Smiley and West Bring Poverty to the Forefront

Barrington M. Salmon | 9/18/2012, 7:19 p.m.

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.