Smiley Works to Put, Keep Poverty on Nation's Radar

Barrington M. Salmon | 2/22/2012, 12:24 p.m.

"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."