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.
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.
TR: Last fall the White House released a report that outlines actions the Obama administration has taken to assist poor people, including, among others, targeted job training and a homelessness-prevention and rehousing program. Are these effective at combating the challenges of the poor, or do you think they're more Band-Aid solutions?
TS: We did see that report — the one that they denied we had anything to do with them producing. That report came out after our poverty tour last summer, and the White House was explicitly asked in a press conference, "Does this report have anything to do with the poverty tour that Smiley and West have taken, that's been all over the media?" They, of course, denied that, but the White House put out a report about what they were doing on poverty once the pressure was brought to bear on them about what needed to be done. The report is nice, but it was reactive and not proactive.
Cornel West: The efforts that they made were wonderful; they're just radically insufficient. They are efforts within a neoliberal framework that puts the oligarchs at the center and the interests of the oligarchs at the top. And poor people become an afterthought.
You take, for example, tax policy as a means of distribution of resources to poor people through earned tax credit or payroll-tax cuts. The problem is with the neoliberal framework that will not allow for poor and working people's interests to be at the center. That's very much what our manifesto is all about.
TR: On the campaign trail recently, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have come under fire for singling out black people as recipients of food stamps and other safety net programs. Their motives aside, given the higher rates of poverty among African Americans, do you think that race-specific approaches to poverty are important?
CW: The right wing has been part of the demonizing of poor people, and the criminalizing of poverty, going back to Reagan in the '80s. That's what you get with Santorum and Gingrich. You saw it with Clinton when he signed the welfare bill and he had the black sister there as the face of welfare, when we know the vast majority of welfare recipients are white.
Thank God that brother Barack Obama hasn't stooped that low; neoliberals usually don't function in that way. But it's not really a question of being race-specific or race-neutral. We're really talking about a fundamental transformation of [policy] structures and a re-evaluation of the priorities that we have that would result in a war on poverty. [If we had that,] the debate between race-neutral and race-specific really would be secondary.
TR: Going back to your call for Americans to pressure the government to take poverty seriously, over the past few months President Obama's messaging on the economy has focused on the widening wealth gap, the shrinking middle class and a call for the wealthiest Americans to pay more in taxes. Is this a sign that he's taking heed to Occupy Wall Street, and do you agree with the position he's been taking?
CW: It's a beautiful thing to see a neoliberal president tilt toward truth and justice, especially during an election. The question is whether he'll execute on the ground. I think it's a result both of the tremendous pressure of the Occupy movement, as well as vocal critics like Tavis Smiley, Frank Rich, Arianna Huffington and a host of others.
But I also think it's a matter of re-election. He knows he's got to reconsolidate his base, and so rhetorically he moves in that direction. But [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner is still running things, and he's the oligarchs' man in the White House. We have to keep track, not just of the rhetoric, but also of who is running things and what is the framework of their policies.
TR: Mr. Smiley, you've been holding symposiums on social and political issues for many years, and each time there's criticism about how nothing comes from talking about things. Why do you think these discussions are important?
TS: Everything starts with a conversation. When people see fellow citizens stepping out with some modicum of courage to raise issues that might be impolitic or uncomfortable, then that courage can be contagious. The Occupy Wall Street movement is the most recent example. Somebody started with a conversation and said, "We need to go occupy Wall Street," and by the end of the year, Time magazine said the protester was the person of the year. So conversations matter.
What we're committed to doing beyond the conversation is making sure that we have, at the end of the day, some public policy that can address poverty in this country. Four years ago, in three presidential debates between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, the words "poverty" and "poor" did not come up one time. When you don't address the concerns of poor people, they get rendered invisible.
I said four years ago that I would use my platforms and my voice and do everything I can to make sure that when we get to the next presidential election in 2012, we're not going to endure an entire campaign where the concerns of poor people don't get addressed.
Those of us who have platforms, if we don't use the space that we've been blessed to have access to in order to motivate people to raise this issue higher on the American agenda, then shame on us. Dr. West and I are just trying to do our part for the legacy of Dr. King by being vocal about the worsening condition of poverty. We're trying, in our feeble way, to be true to that legacy.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.