Originally created 08/25/04

Businesses urge help in poverty battle



ATLANTA - A group of businesses is asking corporate America to help its workers in the South by providing such benefits as health insurance, transportation and child care, instead of asking the government to pick up the tab for the services.

Southern children and families are the most undereducated and impoverished in the nation, said Richard Riley, the chairman of the Southern Business Leadership Council, which wants to make businesses more productive by making employees more stable.

Mr. Riley, who served as education secretary under President Bill Clinton and as South Carolina governor in the 1980s, said it's crucial that businesses become involved, because many problems plaguing the South are related to education, which is a product of the economy.

A report released Tuesday by the Southern Institute on Children & Families showed that Southern states often rank behind the national average in child poverty, basic reading skills, high-school graduation rates, teen pregnancy and uninsured children.

Almost half the children living in poverty and children without health insurance in the United States are in the South, according to the statistics, which are compiled mostly from federal agencies. The South, for the study's purposes, extends from Delaware to Missouri to Texas and encompasses 17 states and Washington, D.C.

The key "work support issue," Mr. Riley said, is child care.

"It costs more to send a 4-year-old to a child-care center in every state of the South for one year than it costs to send a student to a public college for one year," Mr. Riley said, adding that grants, scholarships and financial aid often help offset the cost of attending college.

The reason poverty preys on the South, especially its rural populations, is because of the region's reliance on the service industry, which typically offers lower wages and fewer benefits, said Nicole Ravenell, institute policy and research director.

"It definitely reduces the disposable income available to a family," she said.

Reversing the trend will take some costly steps on businesses' parts, but a company is investing in itself, Mr. Riley said. After all, if employees are healthy, mobile and don't have to worry about their child's well-being while at work, it makes for a more productive work force.

But what works for one community may not work for another, as problems facing work force productivity and child welfare can be unique to certain regions and demographics in the South, institute President Sarah Shuptrine said.

"We really need ground-level info from employers," she said.

Many businesses are already on board, said Stephen Jordan, the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Corporate Citizenship. Michelin, Bank of America and Wachovia are among the corporations represented in the council, and there are numerous instances of businesses chipping in, whether it's Home Depot's building playgrounds, Coca-Cola's funding reading initiatives or a small business donating pianos to Maryland schools.