The Election-Season Poverty Tour

Cornel West (Karen Bleier); Tavis Smiley (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Cornel West (Karen Bleier); Tavis Smiley (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, hosts of the nationally syndicated public-radio program Smiley & West, remain as determined as ever to put the issue of poverty — which Smiley has called "the new slavery" — higher on the national agenda.


On "The Poverty Tour 2.0: A Call to Conscience," which kicks off Sept. 12 and includes stops in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania through Sept. 15, the two plan to host solution-generating town hall meetings that will broadcast live on multiple platforms. Families, community organizers, job cooperatives, elected officials, war veterans and religious leaders will be invited to participate.

The timing of Poverty Tour 2.0's launch — less than a week after the release of disappointing August jobs numbers and the same day the Census Bureau is set to announce the findings from its "Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage" report — is no accident. The Root spoke to Smiley and West about what they want Americans to know as the election approaches, what they think the next president's first act should be and why their answer to "Are poor people better off now than they were four years ago?" is "Hell no."

The Root: On this leg of the tour, what will your message be about the recently released August jobs numbers, and the Census Bureau findings that will be made public on the tour's first day?

Tavis Smiley: Taken together, what we expect to see — when we consider the pretty good intel the AP got on what to expect from these poverty numbers — is that it will be pretty clear that poverty is the new American norm. One out of every two Americans is either in or near poverty. By near poverty, I mean low income. In the richest nation in the world, poverty ought to be abnormal, not the new normal. That's what we're up against.

TR: You're doing the tour just months before the election, in battleground states. What impact do you hope it has on the outcome, if any?

TS: We wanted it to be during this sprint from Labor Day to Election Day. We're going specifically to battleground states because these are the places the candidates are going, where the media will be focused and where poverty has run amok. The economy is the major issue in every one of these states.


Cornel West: On one hand, we are quite clear that Barack Obama is better than Mitt Romney when it comes to issues of poverty and poor people. At the same time, we acknowledge that neither candidate has a good record in poverty — because poor people have not in any way been a priority in the Obama administration.

And of course we know poverty would be very low on the totem pole in a Romney administration. We hope President Obama wins, and we're going to put the same pressure on him in the second term that we have in the first term.


TR: You've said you want people who are struggling in this economy to know that they're not alone and not forgotten, and that you want to speak truths about suffering. What other concrete results do you want from the tour?

CW: We want to educate people about just how vicious this system is under which we live. It's oligarchy more than it's democratic. Even with a black president, we still have a new Jim Crow in place — a vicious, racist system called the prison industrial complex, which most candidates won't say a word about. We want to educate people about what's going on in schools and housing in the inner cities, with gentrification and privatization.


TS: One of the things we call for in our poverty manifesto in The Rich and the Rest of Us, a book that came out this year, is a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. We're going to be pushing that really hard between now and the inauguration of whoever the next president is.

We believe that just like President Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Act his official first act — which we celebrate, of course — the next president ought to make his official first act the establishment of this conference on the eradication of poverty. It's clear the role poverty plays in threatening our very democracy. It's now a matter of national security in this country. We need a president who makes this a front-burner issue.


We are also going to be very aggressive and unapologetic about pushing the moderators of these four upcoming debates while we're on this tour to get poverty on the agenda. The reality is, in the presidential race, in those three debates between McCain and Obama, the words "poor" or "poverty" did not come up one time. Obama didn't raise it, McCain didn't raise it, so it did not get on the agenda.

CW: At the very beginning of sister Michelle's powerful speech the other night, she said to the mom who introduced her, "I got your back … we're making it a priority." Well, we want the Obama administration to say that to poor people of all colors: "We've got your back. You are a priority."


TR: Are people better off now than they were four years ago?

CW: Hell no.

TR: What about the people who now have access to health care because of the Affordable Care Act, or are able to afford college for their children? Are they not better off?


CW: That's one element. They may be better off in some ways, but they're catching hell in so many other spheres of their lives. You can have three positive things and 99 negative things. You're still not well off.

But it's also true that they'll be worse off under Romney. Brother Tavis and I just want to tell the truth about the suffering and allow people not to be seduced by the lies that have been told or the illusions that are put forward.


Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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