Fight Against Poverty Needs Corporate Players

In the early 1980s, commentator Alexs Pate worked for a company called City Venture Corporation, which pooled big companies' resources to tackle inner-city poverty. It failed. Now, Pate says, it's time to try again to involve corporate America in the inner city. Pate is the author of the novel Amistad and is an assistant professor in African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Just about everyone from the president to ordinary citizens has observed that there was a failure of government in the response to Hurricane Katrina. But now it's time for private businesses to step in, says commentator Alexs Pate. He has the second in our series of commentaries about poverty and Hurricane Katrina.

ALEXS PATE:

There is no reason for the levels of poverty we experience in this country. If the private sector hadn't abandoned the inner cities years ago, things might be different. Corporate America, as much as any other aspect of American life, must be held accountable for the sorry state of affairs.

There was a time, in the late 1970s, when we could at least count on the lip service of corporate responsibility. Corporations were training inner-city youth, sponsoring all kinds of inner-city activities, adopting schools, building housing developments, working--at least trying to work with neighborhood organizations. In fact, in 1981, I moved from Philadelphia to Minneapolis to work for a company called City Venture Corporation.

City Venture was the brainchild of the late William C. Norris, then CEO of Control Data Corporation. He convinced a number of companies, including Honeywell, the St. Paul Companies and Medtronic, to pool their resources and attack some of the problems of urban blight and poverty. The company tried to address the problem holistically. Norris believed that if you educated people, provided them with decent housing, gave them a job and helped the most ambitious of them own their own businesses that a community and its residents could thrive. He, it turns out, rather naively thought that his company could turn a profit by selling this remedy to local and regional governments.

The entire enterprise was a failure. There were some initial successes, but for the most part, the private sector found itself incapable of negotiating with inner-city residents. When the difficulties of maneuvering through the urban bureaucracy ate away any hint of a profit, City Venture faded out of existence. That was in 1990. There hasn't been a significant, coordinated, multipartner, private-sector initiative to address urban poverty since then.

Now again it is time for America's largest and most profitable corporations to come down from their profit-driven, globalization-addicted high horses and apply some of that famous business-school vision to the eradication of poverty in America. American business needs to take a deep breath and enter once again into the muddy streets and work with the displaced residents to create a new model of life for the people in our urban areas. They must reinvigorate the idea of corporate social responsibility by focusing on the American education system and ensuring that the poorest people can make a decent wage.

More than likely, this season of agony will produce a wave of government policies designed to address urban poverty. Legislation will be passed and budgets created, but this time we ought to demand that the private sector have a stake in it. I'd like to think that this, a commitment to people and their welfare, is on the horizon. Otherwise, we can bet another storm will one day blow in and tear the cover off another community to reveal our indifference and neglect.

NORRIS: Alexs Pate is the author of the novel "Amistad." He's also an assistant professor in African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota. Tomorrow we'll hear from David Shipler, the author of "The Working Poor: Invisible in America."

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