Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West deserve high props for their summer poverty tour. They started on an Indian reservation, hit the inner city, and looked at poverty, in all of its manifestations. While many dismissed their high-profile tour as a political ploy, I am absolutely convinced of their sincerity. In addition, these two men are among the few who have dared utter the “p” word in public.
Think about it – Vice President has a Middle Class Task Force, but there has been no focus on the poor or the extremely poor (those who have less than half of the poverty line in income). The Heritage Foundation posits that if you have a cellphone, television, or microwave oven then you really aren’t that poor. Newt Gingrich derisively called President Obama the “food stamps President, even though, thanks to the Great Recession, 15.2 percent of all Americans are poor, and 14 percent (20 percent in Mississippi) receive food stamps. That’s more than 50 million Americans on food stamps, half of them white. Why and how should someone decide to make food stamps a divider?
We have turned poverty into a personal problem, not a social problem. People are ashamed and embarrassed to be poor, yet poverty has increased thanks to our economic failings – the financial meltdown of 2008, the mortgage crisis, high unemployment, and other matters. Millions of people, especially women and children, are hanging on by a shredded shoestring.
Tavis and Cornel have a book coming out in April, “The Rich and the Rest of Us”. It will share reporting from the poverty tour, and offers a dozen solutions to the poverty problem. Both these men are passionate about eradicating poverty, and about engaging politicians and policy makers in the task. Would that the entire nation felt as strongly as they do. Indeed one of their solutions is to call on President Obama to convene a White House Conference on Poverty. There’s not been such a gathering since Lyndon Johnson was President.
On Sunday, March 18, Tavis convened a group of women to talk about women, children and poverty, and a powerful group it was. Indeed, I’ve never participated in a conversation where two hours went more quickly. We had a full house at New York University, and a lively group of women, including Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, former Planned Parenthood leader, Faye Wattleton, financial guru Suze Orman, author Sheryl WuDon (Women Hold Up Half the Sky), AFT leader Randi Winegarden, Native American leader Cecelia Firethunder, first woman head of her Indian nation, Nele Galan, former head of Telemundo, and founder of the Adalante movement to inspire Latina women, and yours truly.
Talk about fast and furious conversation, talk about passion for justice, talk about women who care about our images in music videos, our position in the economy, our access to health care, including reproductive health, the state of education and the ways some young people are getting the short end of the stick in our schools, and the extreme importance of financial literacy and money savvy in preventing poverty, and the poverty of women around the globe. Underlying the conversation – why are people so passive about poverty, why are women so complacent about inequality, where is the movement to improve the status of women?
The Made Visible conversation was only a first step, and it was an important step. Tavis and his talkfests often bring hidden issues to light, and this is a great example of such an occurrence. He indicated that this is the first time he has presided over a panel of all women, and hopefully it will not be the last. And with his tour, book, and call to action (he calls it a poverty manifesto), he is laying out possibilities for next steps.
Here is the bottom line – while the economy seems to be recovering, that recovery is not trickling down. More than 43 percent of the unemployed have been jobless for more than half a year. The reported unemployment rate is a special kind of fiction – the “real” unemployment rate is more than 14 percent for everyone, more than 25 percent for African Americans. This has been the case for at least two years. We can’t compete with other countries with the drag of poverty, lack of access to education, and the notion that “austerity” will improve our national prospect. Policymaker ought to tune into the Tavis PBS show on March 28, 29, and 30, when excerpts of this conversation will air.
Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.