Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered welcoming remarks during the Opportunity in America conversation series hosted by the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program on October 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.
For 70 years, the Aspen Institute has worked to create a free, just, and equitable society—work that thrives today because of the eminent leadership of people like Maureen Conway, who directs our Economic Opportunities Program. She’s one of those the Irish poet William Butler Yeats referred to as “that passionate serving kind.”
In an era of global tech-driven rapidly escalating economic change, it’s clear that far too many families and individuals in the United States struggle to make ends meet. One in four working adults earns a wage that isn’t enough to keep a family out of poverty. Many are working multiple jobs and still lack the ability to save for retirement or even to cover emergencies such as illness or a car repair. And then there’s the enormous problem of access for workers to quality, affordable childcare, which is a precondition to people being able to give their best to and at work. I read a statistic recently that said that more than half of the country lacks even $400 available to pay for an emergency.
And this isn’t just a problem; it’s a growing trend. Many of the fastest growing jobs in our economy don’t pay a wage sufficient to support a small family and provide adequate benefits. And while new businesses are a critical source of job growth, we are seeing rates of entrepreneurship declining.
But we can choose another path.
As Maureen said, Franklin & Marshall College has tripled its percentage of students who receive federal Pell Grants—and in doing so we became a stronger college for all students because we grew the talent in the student body.
One of those students was Donnell Bailey, a first-generation college student who survived Hurricane Katrina with his family and became the student body president at F&M. He came to college thinking of himself as being from a “poverty-stricken” community. And then he started taking courses in economics, history, and sociology and he realized—and, for me, this was a new formulation—that, in fact, he came from a “poverty-structured” community, which means, of course, that such communities can be de-structured or re-structured to expand opportunity and ensure both equity and the renewal of the American dream. I am struck, also, by the power of this understanding coming from the perspective of a first-generation college-goer because it reminds me again and again that, when we invest in opportunity, we grow the wisdom, and the capacity, and the self-understanding of our whole society.
That’s why the Aspen Institute announced this week a major initiative to bring together a great many of our resources to work at the levels of policy, leadership development, research, network-building, and convenings toward the goal of building inclusive economies. We just received an investment of $26 million from Mastercard’s philanthropic operations to coalesce our diverse efforts and make economic inclusion a defining theme across the Institute.
The Economic Opportunities Program has been leading this work across the Institute for more than 25 years. With the direction of the eminent Maureen Conway, the EOP works relentlessly for solutions like helping people to access quality jobs, to build businesses, and to connect to economic opportunity more broadly.
Today’s event is going to delve more deeply into these issues to better understand what economic opportunity means and how that varies across communities. We’ll look at how race, gender, and place affect access to opportunity and how we can address these inequities. We’ll be talking about how we can leverage the decisions business leaders make to improve opportunity, and why it is crucial for these leaders to understand these issues as they think about the future of work.
We know we have a great deal in front of us:
We need to unlock the power of the private sector.
We need to make policy changes so that all jobs can be a steady springboard to economic security and dignity.
We need to build opportunity ecosystems in all communities so that younger people can see the connections between school, work, and civic leadership, and personal fulfillment.
We need to build more networks of effective, optimistic, and idealistic people committed to, in the words of Dr. King, to “putting our bodies and souls in motion for change.”
And we need to remember that inclusive economic growth is crucial—it brings hope and innovation and civic participation. But when growth is exclusive, everything that’s bad will get worse. You can’t sustain exclusive growth, but growth that’s inclusive will create forms of flourishing we can’t even imagine today.
Thank you for being here today to work together toward solutions on a topic of the greatest urgency. I’m excited to kick off the discussion and hear what this impressive set of panelists have to offer today.