Tavis Smiley Moderates Panel Discussion on Poverty

Panelists included democratic intellectual Cornel West and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Tavis Smiley
January 23, 2013

PBS broadcaster Tavis Smiley called on President Obama to do more—much more—to reduce poverty in America during a panel discussion in the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Jan. 17.

Mr. Smiley and a panel of experts demanded a major policy address on poverty, and asked President Obama to convene a conference at the White House to create a national plan that can cut poverty in half and eventually eradicate it. An estimated 46 million people live in poverty in the United States.

“What more has to happen?” Mr. Smiley said. “How many more people have to die or fall through the cracks?”

Participants in last week’s panel discussion, “Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty,” included: U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, newly elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives; John Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United; Jonathan Kozol, a public education expert and author; Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities; Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; and Cornel West, democratic intellectual and professor at Union Theological Seminary.

During the live-broadcast event, discussions ranged from changes to health care, the education system and safety net programs to how the fiscal cliff deal and upcoming debt ceiling bill have affected and will affect the nation’s poor. A common theme ran through the discussions: The nation’s leaders aren’t doing enough, and income inequality continues to plague the country, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer.

“Politics has neglected the poor,” Dr. Sachs said, calling the state of poverty in this nation a “calamitous situation” in which the underclass “no longer has a helping hand.”

The recent cuts in discretionary spending show “we’re gutting the government,” Dr. Sachs said. Funding for jobs, training, education, infrastructure, the environment, science—some of the government’s most fundamental responsibilities—are all under attack, he said. “This is the hard truth.”

Education was an important topic for the evening, because good schools can save a child from poverty, said Mr. Kozol, who has worked for 50 years with children in inner-city schools.

“The only avenue of exit for the poorest children in this country … is to give them absolutely terrific, exciting, beautiful, spectacular and expensive public education—and to fund it not simply at the same high level as the richest suburbs, but at a higher level because those children need it more,” he said.

Mr. Kozol emphasized the importance of keeping class sizes small, calling it one of the most significant factors in a child’s education, and investing in preschool education for all children starting at 2 years old because the earliest years are the most crucial for a child’s development, he said.

Hunger is another main concern in this country, added Dr. Chilton. When kids aren’t adequately nourished, their schoolwork suffers, hurting their social and intellectual development at a very early age, she said. Although the food stamp and Women, Infants and Children programs provide some relief, they need sufficient funding to continue.

The nation’s health care system also doesn’t help the poor, some panelists said. Many are uninsured and are “one illness away from bankruptcy,” said Ms. DeMoro. They can’t afford medications and important preventative screenings. Ms. DeMoro and others support the Robin Hood Tax, which could generate an estimated hundreds of billions of dollars by taxing transactions on Wall Street. That money could go not only to health care but housing, education and jobs, she said.

“Wall Street, you’re going to pay your fair share in this country,” Ms. DeMoro said.

Meanwhile, a lackluster job creation rate, Mr. Gingrich said, is also a concern for the nation’s poor.

“I worry about a recovery that is not creating jobs, and is not pulling people into a better future,” he said.

One of the most important instigators for doing something about the nation’s poverty rate, Rep. Fudge said, is to show the public what being poor looks like.

“Until we can make them see it, they are not going to believe it,” she said.

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