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 word “poverty” in public.
Vice President Biden 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.
A personal problem
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 policymakers 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 March 18, Tavis convened a group of women to talk about women, children and poverty, and a powerful group it was. 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”), American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Winegarden, Native American leader Cecelia Firethunder (the 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; about passion for justice; about women who care about our images in music videos. We spoke about 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.
Why the complacency?
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 an important first 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.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women, and author of “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”