In March, the Institute’s Summit on Inequality and Opportunity gathered more than 400 policymakers, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and business leaders from around the country for a series of conversations about the latest innovations in the fight against poverty and inequality. The summit underscored the toxic gaps in wealth and opportunity that continue to threaten the wellbeing of all Americans.
“Wealth inequality is enormous,” said Ray Boshara, a senior director and advisor at the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “The top 1 percent of the country owns about a third of the nation’s wealth. The wealth gap has become worse than the income gap.” Yet the most vulnerable populations, who are best positioned to help create solutions, are often left out of the conversation. “We need to empower people,” said Mia Birdsong, a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project who is exploring how a universal guaranteed income might lift people out of poverty. “Agency and choice are fundamental to how people move forward.”
Marcia Chatelain, a professor at Georgetown University, pointed out that the systems and programs designed to help get families out of poverty are broken. “I can’t bash the American Dream because I’m a product of it,” she said. “But I hate that it’s such a heavy lift in this country to have opportunity.”
Launched in 2015, the summit is part of the Institute’s commitment to collaboration between its public programs and several policy programs—Ascend, the Economic Opportunities Program, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, the Community Strategies Group, and the Financial Security Program—which are all leading national efforts to tackle inequality and poverty. The Institute’s new CEO, Dan Porterfield, spoke at the event and is certainly no stranger to the topic: under his leadership, Franklin & Marshall College tripled the percentage of Pell Grant recipients and students from communities of color. “Just give them opportunity,” he urged summit attendees.