Smiley Calls for Coordinated Responses to Poverty

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/9/2013, 11:54 a.m.

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.