With the Nov. 6 election behind the United States, radio personality and poverty activist Tavis Smiley and his colleague Princeton University Professor Cornel West have redoubled their efforts to keep the issue of poverty on the nation's radar and make it a national priority.
Days before President Barack Obama's second inauguration, Smiley and West will host a discussion entitled, "Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty" at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium in Northwest. The symposium will be held live and begins at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 17.
"This gives us another opportunity over the next four years to push this higher on the agenda," said Smiley during an interview last Friday. "I'm glad Mitt Romney didn't win because the president better understands the plight of the poor. We have four years in front of us to push."
The goal, Smiley said, is to put pressure on Obama to convene a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.
"We need to draft a plan to cut poverty in half in 10 years and eliminate it in 25," Smiley explained. "It can be done. We keep finding ourselves pushed off fiscal cliffs and bumping up against ceilings. But no one has a plan. Between the fiscal cliff fiasco and the debt ceiling coming, poverty is caught in between. Poor people are always stuck in the middle. It's the typical place for us to be."
Even if politicians and other elected officials aren't talking about it, poverty has a firm grip on America. According to the U.S. Census, almost 50 million men, women and children are mired in poverty. When the near-poor and new poor are added, the number of Americans who live in poverty approaches 150 million with blacks, Latinos, children and seniors being hit particularly hard.
Poverty increased among all ethnic groups, except Asians, and the poverty rate for Blacks stands at 27.4 percent and for Hispanics it's 26.6 percent. The national poverty rate currently stands at 7.7 percent.
Meanwhile, the middle class has been decimated by the 2008 economic meltdown and a lingering recession. In their wake, Americans have been left to fend for themselves as they have fought off the quagmire caused by the greed and recklessness of corporations, banks and insurance companies who gambled with taxpayers' money and lost.
"We are facing a critical time in our history that we cannot sidestep," said Smiley in an earlier interview. "The time is now to get serious about eradicating poverty before poverty eradicates us. How is it possible to sleep at night when poverty in America is forcing our children to surrender their life chances before they know their life choices?"
Smiley isn't alone in his concern about the deleterious effects of poverty on the American landscape. Last September, a group of spiritual leaders representing tens of millions of congregants, called on national and local political leaders to stop ignoring the intractable poverty that faces tens of millions of Americans and realign public policy to tackle the burgeoning problem.
The leaders had been meeting and advocated for a "Circle of Protection" around funding programs that are vital to the continued well-being of the poor and the hungry in the United States and the world.
Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, Calif., and chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, characterized elected officials' inaction as a scandal and a moral outrage.
The prelates said they see poverty as they feed and clothe those in need and provide housing and other services so that poor individuals and families can sustain themselves.
"We need robust debate for the poor. This is no surprise. Few of our leaders even mention the poor, much less offer strong strategy. Panelists in the debates should ask, voters should ask at every campaign stop. We need integrity, justice and honesty, and provide those in need with programs and funding," said Galen Carey, vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Smiley said he expects very robust debate at next week's forum. Among the participants will be former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, author John Graham, and author, economist and poverty expert Jeffery Sachs.
"It's time for a spirited debate. I want to see if we can come up with some ideas," he said. "I'm anxious to hear what Gingrich has to say. It will be a pleasure to have him there. We need a civil and sensible conversation on what we can agree on."
Those seeking forum information can go to the website, 2013.www.afuturewithoutpoverty.com.