Special Guest Post from Michael Preseton, Ed.D, the Executive Director of Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities.
Did you know nearly one in six Floridians live in poverty? This is the conclusion of a report funded by the the Florida Chamber of Commerce. That is 17% of our Floridians. More alarming is over 19% of Florida’s children live in poverty. Many of these children also struggle with other barriers to living a full and productive life. They face inadequate healthcare, falling behind their peers in school, and home insecurity. And this crisis does not stop at childhood. College students are also vulnerable to livelihood insecurity including hunger. A national study by The Urban Institute found that over 11% of college students are unsure of where their next meal is going to come from. This food insecurity can have a deep impact on graduation rates, and college success. Completing a post-secondary degree has always been and still is the best pathway to prosperity and climbing the socioeconomic ladder. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate for those holding a bachelor’s degree was 2.7% versus 9.8% for workers with a high school diploma. Add to it a person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn twice the salary of a person with a high school diploma and we can see why education is such a critical force in keeping families off of the fiscal cliff.
In Florida many universities maintain support systems for at-risk students. For instance, all three Florida Consortium member institutions have food pantries open, offer support for homeless or home insecure students, and provide scholarships and loans specifically designed for students at-risk. But there is still a lot to do. Some of that is learning more about the nature of poverty and it’s impact on Floridians from a wide array of expert opinions.
During the annual Florida Chamber Capitol Days the issue of poverty was front and center on their agenda. Chambers of Commerce usually don’t focus on poverty or other social ills as part of their work. Many are focused on advancing a pro-business agenda that includes tax and legal reforms aimed at the business sector. While those topics were not ignored at this meeting but one of the major themes of the week was ways Florida’s business leaders can create a business climate that is prosperous for all Floridians, especially our poorest citizens. How can a focus on jobs, and a well-designed social safety net allow Floridians who are struggling with food, health, and housing insecurity find the help they need while moving up the socio-economic ladder.
One strategy employed by the Florida Chamber Foundation has been to look at the data and better understand where poverty is most prevalent and where we can make the most progress. That is why they have commissioned their Less Poverty, More Prosperity Fiscal Cliffs Report. This report explores the nature of poverty in Florida and how we can all help to end it. “Once you see the data and understand the issues you cannot ignore it. You have to do something” noted Florida Chamber Foundation Chair. Including a number of diverse voices to the room is another way to generate support. During the meeting Robin Safley, Executive Director of Feeding Florida explored the nature of food insecurity and how it affects our citizens from a data analytics approach. She used a revolutionary tool to map food insecurity using a number of variables. One of the most compelling variable was the correlation between hunger and access to education. Robin Safley mentioned that one of the major issues with hunger is not the amount of food available but the kind of food, distance from a food bank a family lives, and food gaps. Food gaps are those times like summer break, weekends, and evenings when especially children have a disruption in their food supply.
The conversation then turned to the college student population. With representatives from the Florida Consortium, Seminole State College and Tallahassee Community college there were plenty of stories and anecdotes of students living in their cars, trying to find clothes for interviews, and going hungry. Those of us in the room called it the collision of prosperity and poverty. College is a space where the potential of prosperity is only covered by the threat of poverty. And these students need to know they are food secure to perform at their best in the classroom.
It is important to develop solutions and partnerships across a spectrum of expertise to solve this problem. Later this year, the Less Poverty, Through More Prosperity Summit will convene experts from all over the state including higher education professionals to discuss poverty. It all starts with a conversation and on May 2nd and 3rd we intend to lean in and contribute to that conversation.