Last year Tavis Smiley and Cornel West declared a "war on poverty" that involved an 18-city bus tour designed put the issue higher on America's agenda, and plenty of criticism for those in power — including the president.
Now, during Women's History Month, Smiley plans to convene an all-female panel of thought leaders, opinion makers and influencers to examine why so many of the country's women and children are poor, and what can be done about it. "I figure if you can't get a conversation off the ground in Women's History Month about not women's history, but the future of women in America, then there's not going to be much history for women to celebrate in the future," Smiley told The Root in a recent interview.
The conversation, "Made Visible: Women, Children & Poverty in America," will be held Sunday, March 18, at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and will air on C-SPAN. Economist Julianne Malveaux and personal-finance expert Suze Orman are slated to discuss the financial, social and economic disparities that women face, and how solutions to these issues must be a public-policy priority during this election season.
The Root talked to Smiley about what he says is a "bipartisan consensus in Washington that poor people don't matter," what this means for women and why he thinks the country is ready to fix it.
The Root: You've already spent a lot of time talking about poverty, generally. Why is it important to focus on poor women specifically?
Tavis Smiley: The short answer is that women and children — and the numbers bear this out — are falling faster into poverty than any other group into the poverty abyss. There is something wrong with a nation that allows its women and children to be the persons who are falling fastest. Also, women make up over half of all Americans who are poor, and black and Latina women are more likely to be poor than white women. In 2009 and 2010, according to the census bureau a million children fell into extreme poverty.
TR: How do you think we'll see this issue play out in the 2012 election cycle?
TS: I think we're already seeing it play out. There's this so-called war on women, and I say so-called not because I disagree with the terminology but because I didn't craft it. It's not disconnected from the issues of poverty. Attacking a woman's right to choose is not disconnected from women receiving less pay for equal work, which is not disconnected from women having difficulty advancing in the workplace, which is not disconnected from women who lack access to health care, broadly, which is not disconnected from women who lack prenatal care, who don't have health care for their children, who can't afford child care for their children.
TR: Do you think poor women themselves are mobilized around this issue?
TS: It's starting to happen. When poor women see an effort to restrict rather than expand their rights, they feel that. When their children are suffering, they feel that. I think women are going to get even more mobilized. I think the response that women have made since they've been under attack recently is a good sign. Now, I'm the first to admit that it's always a challenge getting poor people to organize, but I think people get to a point where they've stood all they can stand. We all have a breaking point, and if we're not already there, we're getting awfully close to the pain threshold for women in this country.
One of the things we were celebrating in '92 was the "year of the woman," when so many women were elected to office. We've gone from that to, 20 years later, a war on women. Women are going to have to take stock of where they are and be aggressive about fighting back.
TR: What do you think the Obama administration has done well, and what could it be doing better with respect to the issue of women and poverty?
TS: The Obama administration hasn't done enough. Signing Lilly Ledbetter into law as his first act was a great start. Still, the reality is that not enough has been done for poor people across the board. And it says something very unkind about something when we allow this to happen. Since women and children are falling fastest, it makes a statement about how we treat the most vulnerable and the weak in our society. Children can't vote so they always get disrespected, and women have always been subjected to patriarchy. Overall, I see a bipartisan consensus in Washington that poor people don't matter.
Check The Root for a recap of Made Visible: Women, Children & Poverty in America, and for updates on Twitter.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is the staff writer for The Root.