Flash-back January 7, 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson made his first State of the Union address to a nation in mourning. President Johnson rallied Congress and the American people to tackle an enormously ambitious agenda. The challenge of the day was to do more to end poverty, unemployment and discrimination while doing more to promote civil rights, education and health-care. The country would address the needs of the elderly, build homes, schools and libraries enact more far-reaching tax cuts. He asked that they do more than “any single Congress in the history of the Republic.” And they did.
Now, like then, poverty and unemployment are unacceptably high. Now, like then, poverty is exacting a toll on society and individuals who are unable to realize their full potential. Now, like then, President Obama addressed the nation in his State of the Union address with determination to support the American promise of opportunity for all. Unlike President Johnson, President Obama did not hold high expectations for Congress to do more.
Americans once believed public policy solutions could eradicate poverty. Some may still hang on to such ideals. Today’s politics have yielded to Lyndon Johnson’s fears, notably when he said:
“If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels… then history will rightfully judge us harshly.”
As the country’s needs seem to outstrip Washington’s capacity to respond, we cannot wait for history to be our judge. President Obama is right to look beyond Washington for solutions. The President called upon business to do more, citing bright-spots among America’s six million firms. Fortunately, many businesses are already ahead of the curve. They are creating profits and opportunity as integral and inextricable elements of a well-run operation.
Take Baltimore-based Marlin Steel Wire Products, for example. CEO Drew Greenblatt transformed Marlin from near failure to eight years of solid growth by investing in advanced technology, developing new products for customers, and focusing on enhanced worker skills and compensation. Marlin has a pay-for-performance approach for its production teams. If teams meet their weekly goals, members can receive up to $300 more as a production bonus.
The job outlook for manufacturing is promising. From early 2011 through mid-2013, the U.S. added 800,000 net durable goods manufacturing jobs. We need many more companies to mirror the Marlin model.
But manufacturing isn’t the whole picture. In the health sector, High Plains Community Health Center in rural Lamar Colorado improved health outcomes, particularly for patients with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, by using a team-based approach and an enhanced role for their medical assistants.
All across America, be it in manufacturing, healthcare, retail and beyond, one can find businesses that maximize profit and productivity by creating good jobs. The Hitachi Foundation knows this because we spent these last several years on a mission to find new entrepreneurs and mature businesses doing just that. While we uncovered a vast and diverse array of businesses, they each have common features. First, they develop products and services customized to better meet market demand at competitive prices. Second, they design core systems that enable them to succeed. Finally – and here’s the key – they view their employees, many with little more than a high-school diploma, as valued assets in meeting their goals. They invest in training, provide decent compensation well above minimum wage, and offer pathways of advancement. They not only believe, but they act on, the principal that employees are their key strategic business advantage.
Yes, Mr. President, many businesses are doing more. The challenge is for more business leaders to adopt similar strategies because ultimately a good jobs strategy is good business.
– Barbara Dyer is President & CEO of The Hitachi Foundation. Ms. Dyer has shaped the Foundation’s focus on the role of business in society with an emphasis at the intersection of people and profit. The Hitachi Foundation seeks to discover, demonstrate and expand business practices that both measurably improve economic opportunities for low-wealth individuals in the United States and enhance long-term business value.
This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.