D.C. forum discusses rising poverty, unemployment

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Census Bureau released last week a devastating statistic: nearly half of all Americans are living in poverty or near poverty.

While the finding barely made its way into the media, and has yet to be seriously discussed by any of the 2012 presidential candidates, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West have made it their mission to bring poverty back onto the national agenda.

To cap their nationwide poverty tour, the duo hosted a forum last week in Washington, D.C., “Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity,” which featured filmmaker Michael Moore, author Barbara Ehrenreich, personal finance guru Suze Orman and veteran organizers Majora Carter, Roger Clay and Vicki Escarra.

Smiley kicked off the discussion, which was broadcast live on C-SPAN, with the newest Census figures on poverty.

One in two Americans is either in poverty or near poverty,” he said. “If you add three categories together, the perennially poor, the new poor and the near poor, you’re talking over 150 million Americans.”

Ehrenreich, the author of “Nickel and Dimed,” was quick to respond.

“It’s been an idea out there for a long time that ‘the poor’ are some kind of special group, that they’re out there somewhere,” she said. “We need to face the fact that we’re not talking about someone else — we’re talking about almost half of Americans struggling.”

According to a new report released by Indiana University, the numbers of those living in poverty are at their highest since 1993, and have steadily increased each year since 2006.

And while the economic downturn has affected nearly all Americans in some way, it has had disproportionate impact on African Americans, Hispanics, children and female-headed households. The report also shows that the percentage of working poor is also increasing — 60 percent of all poor families have at least one person working.

Roger Clay, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland, Calif., pointed out that while the economic downturn may be new for the country, African Americans have always been living in a recession.

The national unemployment rate hangs around 8 percent, he said, but only once in the past 40 years has the black unemployment rate dipped that low. “Blacks have been unemployed for a long time,” he said. “If it doesn’t hit the white community, it doesn’t exist.”

Turning to the structural nature of poverty, West said in his characteristic grandiose language: “[On the poverty tour] We saw the results of a system in place that has been driven by corporate greed at the top, with oligarchs ruling and politicians rotating, with money coming from the big banks, big corporations, pushing working people to the margins and rendering poor people superfluous.”

West also called on the audience to become “poverty abolitionists,” explaining that like slavery and segregation, poverty is one of the defining challenges of the day.

Ehrenreich added to this, saying, “The whole system is rigged so that if you start to spiral down, you’re going to spiral faster. There’s no ladder going up — there’s a greased chute going down.”

She also questioned the criminalization of poverty, offering the example that when a person applies for food stamps, his or her information is automatically given to the criminal justice system.

Moore, meanwhile, took on American politicians. “They’re not leaders, they’re followers — they follow the money,” he said, and encouraged listeners to go after the “puppet masters,” not just the “puppets” in order to restore a democracy “hanging on by its last one or two threads.”

The activist filmmaker also begged President Obama to adopt a more aggressive approach toward domestic poverty. “You have the opportunity to be the Roosevelt of the 21st century,” he said.

While most speakers called for sweeping changes to the political and economic order, Orman argued for individual education and incremental change. Without understanding how the financial system works in this country, she said, “you are setting yourself up to be a victim to a system that wants you to fail.” She also explained that she is fighting the way credit scores are calculated, and wants to create a system in which cash and debit payments contribute to FICO scores, not just credit.

Carter and Escarra also offered solutions stemming from their own experiences. Carter, known for “greening the ghetto” in the South Bronx, New York, suggested green jobs would address the twin problems of environmental degradation and poverty, while Escarra, president of Feeding America, explained that alleviating the hunger faced by 50 million Americans today would help lift some of the burden off the poor. “Hunger is one solvable problem,” she said.

Echoing Occupy Wall Street, Moore offered a list of solutions that gained the most applause of the night.

“Tax the rich, end the wars, take the money out of politics, corporations are not people,” he said. “And I want to say this to the one percent who might be watching — how many gated communities can you build?”

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