Donna Turnage Spencer is one face of poverty.
The 48-year-old mother of one tentatively approached the microphone at the conclusion of The Poverty Tour 2.0 stop at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and captivated the crowd with her story.
"I am a single mother, unassisted. I have no support from the system. I want to work. What am I to do?" she asked plaintively. "I feel like I'm being punished by the system. To have no support from the system. I grew up in Alexandria, I went to public school here. I have excellent credit but I can't get a home because I don't make $30,000 ... my daughter deserves better. Every child does."
Turnage Spencer said that she's estranged from her husband and escaped an abusive marriage. She said she lived a very comfortable lifestyle and is facing these financial difficulties because she chose not to stay.
Radio personality Tavis Smiley, Princeton Professor Cornel West, Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader, as well as most of the people left in the auditorium turned their full attention to the petite woman who sobbed softly as she talked.
"Doc and I appreciate your courage," said Smiley. "We see this time-and-time again. This is caused by corporate greed and political indifference. These stories are heartbreaking. Women and children are falling faster into poverty. I read the Alexandria Times on poverty in this city. This is why this matters. I wish we had jobs to pass out."
Alexandria, one of the richest counties in Virginia, was one of several stops Smiley and West made on an abbreviated tour to swing states that could prove decisive for both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. This is the second time that the pair has embarked on a tour of American cities and states in an effort to re-inject the issue of persistent poverty that has 46.2 million Americans in its grip into the national dialogue.
The pair brought together activists, subject-matter experts and politicians who painted a dour picture of the economic malaise. The latest poverty numbers represent the highest such figure in the past 50 years. When the near-poor and new poor are added, the number of Americans living at or near poverty approaches 150 million. Blacks, Hispanics, children and seniors have been hit particularly hard.
A recession that began in 2007 has bludgeoned the poor and the middle class. Life for these Americans is characterized by chronic unemployment affecting about 12 million people; a housing collapse; foreclosures; lack of access to health care; and a host of other social and economic ills.
In the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, the disparities between America's rich and poor has created a chasm that continues to widen. It's estimated that the top one percent of this nation controls 40 percent of America's wealth, income and resources. At the same time, corporations, insurance companies and banks – spurred by loose financial regulations, corporate neglect, malfeasance and greed – brought America's economic system to near-collapse.
West and Smiley's guests included Sharon S. Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; Alexandria Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman; Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich [D-Ohio]; Dolores Huerta, a founder of the United Farm Workers Union; and Georgetown law professor and anti-poverty activist Peter Edelman.
Several of the guests cautioned the audience that the issue of poverty isn't going away in the U.S. particularly if Congress and presidents prioritize funding wars as opposed to education, health care and other social needs. The problem is exacerbated by politicians beholden to their corporate masters, powerful corporations with pots of money to produce the legislation and results they want, a sustained attack on labor unions and global competition which has led to jobs fleeing overseas and a push by businesses and corporations to keep wages and salaries low.
Nader castigated the priorities chosen by those elected to run this country.
"The way to turn this country around is to change the priorities of public policies," he said. "... Speaker John Boehner is a corporation masquerading as a human being."
"Fifty million people have trouble getting enough food to make it through the day," he said. "One of three people make $10 or less an hour. More than 58,000 people die every year from workplace accidents because of lack of safety and other hazards. Yet trillions will be spent by the so-called military-industrial complex. No weapons system is enough. We have enough to blow up the world 300 times over and cause the rubble to vibrate."
"We spend $675 million to guard the giant U.S. embassy in Iraq but only spend $550 million on OSHA [The Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. Workplaces are replete with disease and trauma."
Smiley said three groups make up the poor in this country: the perennially poor, the near-poor, who're just a paycheck or two away and the new poor.
"Conditions are getting worse," said Smiley. "We'll see very simply that poverty is the new American norm. The new poor are the former middle class. One out of two people are in or near poverty – a paycheck or two from it. Half of the country is near or in poverty. You cannot sustain a democracy with poverty run amok. I don't know why President Obama doesn't say that."
Turnage Spencer expanded on her plight later.
"I could go on and on," she said. "I'm a simple person, not extravagant. This is my hair and my clothes are hand-me-downs. It's real hurtful to be judged by my appearance. "
Turnage Spencer said she doesn't qualify for a number of forms of assistance but received $300 in TANF assistance for about three months, ending in January and her food assistance was also terminated. She has continued to apply for jobs and said that she has a job search log that details her fruitless hunt for work since September 2011. Turnage Spencer said she lives in a tiny apartment in Alexandria and subsists on $185 a week from unemployment and quickly dwindling savings. She said she's fortunate because while she doesn't have medical coverage, Medicaid covers her daughter.
"I'm looking for anything; I'm not looking for handouts," said Turnage Spencer, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology from James Madison University and who also has completed master's degree coursework at the University of Virginia. She said she returned to live in Alexandria last year and has not been able to find any traction since.
As Turnage Spencer spoke to reporters, several people came up to hug her, offer encouragement, commiserate with her and tell her that they would try to help her find a job.
"I'm in the exact boat you are," said Cindy De Niro, holding Turnage Spencer's hand in both of hers. De Niro said that she volunteers at three shelters in Alexandria.
"Your story is so similar to so many women out there. We're losing two of our four shelter systems [in Alexandria]. There are people on the street because the shelters are too full."
Oxon Hill, Md., resident Erika Walcott said Turnage Spencer's story is hers too.
"It resonated with me 100 percent," said Walcott, 49, who has had turns as an entrepreneur, technician and broadcaster. "It's crazy. I've been looking for work for the last three years. I don't even know what criteria they're using to decide who they hire and who they don't," said the mother of four.
"I'm really upset with [President Barack] Obama – what the hell is going on? Are you so insulated that you can't see that people are suffering? People are truly suffering. Hell, I'd vote for Michelle."
Smiley has proposed a roadmap to abolish poverty. The tour is a way to force politicians to act. He wants debate moderators to raise the issue; to push Obama and Romney to delineate their plans; and demand that the next president, after inauguration, makes his first official act a call for a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. Smiley said experts can create a national plan to cut poverty in half in 10 years and eradicate it in 25 years.