When I chatted with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West earlier this week about their approaches to combating poverty, in advance of a panel that Smiley hosted on the subject, they kept their specific solutions close to the vest. The panelists on Thursday evening's "Reawakening America: From Poverty to Prosperity" discussion were a bit more forthcoming.
Before a packed audience at George Washington University, the panelists — including Cornel West; personal-finance expert Suze Orman; filmmaker Michael Moore; author Barbara Ehrenreich; urban-revitalization strategist Majora Carter; Roger A. Clay, president of Insight Center for Community Economic Development; and Vicki B. Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America — offered up their remedies.
Participants (and the enthusiastic audience) largely agreed on what they see as poverty's leading contributors — a capitalist system that works only with a permanent poor class, greed and deceit on Wall Street and in the banking industry, and government officials who are beholden to the finance industry. President Obama was a primary target of tough love from the panel, with Smiley admonishing African Americans for not challenging him to make poverty a priority.
"The group that's getting hurt the most and hit the hardest are African Americans. And yet to my mind, black people, lovingly and respectfully, are the most silent about the hell that they are catching," Smiley said, going on to say that deference for the president is partially responsible for the poverty problem.
Aside from recommendations for citizens to rise up to pressure the president, and to abolish capitalism, the panel didn't yield much in the way of a clear blueprint or developed plan. Over its 2 1/2 hours, however, a few other ideas were put forth. Here's a sample:
Roger A. Clay, on Spreading Wealth
I'll use Alaska as an example because they have an oil trust. They get money, and it gets distributed to everybody who's lived there for a year. When Sarah Palin was the governor, it was more than $3,000 per person. The idea there is that they all owned the oil, so they all get it. There are lots of things like that in this country [that we all own].
Suze Orman, on Changing How FICO Scores Are Made
If you pay in cash or pay on a debit card, it does not report to a credit bureau, and therefore you do not have a FICO score. You are a nonentity; you do not exist in the financial system at all … If you run up your credit cards and you pay the minimum payment due every month, then you really count to this system because you are paying their ways with 18, 19, 25 and 30 percent interest and late fees. I am trying to change things so that a debit card creates a FICO score, so that we can get rid of credit cards altogether.
(Disclaimer: Rather awkwardly, Smiley later mentioned that Suze Orman herself has just released a prepaid debit card.)
Majora Carter, on Transforming Local Communities
There are ways that we can create economic opportunities to move people up and out of poverty, using the tools that we already have. Real estate development: how do we use it to create true communities that meet the needs of everyone that's in it? … We can be growing food in our cities using technology in a way that redefines what our regional food system looks like. We can do these things, right here and right now.
The "Remaking America" panel will air over three nights beginning Monday, Jan. 16, on PBS' Tavis Smiley.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.