Four years ago, Tavis Smiley said he watched with amazement as Republican and Democratic candidates crisscrossed the country in search of the presidential nomination and not once did he hear anyone talk about poverty.
Now, in the midst of another election year, Smiley vows that this time will be different.
"Poverty threatens to tear this country apart," he said during opening remarks at a symposium on poverty held at The George Washington University in January. "Unapologetically and with humility, I say we need to confront this problem; we need to gain some traction. I want not to just reduce poverty but I want to be bold and eradicate it."
Taking Up the Battle Against Poverty
Smiley assembled a distinguished panel of guests who he described as "experts and long-distance runners dedicated to eradicating poverty." Seated on stage with him included Princeton University professor and author Cornel West; personal finance expert Suze Orman; Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Michael Moore; Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; community economic specialist Roger Clay; urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter, and Vicki B. Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America.
Smiley and his guests spent almost three hours in front of a packed house of more than 1,500 people at GW's Lisner Auditorium in Northwest. The panel engaged in an energetic and vigorous conversation about the pervasive spread of poverty and how best to reduce and eradicate it, around the theme of "Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity." The consensus was that nothing less than a radical and systemic change of the current political and economic paradigm is needed to bring America back from the abyss.
"We have to change this system which is unjust, unfair and undemocratic," said Moore. " ... Here's a poverty project people of all stripes can get behind: Jobs. We need a Roosevelt-style jobs program now!"
" ... We need a renaissance of compassion," West agreed. "A revolution against the oligarchs must be across the board ... it will take a fundamental system change. How it comes about, nobody knows."
An Economic Wasteland
Smiley referred to a white paper commissioned by him and produced by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The report found that many Americans are poor and at-risk of becoming poor because of the recession, and they continue to struggle during the recovery.
According to the report, titled "At-Risk: America's Poor During and After the Great Recession," 46.2 million people – 15 percent of the U.S. population – live below the poverty line, with poverty highest among Hispanics and African Americans, children, and households headed by women. It has increased most significantly among working-age adults, especially people between the ages of 18 and 34. The recession's impact on the poor would be worse if not for the 2009 stimulus package of which $250 billion targeted and protected low-income Americans.
"With the perennially poor, near poor and new poor that is about 150 million people," said Smiley as he asked each panelist how the situation got so bad.
"It's been an idea for a long time that the poor are some kind of special group, some special demographic, they're over there somewhere," said Ehrenreich. "Now we have to face the fact that we're not talking about someone else. You're talking about almost half of America, the people who are struggling from the senior citizens who can't make it on Social Security, its young people who can't pay their student loans and low-wage workers at Walmart. It's a massive phenomenon."
" ... The theory coming not just from the right but from some Democrats is that there's something wrong with your character, that you've got bad habits, you have a bad lifestyle, we've made the wrong choices but I'd like to present an alternative theory which is that poverty is not a character flaw, poverty is a shortage of money and the biggest reason for that shortage of money is that most working people are not paid enough for their work – and we don't have work."
Ehrenreich suggested unions are an instrument for upward mobility. But recently there have been sustained attacks on labor and collective bargaining.
"People got ahead by sticking together," she said. "(Unions) have been significantly weakened but the lesson is people standing in solidarity can take on that 1 percent."
Half a Nation Left Behind
West, who traveled with Smiley on an 18-city, 11-state Poverty Tour last summer, said the poor are trapped in an odious, man-made system.
"Each person has a dignity that has to be affirmed," he said. "What we saw was a system in place that has been driven by corporate greed from the top with oligarchs ruling and politicians rotating, with money coming from the big banks, big corporations pushing working people to the margins and rendering poor people superfluous ..."
" ... How could it be that the top 400 individuals have wealth the equivalent of their 150 million fellow citizens? There's something sick about that. Then how could it be that poverty hasn't become the biggest moral and spiritual issue of our time? Because our leaders lack courage and independence. They're too tied to big money!"
And while the prison-industrial complex expands, West said with $300 billion allocated to build jails and prisons within the criminal justice system, and then politicians claim that there is not enough money when it comes to "money for schools, money for housing, and money for jobs with a living wage."
"It's a warped system. We're here because Martin Luther King Jr. said America is a sick society, but it doesn't always have to be sick if Americans rise up the way the Occupy Movement has been talking about, and talk about these issues seriously," West said. Clay agreed with West that poverty is color-coded saying that other segments of American society are just now encountering what blacks have lived with for a while.
"Black folks have been hurting for a long, long time now but no one paid attention to it because we look at the unemployment rate for everybody and not for the various populations," said Clay. " ... I think it's just a good example of what happens when looking at a lot of problems hitting minorities. If it doesn't hit the white community, it doesn't happen. But you have white folks who have fallen out of the middle class, or are in danger of it, and now it's a problem."
Devastated Middle Class
One audience member said she sees what Clay and others talked about being played out around her every day.
"Everybody I know is affected. People with Ph.Ds are out of work and regardless of people's level of training, many are out of work," said Nana Malaya Oparabea, a history, culture and art teacher at Tree of Life Public Charter School in Northeast. "My sister is a graphic designer who used to make $60,000 to $70,000 a year. She hasn't seen that in five years. No job she's had matches that salary. She has cleaned people's offices, worked at a law office, distributed books."
"Other highly-skilled people have lost their jobs, too. But people are being creative, tutoring here, teaching there. Everyone is pretty much in the same situation."
What she sought to take from the discussion was concrete ways to effect change, Oparabea said.
"To know that the official unemployment rate for black people hadn't changed in 40 years was mind-blowing," she said. "I'm looking for points about what people can do. Discussions are one thing, actions are another ..."
Moore electrified the crowd with his honesty, his analogies and pointed criticisms of the predatory capitalism that has stalked this country, and the level of frustration Americans feel.
"Some people have called this class envy. (Mitt) Romney used that phrase. This is a war perpetrated by the rich on everybody else," he said. "Their boot has been on our necks ... they conned and scammed poor people."
"They took jobs overseas, took homes ... Tavis kept asking when is the revolution going to start? When they take away people's things: their homes, vacations and the ability to send their children to college. Now there's hell to pay."
Orman was as blunt in her assessment of the economic mess in which Americans find themselves.
"Years ago, I kept saying to everybody, 'People be careful.' You heard me say the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer and that the middle class would no longer exist," she asserted. "People who called into The Suze Orman Show, which started 11 years ago, used to be middle class. I'm here to tell you, they are all now in poverty. The face of poverty has changed; the face of poverty is the person sitting next to you. It is every single color and what keeps us in poverty is that there's a highway into poverty and there's no longer even a sidewalk out."
"To get out of poverty you have to have a source of income, you have to have the ability to generate money so that you are not poor. It is not brain science, but you can't make money if there isn't a job for you to have ... everything is set up that once you are poor, they have you exactly where they want you."
Orman said she doesn't give the Wall Street crowd as much credit as Moore and other people do.
"I don't think they're smart enough to know what they did," she explained. "They go after money and we don't know what to do because we're not educated in money. They told us to sign here and told us we could have the American Dream. We believed them because you want more for yourself and why would they lie to you? But they did everybody."
"There is only one person who can get you out and that's you. You've got to take your own power, giving power to your voice, and stop sitting down not saying anything and just settling for less. If you act like you're less, you'll be less."
Veterinarian Jane Laura Doyle drove from West Virginia to sit in the audience.
"I'm fired up. It was excellent. It was wonderful to see that group of people put their heads together," she said. "The message Smiley gave us is the best present we could get."
With regards to her business, Doyle said she's "just trying to get by."
"West Virginia was already kind of down when we got hit (with the economic downturn). Why can't we have the Civilian Conservation Corps?" she asked.
"There are all kinds of things we can do," interjected Larry Yates, who described himself as "an activist by nature" and who attended the symposium with Doyle. "What Moore said about being out here by ourselves is true. Activists can't do this until regular people come in or they'll be no hope. Nothing replaces people."