‘Beating the Drum About Poverty’ (and Obama’s Nomination Speech)

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The Nation

‘Beating the Drum About Poverty’ (and Obama’s Nomination Speech)

In a recent column, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship wrote, “When it comes to our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ population of the poor, you have to think we can help reduce their number, ease the suffering, and speak out, with whatever means at hand, on their behalf and against those who would prefer they remain invisible. Speak out: that means you and me, and yes, Mr. President, you, too.”

In the past year, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done more on the national stage to seek out and speak out on behalf of people living in poverty than broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary. Next week, September 12–15, they will go on the road for their second poverty tour in a year, which they have dubbed “Poverty Tour 2.0.”

In August 2011, Smiley and West embarked on an eleven-state, eighteen-city “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience”; that was followed in October by a week-long series about the tour broadcasted on both the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Public Radio International (PRI). In January 2012, they collaborated with Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs on a study examining the impact of the recession on people living in or near-poverty; the next day, Smiley moderated a panel live on C-SPAN—“Remaking America: from Poverty to Prosperity”—which included Dr. West, author and Nation contributor Barbara Ehrenreich, filmmaker Michael Moore and others. In March, Smiley moderated a nationally broadcasted panel of women who talked about the impact of poverty on women and children in America. Finally, Smiley and West co-authored The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. It was released in April and peaked at #7 on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

All of this work is in addition to their coverage of poverty-related issues on their nationally syndicated weekly public radio show, Smiley & West.

In my mind, Smiley and West’s work is representative of the kind of constancy and singular focus that’s needed if we are to preserve the advances this nation has made in the fight against poverty, and take new and greater steps forward in the months and years ahead.

“It’s all about making sure we keep on beating the drum about poverty,” Smiley told me when I spoke with him and Dr. West about the upcoming tour. “We want to do our part to make it a priority in this campaign and beyond this campaign.”

The poverty tour that begins next week will visit four battleground states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.

“We know where Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are essentially going to take up residency between now and Election Day,” said Smiley. “We know where the energy is going to be and the concentration of media is going to be, and that’s where we’re going.”

At each venue, Smiley and West will interview elected officials, policy experts, faith leaders and authors—“people who have solutions to offer,” said Smiley.

“But most importantly we’re going to be talking to poor people—to folks in the audience who will share their stories of enduring, of trying to survive, of overcoming poverty,” he said.

They will also focus on pushing the presidential debate moderators to make poverty a central issue in the upcoming debates.

“The words ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ did not come up one time in the 2008 presidential and vice presidential debates,” said Smiley. “We’re going to be hitting the moderators really hard in advance of the first debate on October 3.”

The tour is scheduled intentionally to coincide with the release of new Census Bureau statistics on poverty.

“These new numbers will underscore what we’ve been saying for a while now—poverty is the new American norm,” said Smiley. “There are now one out of two of us—150 million of us—either in or near poverty. Politicians can’t simply continue to be quiet on this issue.”

“This is all about trying to lift the veil off poor people and the stereotypes of poor people—attempts to demonize and dehumanize poor people—to allow people to see them for the human beings and fellow citizens that they are,” said West. “The prevailing public discourse describes poverty as a matter of bad habits and bad judgment, instead of seeing the lack of opportunity, lack of jobs with a living wage, lack of access to quality education and quality housing. We come back to these issues over and over and over again. How do we instead stay in contact with the humanity and creativity of poor people?”

West and Smiley aren’t without their detractors, and both expressed concern that personal attacks will get in the way of the work they hope to accomplish through this tour.

“Get the focus off of us, and put the limelight on our precious fellow citizens who don’t have access to a decent job, decent housing, and decent healthcare,” said West. “I think that’s a challenge for every journalist today, because the problem right now is we live in a country where conservative discourse has made it fashionable to be indifferent or have contempt toward poor people. If you focus on the messenger then you never have to confront the suffering and the misery of the poor people that we are highlighting with our work.”

Smiley also noted the negative reactions they have received for their critique of President Obama.

“I get sick and tired of people who believe that just because you’re pushing the president, that somehow you’re hating on him, or you’re aiding and abetting the other side,” said Smiley. “How do you push a president? You can’t push him by being silent. You can’t push him by not pressuring him on the things that really matter. We are not going to stop pushing, but it doesn’t mean that we hate Barack Obama.”

“What we hate is the contempt and indifference toward poor people that is found in both Republican and Democratic parties—less so in the Democrats, but both parties suffer from it,” West added. “So this issue of class, of poverty, of economic injustice is one that we will continue to highlight in a very serious way.”

Smiley and West hope that their effort will play a role in electing a president who can no longer afford to ignore poverty—that so many people will demand action, he will use the bully pulpit to make the eradication of poverty a priority.

“We need to force poverty onto the agenda,” said Smiley. “And timing is everything.”

“Very Low Food Security” on the Rise

On Wednesday, the United States Department of Agriculture released its annual report on food security. The data show that more than 50 million Americans—one out of every six households—were “food insecure,” meaning they “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” That means there was no statistically significant change in the overall number of food insecure households between 2010 and 2011.

However, the number of households with “very low food security”—those with members that reduced their food intake or skipped meals at times due to limited resources—rose from 5.4 percent to 5.7 percent of all households in 2011. That number represents 6.8 million households, or more than 16.8 million people, and is the same level of very low food security that was evident at the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009.

Children in particular are struggling with hunger. More than 16 million children live in food insecure households, including nearly one-fourth (24.5 percent) of all children under age 6.

Dr. Mariana Chilton, associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch, notes the impact on young children who go without food as they lay the foundation for their health; cognitive, social and emotional development; and future potential.

“There are lifelong implications,” said Chilton. “Children in food insecure households have more health problems, are more likely to be hospitalized and have developmental delays. Young kids who are food insecure may arrive at kindergarten unprepared and never catch up with their peers.”

Tianna Gaines-Turner, a member of Witnesses to Hunger—a project in which people living in poverty use photographs and testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels—said she isn’t at all surprised by the numbers. She operates a peer mentoring program in Philadelphia two days a week, helping people get the food, energy assistance, healthcare, school supplies, community legal services and housing services they need.

“I see more and more people in need of assistance with purchasing food,” Gaines-Turner said. “Many come in with their children who wake up in the morning hungry and go to bed with their stomachs growling.”

“What these numbers show is that we have malnutrition right here in America,” said Chilton. “The people suffering from hunger are our neighbors—in the suburbs, cities and rural areas. We can do better as a nation.”

She noted, however, that the summer drought is expected to drive food prices higher, there is no national plan to end hunger, and the strongest defense against hunger—food stamps (or, SNAP)—is under attack in Congress.

Indeed, the Senate version of the Farm Bill would cut more than $4 billion over ten years from SNAP, reducing benefits for an estimated 500,000 households. The House version would make these same cuts and also end benefits totally for a minimum of 1.8 million people, cutting the program by $16 billion.

The good news is that the American people seem to be ahead of the politicians when it comes to SNAP and supporting the nearly 47 million people who benefit from it. A new poll released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) indicates overwhelming majorities are opposed to SNAP cuts, with 79 percent of respondents supporting more (55 percent) or about the same federal spending to address hunger. Fully 75 percent feel that cutting food assistance is the wrong way to reduce federal spending. According to FRAC, opposition to SNAP cuts was high among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

“[The] food insecurity data and polling data show that proposals for SNAP cuts are a ‘two-fer’ of wrong thinking,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “A bad policy idea and a very unpopular idea. Americans…believe government should—and must—do more to address hunger.”

Here are a few things you can do to fight hunger and protect food stamps and other nutrition programs: you can advocate to protect SNAP in the final Farm Bill; join the NoKidHungry campaign which focuses particularly on protecting nutrition programs that serve at-risk children and families; support and follow Witnesses to Hunger—the experts who know poverty and hunger firsthand; and e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com about other campaigns people should know about.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list. And I look forward to your help as we stay on top of this epidemic to help ensure that no one—families, single adults, working, not working, homeless, housed, seniors, middle-aged, young—goes hungry.

A Note on President Obama’s Nomination Speech

There is no question that from an antipoverty perspective, President Obama’s [speech] was thin. If you expected otherwise, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention. This is a pragmatic president trying to get re-elected. He set out to do what he had to do, and—though I’m no expert—he probably accomplished it.

That he did better than the other guy in addressing some issues of concern to lower-income people surely isn’t enough. But I suggest we stop trying to “read” Obama—does he care about poverty, or doesn’t he care about poverty? Will he be bold, or won’t he be bold? Is he this, that, or the other thing?

It’s a waste of time and it’s a waste of energy.

In my opinion there is one line from the president’s speech tonight that those of us who care about eradicating poverty can and should take to heart: “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

My two cents is that we take a moment to recommit ourselves to this fight: that we will educate and agitate; we will yearn, push, and strive; we will not be complacent, nor will we be silent in order to make potential allies feel comfortable.

We will do everything we can—as Tavis Smiley said in the above interview—to force poverty onto the national agenda. We will be relentless.

I hope that our effort culminates in Barack Obama embracing this cause. But if it doesn’t, so be it. It’s not about him—never was—and that can’t stop us.

Read more from Greg Kaufmann's The Week in Poverty here.

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is the poverty correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to BillMoyers.com. He covers poverty in America primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Greg has been a guest on Moyers & Company, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, NPR’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, Here & Now, The Thom Hartmann Program, Stand Up! with Pete Dominick and The Matthew Filipowicz Show, as well as various local radio programs. His work has also been featured on Common Dreams, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, and BusinessInsider.com. He serves as an advisor for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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