War on Poverty blog series.