Tavis and Cornel's Solution to Poverty

They told The Root that Americans must join them in putting President Obama's feet to the fire.

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Tavis Smiley; Cornel West (Getty Images)

Last summer PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley and author Cornel West embarked on an 18-city poverty tour to highlight the hardship of poor people. Despite a record number of Americans -- one in two -- either living below the poverty line or classified as low-income, they felt that poor people had been rendered invisible by both the government and society at large. Now, by convening a panel of experts and advocates, they're taking another step in their mission to elevate poverty on the national agenda.

Smiley will lead "Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity," a nationally televised discussion, on Thursday, Jan. 12, at George Washington University. Participants -- including West, personal-finance expert Suze Orman, filmmaker Michael Moore, poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs and urban-revitalization strategist Majora Carter, among others --will pose their solutions for eradicating poverty. The conversation will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and rebroadcast over three nights beginning Jan. 16 on PBS' Tavis Smiley.

The Root spoke with Smiley and West about their own solutions, the strength of President Obama's anti-poverty efforts (as well as their role in them) and why all the difference comes down to you.

The Root: In the press release for "Remaking America," Mr. Smiley, you say: "Let's not wait on our government. We can be the catalysts for change today." What can everyday Americans do to help stamp out poverty?

Tavis Smiley: Dr. West and I are working on a book about poverty called The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto that comes out mid-April. The central question that we're wrestling with in this text is how we can get serious in this country about not just reducing but indeed eradicating poverty. There are three things that we're clear about.

Number 1, which answers your question, is that poverty has to be made a priority in this country. At the moment it is not a priority, not just for our government but for the American people. Now one out of two Americans are either in poverty or near poverty -- that's half the country -- so we are hopeful that our government and the American people in this election year will get more vocal about demanding that poverty be a priority.

Number 2, there must be a plan to eradicate poverty. We keep coming up with these short-term Band-Aids, like the president's payroll-tax cut. A payroll-tax cut is a decent idea, I guess, but it only works if you're on the payroll in the first place. That's just one example; there are all kinds of presidents who, in years past, have tried to come up with these in-the-moment solutions to poverty. There's got to be a real plan.

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We're calling in this text for a White House conference. The White House has a conference on everything but poverty, so we're calling to bring all these experts together. Marian Wright Edelman has a plan. Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia has a plan. Catholic Charities has a plan.

Thirdly and finally, whoever the next president is needs to get serious about selling the process to the American people for how this will happen. When the numbers are as significant as they are, I am certain that the American people are interested in a plan to get them out of poverty. The more serious that Republicans and Democrats get about that, the better off we're going to be.