Florida Chamber CEO delivers unexpected message

On Wednesday, Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson delivered a somewhat unexpected message to a room of 75 businesses leaders and government officials.

“I’m positive that when some of you got the invite for today you asked, ‘What’s the chamber doing looking at poverty?’” he said.

Wilson took attendees through a presentation showing how business leaders and their attitudes need to adjust to solve the problems associated with generational poverty.

“Generational poverty means you were born into it,” Wilson said. “It is not your fault. If you’re born into poverty, you don’t know anything else.”

He recognized that this concept may be foreign to some, especially business leaders who thrive on the idea that if one works hard enough, they can ascend the throes of a life in poverty.

It’s not that easy, Wilson explained.

By age 4, kids born into poverty hear 13 million words at home, while children at the same age who were born into college-educated households hear 45 million. There’s no after-school program or amount of extra study time that can make up that gap, he said.

If you’re born into generational poverty, we should make it our priority to make sure you have the exact same access to the opportunity that the people who weren’t born into poverty have today. That needs to be that bridge that gets uncomfortable that we need to figure out.

Mark Wilson, CEO, Florida Chamber of Commerce

Perhaps the concept Wilson presented that is unfriendly and counter intuitive to most is a change in welfare policy and the legislation that drives such policy. For example, when employees get promoted and make more money, they may lose access to food stamps or transportation assistance. This type of system creates what Wilson described as “welfare cliffs.” Working people in poverty are never able to scale the cliffs and reach financial stability as a result.

“So when you hear people like me say we’ve put shackles on an entire generation, this is what we’re talking about,” Wilson said. “Our own policies that say, ‘Well, as soon as you get to $14 an hour, you lose your food stamps. Or as soon as you get to $18 an hour, we’re not going to cover your transportation anymore.’ That makes a lot of people feel really great; like they’ve done something. But what it does is it keeps people in that situation.

“The business community needs to champion a bridge from $29,000 (per year) to $69,000,” Wilson said. “We need to be willing to champion policy that says you work your way up to $14 an hour, you get to keep that benefit. Then you work your way up to $20 an hour and you’ll get to keep that one, too. We’re going to help you work your way out of welfare.”

1 in 6 people in Florida are in poverty

For those not swayed by the moral arguments, Wilson presented the economic benefits of ending generational poverty:

▪  $1 trillion is spent in federal funding on poverty programs.

▪  $12 billion is spent annually to cover the cost of food stamps and other federal hunger relief programs.

Also on Wednesday, the United Way released an updated ALICE report for the Suncoast region, including Citrus, DeSoto, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. ALICE stands for asset-limited, income-constrained and employed. The study looks at the percentage of people in each county who are employed, above poverty thresholds and still struggle to make ends meet. They’re often described as one emergency away from falling into poverty.

The Florida Chamber has worked closely with the United Way on the Chamber’s initiative, which began two years ago, Wilson said, to end the cycle of generational poverty.

Fixing generational poverty isn’t a weeklong or yearlong initiative, Wilson said. To help the third-graders currently in school, leaders and officials need to look at policies and legislation that will structure the workforce those third-graders enter in 15 years. Sometimes, it’s tough for community leaders to think that far out when they’ve got tomorrow’s problems on their docket today, said Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac.

“I was really glad that he said we need to continue to raise awareness because this does affect all of the things we deal with,” Benac said. “Affordable housing and public safety; all of these things are affected. I like the fact that the chamber, who is charged with making a better economy, is talking about a better economy for all.”

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday


Total households

Households below ALICE threshold (%)

Households below poverty (%)

ALICE households (%)











Suggested action steps for business and community leaders to take

  • Create awareness
  • Lead the effort locally
  • Join the Florida Chamber of Commerce at the Prosperity Summit on May 10 in Tampa
  • Focusing on changing policies and legislation

Source: Mark Wilson, CEO, Florida Chamber of Commerce