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.
The 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.