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Tavis Smiley: Poverty Is a Threat to Democracy

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Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West have been working hard to bring the issue of poverty into the consciousness of the citizens and political discourse of the United States. As a team, Smiley and West have been touring city to city, speaking to audiences concerned about the increasing wealth gap in this country. Their book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifeseto, is the culmination of their observations of American citizens throughout these travels.

While the economy is technically in recovery from the Great Recession, a vast slice of Americans have not experienced a real recovery. A “jobless recovery,” where the beneficiaries of an improving economy are the wealthy while the middle class struggles with unemployment, is not a real recovery. Despite this disadvantage, the prevalence and pervasiveness of poverty is still astonishing. According to Smiley and West, 150 million people in this country are in or near poverty. That number represents one out of every two individuals — half the country.

Tavis SmileyThe issue of poverty, affecting this number of individuals, is bigger than poverty itself. The government tallies 46 million Americans living in poverty according to the 2010 census and the government’s own definitions of poverty. Many more individuals are affected by poverty because they are living dangerously close. Many middle class households, particularly those already living in debt or in a paycheck-to-paycheck situation, are one lost paycheck away from a dangerous financial situation, and many families are already experiencing a personal decline due to the inability to find gainful employment.

Poverty has traditionally been a problem classified as urban or rural. Minorities have been and are disproportionately affected by poverty, but poverty is not a suburban problem, too. With white, middle-class families now facing the issue of poverty, whether by losing a job or being dangerously close to not being able to afford their homes, the issue is gaining more attention. While poverty is making life difficult for an increasing number of Americans, those in or seeking office, whether Democrats or Republicans, are not concerned. In order to receive a voice in political discourse, you need money. While the United States may have been founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty, these have generally only been granted to an elite selection of its inhabitants. The distribution of social power is expanded only by revolution among the disenfranchised.

Smiley and West contacted Consumerism Commentary with an interest in speaking to me about these issues — to defend their position, and to open my eyes to the realities faced even by the middle class in this country, many of whom are the “new poor.” We arranged an interview for the Consumerism Commentary Podcast, airing Sunday, May 13. Unfortunately, Dr. West was unable to participate in the interview at the last minutes as he was in New York waiting for a verdict after a conviction related to a political protest in that city. Tavis Smiley was able to participate, but our time together was short. We weren’t able to address all the questions I had prepared, but the discussion was valuable.

Listen to the entire discussion with Tavis Smiley, podcast host Jay Frosting, and myself, Luke Landes, once it is available this weekend. Smiley is the host of Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show on Public Radio International. Update: Listen to the podcast here.

In the interview, Smiley dispelled many of the myths about poverty. One such myth is the idea that those in poverty are entirely to blame for their financial situation.

On Consumerism Commentary, I’ve written that taking personal responsibility for your decisions, financial and otherwise, plays the biggest role in achieving financial security and independence. This is today’s American promise: “Anyone can make it in America.” The media love rags-to-riches stories, even if it doesn’t reflect a reality for the majority of Americans. It’s true that this country’s brand of capitalism is favorable to the situations European immigrants left behind. Religious intolerance, a caste system based on ancestry, and an economic system wherein generally only the first-born male would have rights to any property drove pioneers to create a new society or join a country with a promise to create a better life for yourself. Never mind that doing so displaced others who occupied the land here.

Even in this new society, you had to be a member of the elite to receive the rights as endowed. Not everyone begins on equal footing. The lack of early educational opportunities throughout this country is one of the strongest causes of generational poverty. As Smiley addresses in the podcast, Washington state is the home to large multi-national corporations, providing a huge advantage to those who reside in Washington thanks to the tax these companies pay. The educational opportunities in Washington state far outshine the opportunities in Washington, D.C., for example. Until a quality education for the entire country is given priority, generational poverty will continue to exist.

In the interview, we also address the issue of austerity. The concept of reducing the deficit and national debt is and should be a high priority for policymakers, but the timing of austerity measures, such as reducing funding to societal programs, is just as important. Smiley argues that we cannot cut the budget for these important issues when the economy is not “flowing,” saying that the budget is being balanced on the backs of poor people. Budgets are moral documents, and you can determine a country’s real priorities by evaluating where the money is going. If this country does not address the economy for the 99 percent — those who have seen no benefit from this “jobless recovery” — rather than the “1 percent,” Smiley warns of the downfall of the United States as a world leader.

No empire in the history of the world that at some point did not falter or fail. Every empire had its day. Americans don’t want to think we could be dangerously close to the edge… Poverty is the moral and spiritual issue of our time.

Time did not permit us to explore all the topics I would have liked to cover in the interview with Tavis Smiley. For example, I would have liked to talk more about the Occupy movement and getting a national stage for the issue of poverty. In recent weeks, civil rights are again receiving national attention, from the perspective of same-sex marriage. Not to minimize that issue of equal treatment under the law for all individuals, poverty deserves the same attention from our nation’s leaders.

Be sure to subscribe to the Consumerism Commentary Podcast to hear the interview with Tavis Smiley, where we address more topics related to poverty than are outlined above, as soon as it is available. Be sure also to read The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Update: The interview is now available as a podcast here.

Photo: DC Central Kitchen

Updated May 14, 2012 and originally published May 11, 2012.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

The thing that galls me when talking about poverty in this country is how the vast majority of Americans don’t realize that most of the people in the U.S. under the poverty line are still very well off compared to the rest of the world as a whole. Half of the worlds’ population resides in third world countries where just basic needs such as food and water are hard to come by. The worst projects in America are nothing like the slums of Rio or Mumbai.

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avatar 2 Luke Landes

It’s true that poverty is a worldwide problem, and the issue deserves just as much attention. The fact that poverty exists around the world can’t prevent this country from focusing on giving every citizen the opportunities needed to thrive. I’m reminded of the tired cliche, “How can you [insert any first-world activity in here] when there are people starving in Africa [or some impoverished location]?” The conditions for the abject poor in the United States are not as bad as the abject poor in developing or undeveloped nations, but that’s not an excuse for continuing to marginalize the issue or to ignore the situation.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

“neither Democrats nor Republicans are concerned”

Flexo sorry but that seems like a really unfair claim to me. 80% of the country falls into one of those categories. Its really not fair to claim that nobody is concerned.

Here’s a somewhat dated poll that found that 55% of the population thought that poverty was a ‘big’ problem…

Frankly I think its BS to claim that half the country is in poverty. Last I heard 16% of the nation is in poverty. And half of those are temporarily in poverty. You can’t just redefine poverty to make it out as a 3x bigger problem. Yes there are a lot of families living paycheck to paycheck but thats not poverty. “near poverty” isn’t really the same thing. I don’t think its any more valid to call those people “near rich”.

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avatar 4 Luke Landes

I should have indicated that when I mentioned that neither Democrats nor Republicans are concerned, I was referring to those in or running for office, not citizens who identify with either of the political parties. Politicians are more inclined to “care” about the issues important to their biggest donors, and there are very few political donors representing the impoverished.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Yeah but again I think thats an unfair claim. Maybe you just distrust or are cynical of politicians in general which is a common attitude. But its just hyperbole to claim that politicians don’t care about poverty. What makes you think they don’t care? Because they aren’t talking about it all day? There IS a lot of discussion around social programs that significantly impact poverty : social security, medicare, food stamps etc.

p.s. sorry if this is a duplicate, I started to post and not sure if I hit submit and it went to moderation or if it just disappeared.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

How many trillions have been spent on poverty since the war on poverty began in the 1960s? And yet poverty is still a problem. Instead of judging programs based on their good intentions, we should judge them based on results. DC has one of the highest per student spending rates in the country and yet has one of the worst school systems in the country. The government spends more money per year fighting poverty than the GDP of many countries, and they are well on their way to creating and subsidizing a permanent underclass. There isn’t enough of other people’s money to go around to fix the poverty problem. A new approach needs to be tried. In the 1950s, we had the military-industrial-complex. These days we have not only the military-industrial-complex but the environmental-industrial-complex and the poverty-industrial-complex all feeding off of the largess of the government (i.e., the taxpayers). Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day and he will come back the next day demanding two fish. But teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.

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avatar 7 Luke Landes

If you are able to listen to the podcast interview this weekend, I would recommend it. The vast majority of those living in poverty do not want to be in that situation. People want jobs. The idea that people are poor because they are lazy is one of the various myths, as addressed in the book. As you’ve indicated, just throwing money at a problem is not going fix any particular issue. Education is a topic that I had hoped to have more time to talk to Smiley (and West, had he been in the interview) about. Just having the options available is not enough; education must be seen as something to be valued. Families who are concerned about the roof over their heads don’t have the resources to focus on a luxury like education. That’s one of the issues with generational/persistent poverty. Education will only become a a priority when (a) the opportunity is there (b) families/communities have progressed beyond worrying about physiological needs (the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and (c) there are role models who, from within the community, can show how education has value. Then, and only then, will education be able to lift people out of generational poverty. Poor immigrants to the United State have used this approach to become successful in a new country that, for all its benefits, made life very difficult for anyone new to town, especially if they were ethnically diverse.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I’ve heard Smiley and Cornell interviewed a number of times on this book. The causes of poverty are very difficult to diagnose and are always subject to the personal prejudices of those doing the analysis. As to your comments on education, it has never been easier in this country than now to obtain an education. The education system is awash in funding and scholarships, not like it was in the one-room schoolhouse days. Yet most of the people in the one-room schoolhouse got a better education than the kids of today. Why? They were all dirt poor; they all had to work after school on the farm or at odd jobs to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. There was no easy money to be had selling illegal booze or drugs. Yet most of them became self-sufficient, and were better educated in the 3Rs than many of the college grads today. Why? There was no social safety net. Government handouts were almost unheard of, and considered shameful to take. The biggest difference today is the culture and how it has changed over the years, and the types of behavior that are tolerated, subsidized and even glamorized in some quarters. Each individual is the author of their own lives, regardless of whether they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths or a wooden spoon. Poverty can be overcome by the strong-willed, but it takes a lot of work, an awful lot of work.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

“The government spends more money per year fighting poverty than the GDP of many countries”

We also spend more on Xbox games and post-it notes than the GDP of many countries. The US is vastly wealth compared to many countries.

How does US spending on social programs as % of GDP compared to other industrialized nations? Thats a more meaningful comparison than saying our food stamp program is more than Kenyas GDP.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

“How does US spending on social programs as % of GDP compared to other industrialized nations? Thats a more meaningful comparison than saying our food stamp program is more than Kenyas GDP.”

That IS a more meaningful comparison. And we’d not be nearly as high as a lot of the quasi-socialist countries in Europe. For the most part, I’m against nearly all social programs in this country as they currently are organized. There needs to be some kind of incentive / way out for participating in these programs.

For example, in DC there is DC Central Kitchen. It’s a soup kitchen / food program. However, in order to receive meals you must also attend their training classes which hopefully will lead to jobs in the food industry. I don’t have any actual statistics on their efforts but to me that is exactly the type of thing that we should be doing with welfare, foodstamps, section 8 housing, etc…. Give people the means and education to lift themselves up.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

This is typical exaggeration to make a cause into a crisis.

Any advocate who comes up with terms such as “near poverty” to exaggerate claims of poverty to get numbers up to 50% is not reliable. People who do what Mr. Smiley and Mr. West do hurt their own causes among a number of people who would otherwise be willing to be part of a solution to the real problem. The reason is because I and others who do care about poverty and do contribute to anti-poverty causes, completely dismiss everything they say because of their dishonesty in dealing with the real issue rather than creating an artificially exaggerated crisis issue that does not actually exist.

Suggesting that people’s paycheck to paycheck problem is a problem of our society that is related to poverty rather than a problem of people not living within their means is demeaning to people who actually have real poverty problems that they cannot do anything about.

the whole idea of 50% of the population being near poverty and calling the middle class the “new poor” due to some external forces outside their control is contrary to the financial advice this site is supposedly about. It seems that takes a backseat to politics.

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avatar 12 Luke Landes

I always stipulate that it’s up to individuals to enhance their human capital so they are less likely to have no options when they lose their job. Losing a middle-class salary can be enough for someone in the middle class to become “new poor,” even if it’s just temporary. The more skills you have (and the stronger your human capital), the more of a chance you can recover quickly from a loss like that. Personal responsibility to be prepared for economic downturns is something I feel strongly about.

Yet I can’t deny that many people are not prepared for an economic downturn. They’re more susceptible to external factors like their employer handing out layoffs to save money. A real estate agent’s income, while at times can be significant, is subject to a pool of buyers who suddenly don’t qualify for mortgages during a credit crunch. Unless they spent the time to create a back-up plan for when the economy turns for the worst as it inevitably does, they could be facing personal financial situations that, could take years to climb out of.

It took me a while to learn not to blame my poor financial situation on circumstances that appear to be beyond my control. There is a lot people can do to take control of their financial situation, and to prepare for a short-term downturn in the economy or in life. But the ability to do many of these things relies on the freedom to focus on meeting needs other than the most basic. It also relies on the right education. If we could find a way to make sure everyone has access to good education, not only on what are considered the basics, but on the basics of living an independent life, more people would see the world the way we’re lucky enough to see it as readers of this website, other personal finance blogs, and other resources favored by financially independent individuals.

I’ve struggled to come to a good understand of what Smiley and West really mean when they say the “new poor is the former middle class.” I think the phrasing causes a lot of confusion. There is a “new poor” in today’s economy, and those for whom this label might be appropriate (I hate labels as much as I hate soundbites) were, at one time, considered “middle class.” The recent downshift is what makes them “new.” As far as I can tell, Smiley and West don’t contend that what used to be called the “middle class” can now be called “new poor.”

I am not the best person to defend every statement by Tavis Smiley or Cornel West. I am certainly skeptical, too. I do think, though, that overall, poverty is something that deserves more consideration in public policy.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Being a few percent over the poverty line is still poor and worth noting, especially if a large number of people are close to that line. And yes, the poor in the U.S. are better off than those in other developing countries but it’s all relative. Expenses here are a lot higher too. With the growing income and wealth disparity, even the rich should have cause for concern. They should have had concern all along from an ethical standpoint but that’s another issue. Economies don’t function well with too much income disparity and I bet even wealthy people don’t want to be depressed and have their business hurt by crumbling infrastructure, crime, and watching neighborhoods go to shambles.

It’s about common decency and moral values regardless of whether you have a religion or not. It’s not about politics. But the Republicans try to make it political by using the Socialism word and by pretending that the wealthy job creators create jobs when they pay less in taxes.

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avatar 14 Ceecee

I’d like to know how often the cost of healthcare drives people into poverty. You can incur a hospital bill in the thousands even with health insurance. Without it, it can be astronomical. A large number of bankruptcies come from healthcare bills. Everyone hates universal healthcare until that $35,000 bill arrives at their house. I hope to listen to the podcast to see if there is any mention of this in the mix.

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avatar 15 Luke Landes

Hi Ceecee,

Alas, there’s no discussion of healthcare in the podcast. Our time was severely limited, and there were many things we just didn’t get a chance to address. That’s a great topic for a future podcast, though, so I’ll see if I can find an expert willing to take on that topic.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

Nice post, Flexo.

I’ll keep my comments brief. I could not disagree more with folks like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. Their credibility is completely tossed out the window the moment they claim half of all Americans are living in poverty.

Poverty a threat to democracy? Instead, I maintain that our government’s War on Poverty is a serious threat to the Republic.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

Poverty is really a serious issue that should be given first priority & resolved ASAP. Government is not paying that much attention to this issue as much is required because they themselves are living a lavish life, so poverty is not a concerned issue for them but if serious attention is not paid to this it will harm democracy.

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avatar 18 qixx

I’m next in line for this book from my library. I can’t wait to see what points and issues they bring up in the book that are not covered in their interviews. Then i might be able to make a better decision. The debates that form around this seem comparable to those that surround Creationism vs Darwin debates. After reading The Origin of Species i found out that the majority of the arguments were based on hearsay. I expect similar findings here.

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