Smiley Calls for White House Conference on U.S. Poverty

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

Tavis Smiley (left) and Cornel West (center) visit the DC Central Kitchen on August 10, 2011. (Flickr/DC Central Kitchen via The Nation)
Tavis Smiley, left and Cornel West, center, visit the D.C. Central Kitchen on August 10, 2011. (Flickr/D.C. Central Kitchen via The Nation)

Next Thursday, at George Washington University in the nation’s capital — just four days before President Obama’s inauguration — broadcaster Tavis Smiley will bring together a bipartisan panel and an array of poverty experts in a nationally televised event, “Vision for A New America: A Future Without Poverty.”

Expect a heated debate, as a panel that includes Newt Gingrich, Cornel West and Michael Moore discusses Smiley’s call for a national plan to cut poverty in half in ten years and to eradicate it in twenty-five.

It’s part of Smiley’s latest effort to bring attention to the more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line, on less than $18,000 annually for a family of three. Smiley is also calling on the president to deliver a major public policy address on poverty — which includes telling the American people what they can do to help — and to convene a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty.

“This is all about raising the profile of poverty in America,” Smiley told me. “It’s about gaining traction.”

While the aforementioned headliners will help fill the auditorium next week — along with Jeffrey Sachs, Jonathan Kozol, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge, and National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann DeMoro — there are a couple of less widely-known panelists that I am definitely looking forward to hearing from as well.

If you read this blog, you know Dr. Mariana Chilton, director for the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, founder of Witnesses to Hunger and associate professor of Drexel University School of Public Health.

Chilton is one of the brightest, most creative people I’ve come across in an antipoverty field that is full of great thinkers and activists. Also, more than anyone I know, she touts the fact that the “real experts” on poverty are the people who are actually living in poverty — and Witnesses to Hunger is a testament to that belief. You can bet if Gingrich starts pushing stereotypes about poverty and hunger, Chilton will counter with facts, science and the collaborative work she does with low-income citizens every day.

John Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, will be there too. He’s the co-author of America’s Poor and the Great Recession, which will be released later this month. Graham served in the Office of Management and Budget under the Bush administration, and Smiley said his new book — for which Smiley wrote the foreword — “lays out specific policy proposals [to fight poverty] that Graham believes both the left and right can agree on.”

Perhaps the key moment in the symposium for me, however, will be when Smiley speaks directly with low-income people in the audience.

Smiley will ask them to talk about “what they’ve gone through in this country and this economy;” a program that they are involved with and why it works; and what the country can learn from their experiences. As I’ve said before — and I know Smiley agrees — the people who know poverty firsthand are the ones we need to listen to if we want to know what they are experiencing, shatter the myths and stereotypes and learn more about the most effective pathways out of poverty.

Smiley hopes viewers and audience members will be motivated to sign his petition calling for the White House conference, and that the panel is a preview of “what that conference might look like — when you get folks in the room who don’t agree.”

While he’s under no illusion that a presidential address and a conference will suddenly translate into a national commitment to the eradication of poverty, he does believe that it would spark further conversation, debate and movement on the issue, and I think he’s right about that. An example of how this kind of approach can lead to sustained action: in his 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Clinton’s staff then convened a non-partisan meeting to mobilize a wide range of sectors and set a bold goal to reduce the U.S. teen pregnancy rate by one-third in ten years. Sixteen years later, through diverse efforts, the nation has exceeded that goal and teen pregnancy is at an all-time low.

Smiley has an ambitious timeline for the conference and policy speech he envisions — he wants it to happen prior to the debt ceiling debate.

“This is a way to make sure we don’t have another debate that’s exclusive for Washington insiders like we did with the cliff debate in January,” said Smiley. “It’s a way to expand the conversation, to bring in our fellow citizens.”

I will definitely be in the audience next Thursday night and I hope you will be there, too. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch live on C-SPAN or online here.

Kudos to Mr. Smiley for his continued focus — through books, TV, radio and tours — on people who are usually demonized or completely ignored in our politics and media.

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  • Erik Kengaard

    America’s poor, at least in California, may have been better off in the Great Depression than they are today. Housing was much cheaper.

  • Maria Mayer

    Tavis & Cornell, whom my daughter met at UCLA, what a team! So absolutely necessary they are for the US in the corruption+war times we have been surviving since 2000. The Romney rich types abhorr both of you; once my daughter was sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific, and a handsome and fit man in his late 30s, dressed with a deluxe jogging outfit, approached her and started talking to her about all kinds of different things (like his years in Germany); this went on for a short while, but upon asking her “what were you reading?”, she showed him Cornell’s “The Rich and the Rest of Us”. He looked heart broken and stood up, and before he left said “remember, there will always be rich & poor”

  • Cathy Talbott

    I’m sorry. But the panel members you mentioned are somewhat of the “privileged” class. If you truly want to hear about poverty first-hand, then why not have members from organizations OF the impoverished and homeless? Their voices should be front and center and not those who speak “for” them! When will we get past this poverty pimp model that puts forward spokepeople who are not directly living in the storm? Why no have Cheri Honkala, co-founder of Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign? Or Ethel Long-Scott, of Women’s Economic Agenda Project? Or Maureen Taylor, of the Michigan Welfare Rights organization? These women are down in the trenches. And they have something to say that doesn’t come from the mushy middle of the road! I will not watch this program unless you have one of these women on the panel. And Trump of all people? Why?????

  • Maria Whittaker

    right on!

  • Maria Whittaker

    capitalist propaganda–root of global misery

  • Anonymous

    “The poor will always be with us” (or however the Biblical quote goes) can’t be dropped fast enough, IMO. I understand it’s history, but it has been a convenient ‘absolute statement’ meme for generations and has served as “meta-explanation” for existence of poverty, Acceptance leads to the conclusion that we (the non-poor) should/can offer soothing assistance from time to time, but otherwise (shrug, shrug), “what can we do?”. Re-examining social/economic hierarchical structure with curiosity and intelligence is certainly not encouraged by “the poor will always be with us”!

    The falseness of such an absolute explanation also supports another enduring, seldom vocalized meme – the condescending and patronizing ‘belief’ that “it’s up to the us (the non-poor) to solve poverty FOR our unfortunate fellow citizens”. True idealistic belief in human potential would ‘say': “It’s up to us – all of us, regardless of economic station or formal education, to solve poverty TOGETHER – Not FOR but WITH. This 2nd complaint is one I’ve had a long time, and lines up with Cathy Talbott’s comment above.)

    And if we can’t hold ourselves to idealistic goals, however complicated and lengthy the path to get ‘there’ – what, precisely, is the point of ‘vision and dream’?

  • Anonymous

    Fair point, Cathy. I’m glad you made it, and that Maria Whittaker affirmed, because I was allowing myself to take comfort that the Tavis Smiley et al summit may serve to bring poverty into more prominent national discussion – where it has belonged for a very long time. Perhaps a bit too complacent of me, (most especially because I happen to live an economically ‘seriously marginalized’ life myself!)

    There are several participants I have no interest in hearing – Gingrich? Is this a joke or an intelligent ‘drawing in’ of an otherwise arrogantly disinterested class? I’m afraid I’m also not enthusiastic about Michael Moore, although I fully trust his sincerity. I just don’t think “media stars” should be necessary. And the proper role of academics, IMO, is to supply data as/when requested by community based solution finding groups whose participants live the real thing.

    IF we’re to advance beyond pre-21stC thinking, IMO, we don’t need ‘talk at’ – we need direct problem solving engagement. I’d like to see experienced facilitators of community consensus meetings fan out across the nation for a year, sponsoring and facilitating community-inclusive meetings to consider poverty issues, causes and consequences. Consensus processes are easy to learn, and allow otherwise intimidated or discouraged voices to begin to find place. The consensus process fosters truly inclusive community – one in which people of different situations and circumstances mix and hear one another. (The Occupy version was only one.of many models.)

    I think if such meetings became common, they would bring huge benefit. One benefit would be that people would raise questions and discover they needed more information, (that’s when the academics can be on hand or their research made available.) The information-finding part of the process brings far deeper understanding of existing social/political structures in general population, and usually also deeper understanding of the history. There are numerous supporting strategies to quickly disseminate information, one being “carousel reading”.

    I don’t expect such community groups to replace ‘representative democracy’ which is needed as larger communities and regions are brought together. BUT I do anticipate a far more aware citizenry, and at local levels, I anticipate creative intelligent problem solving. (I’m out of touch so perhaps ‘in pockets’ this is already underway with the leadership of those you name or others like them.)

    One of my favorite quotes: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting both my time and yours – if you have come here because you understand that your well-being is thoroughly entangled with mine, then we can work together.” (attributed to “an aboriginal woman” … and likely paraphrased since it was a long time ago I came across the quote.)

    I posted thoughts in a note to Maria Mayer below that to me are captured in the “If you have come here…” quote. I call to question a subtle ‘elitism’ that persists as “those of greater opportunity” move to help “those of lesser opportunity”. Despite best intentions, unless it includes creating empowering structure, the “helping” remains in an ‘us/them’ dynamic.

  • Anonymous

    (Idea re trained facilitators through nation for one year is that the consensus process is so very easy to learn that local participants would know how to operate independently after a few meetings. A systematic problem solving process would become known: identify and prioritize needs, explore data and possible solutions, propose and discuss most promising possibilities, take appropriate action, schedule review/follow-up. Key would be *inclusion* from start to finish!)

  • laura Nimr

    some people believe it easy. I lost my house. I’m in a union but i have been working on and off. my unemployment is not too reliable. it’s hard to find a job cause no one is hiring.a lot of people are unemployed in California. some can’t even get unemployment. It’s still in a depression and getting worse. Cause they are not hiring anyone at all.

  • Anonymous

    Despite my other critical comments on this discussion, I’m very glad – even optimistic – that Tavis Smiley and in particular Cornel West, have put so much time/effort into a plan to bring poverty to national attention. I hope it works.

    I’m sorry you’re struggling as you are. I don’t know how many people believe “it’s easy” but in my experience it’s true that many who’ve not lost ground (in ways that impact their daily lives) believe we’ve been in a ‘normal blip’ that’s passing by. IMO the core issues are much deeper and will not ‘pass by’.

    One of my concerns is that people most affected – including people struggling even before the last few years – need to be a voice in the problem solving. Moyers says Smiley agrees: “the people who know poverty firsthand are the ones we need to listen to if we want to know what they are experiencing, shatter the myths and stereotypes and learn more about the most effective pathways out of poverty…”

    IMO one of the myths/stereotypes that needs to be shattered is that ‘the poor’ need the non-poor to solve the situation. IMO, the non-poor need to sit with the poor and ask: “How can we help?” “What are your issues and what are your ideas for solution?”

    I hope you are able to join with others close by in anti-poverty discussion and action. And I hope you are close enough to scheduled Smiley events, to attend. Your voice is needed – for yourself, and also for others! (I’m in a very rural area, fairly new (to me) community, and get my best spirit boosts from learning about anti-poverty actions elsewhere!)

  • ccaffrey

    Actually, it’s Jesus’ statement taken out of context and used today to justify non-action that needs to be dropped.

  • Anonymous

    Re: taking “the poor will always be with us” taken out of context and need to drop its use as justification for non-action: I certainly agree with the second part of your observation and am curious on the first part. I am often not familiar with context of Biblical phrases that have become “conversational currency”. Do you find the larger historical context of the statement helpful – is it one we should be aware of – that we can bring up when “the poor will always…” comes up in conversation as reassurance that poverty is “the way it will always be”? I’m interested and curious, if you’d want to elaborate on your “out of context” understanding. Thanks!