Eliminating barriers to economic opportunity

A conversation with Wes Moore, CEO, Robin Hood

“Twenty-two percent of those who have lost their jobs since COVID-19 were in poverty before—this was the working poor. These were people who had jobs—in many cases multiple jobs—and were still living below the poverty line. COVID-19 didn’t just introduce something new. It exposed something broken.”

Wes Moore is the CEO of Robin Hood, a nonprofit with a mission to lift people out of poverty. The organization partners with more than 250 other organizations to support workforce development, education, housing, and food programs. It started its work in New York but has now spread around the country.

Eliminating Barriers to Economic Opportunity, a SxSW EDU Interview

In May, I sat down with Moore for a live one-on-one interview as part of the SxSW EDU virtual conference. In Eliminating Barriers to Economic Opportunity, we talked frankly about poverty and economic inequity in America and what needs to be done to help the millions of Americans out of work and living in or on the edge of poverty.

“One of the most heartbreaking things about poverty is our level of toleration of it. The fact (is) that we don’t have to exist—our society does not have to exist—with the kind of poverty levels we have. We have chosen to. We have made a fundamental choice as a society of how much poverty are we willing to tolerate, how much pain we are willing to tolerate in our neighbors as long as it doesn’t too significantly impact ourselves,” he says in the interview.

“One of the most heartbreaking things about poverty is our level of toleration of it.” – Wes Moore, Robin Hood CEO

We talked about the importance of helping people living in poverty find a pathway to a good job and discuss some specific programs that Robin Hood is funding to make this possible. One of them is NEW, Nontraditional Employment for Women, which prepares women for entry level jobs in the construction and building trades.

“It’s really looking at how can we introduce women into jobs that traditionally have not had pipelines for women, jobs where we know that you have not just a large employment basis, but stable employment basis. (They look at) how we make sure that women who historically have been excluded from those spaces now have pathways,” he explains.

Moore and I also discussed the psychological and spiritual impact of poverty and unemployment on a person and society, and what it means to find a job.

“It’s about the dignity. It’s about the value. It’s about the psychological change that gives to people when they can wake up in the morning and get dressed and know they’re going to go out and what they’re doing is going to be added value not just to their family, but to our larger society. There is a psychological value and a psychological dignity of work that we have to embrace and we have to be able to bring out in everything and in everybody in the way they address their work.”

Poverty and Economic Injustice

This interview took place just days before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting worldwide protests. We closed out our SxSW EDU conversation, at the time, with a discussion of Moore’s new book. Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City.

The book chronicles the civil uprising in Baltimore after the death of Freddy Gray from a broken neck sustained in the back of a moving police van. In our interview, Moore says that the unrest in Baltimore went beyond police brutality, it was about underlying economic disparities.

“We have to be able to be honest about poverty and economic injustice in our society. We have to be honest about the role that race has played in that throughout the history of our society. We have to be honest about the fact that we do not have equal pathways to opportunity within our society and if we’re willing to do that, then we are then willing to be able to see measures of sustainable change,” says Moore.

“We have to be honest about the fact that we do not have equal pathways to opportunity within our society.” – Wes Moore, Robin Hood CEO

Since the George Floyd killing, Moore has repeated that sentiment, saying that we need economic justice and health justice, adding that “If we permit these tragedies to recede from our memory, we will risk the opportunity to change the systems that are ultimately responsible for all of these injustices.”

You can listen to the entire interview with Wes Moore, conducted for the SxSW EDU 2020 virtual conference, here, or find Work in Progress wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 143: Wes Moore, CEO, Robin Hood
Host: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch, Melissa Panzer, and Ramona Schindelheim
Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0.

You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts