Reducing urban poverty: What can business really do?

October 10, 2000

Mark Miester

A recent New York Times article dramatically underscored the issue of poverty in America. Between 1986 and 1997, the Times reported, the earnings of the top 1 percent increased 86 percent; the income of the bottom 99 percent increased 1.6 percent.

"In one generation, the gap between rich and poor has more than doubled," says Arthur P. Brief, Francis Martin Chair of Business and director of the William B. and Evelyn Burkenroad Institute for the Study of Ethics and Leadership in Management.

The role of business in narrowing the chasm between the haves and the have-nots takes center stage at this year's Burkenroad Symposium on Business and Society, "Reducing Urban Poverty: What Can Business Really Do?" Joining moderator Brief are two of the nation's most respected figures in the debate on inner-city poverty and urban economic development, Michael Porter and William Julius Wilson, who will discuss theories on generating inner-city wealth and the respective roles of business and government in that effort.

Porter, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is the author of 16 books, including Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, and one of the nation's leading corporate strategists.

In 1994, he founded the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City to apply his corporate strategy theories to stimulate inner-city business development and job creation. A cornerstone of Porter's approach is concentrating businesses within an industry in specific economically distressed neighborhoods.

"If New Orleans attempted to cluster food processing industries, which some people have been talking about doing, you could equip your labor force with relatively similar skills that would be applicable across firms," Brief explains. "You could take advantage of this large dormant labor pool much more easily if you had clustered firms."

According to Brief, Massachusetts recently passed legislation to promote clustering in its inner cities, and Connecticut is about to do the same. Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of the acclaimed books The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) and When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996).

In the latter, Wilson argues that it is a lack of jobs that generates and perpetuates social dysfunction, rather than social dysfunction that leads to a lack of jobs. For the first time, a program following the symposium will engage students in the debate. Wilson will join 185 students from universities and public schools in New Orleans in a roundtable discussion of the ideas presented in the symposium.

The students include representatives from Tulane's Urban Village, and from Dillard, Loyola and Xavier, as well as public school students selected by Col. Alphonse Davis, chief executive officer of New Orleans Public Schools. The Burkenroad Symposium will take place on Friday, Oct. 20, in Dixon Hall and is free and open to the public. For more information on the event, call 865-5666.

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