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Why businesses should focus on eliminating poverty—and health disparities

Amira Barger, Edelman, on corporate DEI
Amira Barger
Amira Barger, MBA, CVA, CFRE is a strategic communications and marketing counselor working at the nexus of health equity, DEI and employee engagement to aid organizations in addressing society’s most pressing public issues. She is an EVP, Head of DEI Advisory at a consulting firm and a Cal State East Bay Professor.

In recent years, businesses have taken on tangible commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. These initiatives encompass a range of actions, including the promotion of employee wellbeing, the prioritization of affinity groups, the integration of anti-racist principles and the pursuit of supplier diversity, among others. However, as someone deeply engaged in the field of DEI, I firmly assert that businesses must expand their focus to address the pervasive systemic inequities afflicting our society today, notably issues like poverty and health inequities.

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The poverty crisis has long been dismissed as a result of personal choice, a social issue relegated to the purview of nonprofits in the hopes that philanthropic gifts and volunteerism will be enough to cure society’s ills. However, trends suggest that citizens are losing faith in nonprofits. Since 2020, less than 50% of audiences believe in a nonprofit’s ability to address poverty, solve community-level problems, set and achieve goals, or accurately report to the public. In fact, according to data from the Edelman Trust Barometer, businesses are the most trusted and sole institutions seen as competent and ethical.

Beyond that, research shows addressing poverty is in a business’ best interest. Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, studies the impacts of poverty on mental bandwidth and productivity. In 2018, he told NPR, “Put simply, being poor is like having just pulled an all-nighter.” The strain of poverty costs employees mental and physical health, and those costs are passed to businesses.

As a DEI practitioner, I see growing awareness of the poverty crisis has prompted businesses to inquire about concrete steps to tackle systemic inequities. In this article, I elucidate how businesses, led by their HR teams, can champion the cause of eradicating poverty and highlight leading approaches.

Advocate for policy changes

Recognizing that “poverty is a policy choice,” one of the most effective ways to combat poverty is to advocate for significant social safety net program investments. This includes crucial initiatives such as housing assistance, Medicaid, childcare, Head Start, WIC, temporary assistance for needy families and SNAP.

Stay informed about policy discussions by assigning individuals to monitor developments

Set update alerts for reputable government agencies and industry associations focused on poverty alleviation. This ensures a proactive stance, enabling businesses to contribute meaningfully to advocacy efforts and stay ahead of critical policy shifts. For instance, Bank of America addresses poverty through initiatives like the Community Affordable Loan Solution™, a mortgage program for first-time homebuyers in specific communities. The bank also supports minority and women business owners with a Small Business Down Payment Program. These actions are influenced by Bank of America’s participation in the Public Affairs Institute and longstanding membership in the Public Affairs Council, enabling a comprehensive approach shaped by expert insights.

Engage with advocacy groups focused on poverty alleviation to amplify your impact and determine the most pertinent issues

An example is the partnership between CVS Health and the American Cancer Society (ACS). CVS Health boldly banned tobacco sales in 2014, and in 2017, campaigned with ACS to promote smoking cessation on college campuses. This initiative is particularly vital for poverty alleviation, given that nearly three in four smokers reside in lower-income communities, where a disproportionately higher number of Black and Latinx individuals live. Smoking, the leading preventable cause of chronic diseases, contributes to the staggering $4.1 trillion in annual healthcare costs for Americans.

See also: 2 strategies to help take inclusion in the workforce deeper

Utilize social media platforms to garner support for policy changes

Walmart effectively harnessed the power of social media to raise awareness for the issue of hunger through its campaign, “Fight Hunger. Spark Change.” Collaborating with Feeding America, Walmart leveraged digital platforms, encouraging users to participate by using the hashtag #FightHunger on all social channels. For every action taken, Walmart pledged a donation of $0.90, ultimately raising $1,656,061, providing nearly 19 million meals through Feeding America and supporting policy solutions to end hunger in America by 2030.

Businesses lead, don’t lag

As trusted entities in society, businesses have a pivotal role in addressing the root causes of poverty. Actions such as addressing pay equity, bridging childcare gaps, implementing expanded paid family leave and supporting a livable minimum wage are proactive measures that contribute to economic stability.

Assess internal practices and conduct internal reviews to identify areas for improvement in equity, family support and fair wages

Recognizing the significant impact of childcare challenges on working mothers, Synchrony is finding innovative solutions to combat poverty and support women’s workforce participation. By utilizing employee surveys, Synchrony was able to address specific needs, investing in benefits like remote work options, sabbaticals, summer camps, childcare reimbursement and addressing pay disparities, resulting in 95% of female caregivers finding the new working model to be flexible.

Foster collaboration with industry peers by encouraging them to join the cause and share best practices

In response to research on the declining workforce participation of women, Moms First launched the National Business Coalition for Child Care in 2022. The Coalition is crucial in addressing working mothers’ issues, including childcare shortages and widening pay gaps. Through roundtables and research initiatives, the coalition seeks to support businesses in prioritizing the challenges of providing childcare benefits. It contributes valuable insights into the economic impact of childcare on families, businesses and poverty reduction.

Communicate transparently to foster trust and accountability

3M demonstrated such a commitment by launching the “Be Well” video series. In response to financial insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the series featured tips and education from experts and employee success stories. The videos were integrated into the company’s wellness strategy plan, reaching over 5,000 views since its 2022 launch. Putting words into action, 3M also expanded its benefits focus to encompass four pillars of wellbeing: physical, mental, financial and social.

Craft your narrative

Through thought leadership and storytelling, businesses have a unique opportunity to shape conversations around poverty as an intersectional issue. By using data to change the narrative, businesses can drive empathy and humanize the impact of poverty. Elevating diverse voices and showcasing real-life stories can shift perspectives and ignite meaningful conversations.

Develop thoughtful, data-informed content challenging prevailing notions about poverty

In response to a 20% global increase in domestic violence during lockdown, Unilever addressed the often-overlooked link between poverty and domestic violence, launching the “Unmute: End the silence against domestic violence” campaign. The initiative engaged 150,000 employees through events with #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, including toolkits, staff training and a global policy release. The campaign resulted in 6,000 staff engaging, and 200 accessing services within five weeks, contributing to internal and external conversations on a critical issue.

Engage stakeholders, including employees and customers, to ensure your narrative resonates broadly and inspires action in others

Unilever’s “Right to Shower” campaign actively addressed poverty and homelessness by donating 100% of profits from bar soaps and body washes in 2019. This initiative aimed to make cleanliness a fundamental human right, supporting mobile hygiene units in collaboration with organizations like Lava Mae. This engagement strategy provided essential products and conveyed hope, dignity, strength and joy to those in need, fostering a meaningful connection with stakeholders.

Amid the uncertainties of our time, the path to eradicating poverty requires resolute action. The urgency of societal issues has escalated, with a growing demand for scalable solutions. Determined, collective effort leads to improved employee wellbeing and heightened awareness of the pervasive impact of inequities. Highlighted actions demonstrate how business efforts can reduce disparities, contributing to the dismantling of systemic barriers and fostering an environment where everyone can thrive—untainted by the specter of poverty.