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Smiley, West: Poverty Is A Political Issue


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Yesterday, the Census Bureau released its latest report on poverty in America. The poverty rates state about the same, at 15 percent. That's more than 46 million Americans. Unemployment eased a bit, but the gap between rich and poor widened. And there's another new survey to mention, the Pew report that finds a full third of Americans who now identify themselves as lower class. Against this background, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West argue that poverty has become the new American norm, and the issue ignored by both parties in this year's election.

If you see yourself as lower class, what's the biggest thing that keeps you there? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West co-host SMILEY & WEST from PRI. They also co-authored the book "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto." They're in Washington today as they continue their Poverty Tour 2.0: A Call to Conscience. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

TAVIS SMILEY: Thank you, Neal. Good to be on with you.

CORNEL WEST: It's very kind of you to have us, brother.

CONAN: Why is this issue for far under the radar, at least as far as the presidential campaign goes?

WEST: I think that we just don't have the kind of focus from the two parties on the issues of - that affect poor people. And, of course, big moneys shape both parties, even though Barack Obama's much better than Mitt Romney on this particular issue of poverty. But unfortunately, there's just not a lot of big money and not a lot of votes for the parties. And therefore there's a certain denial of this issue of poverty.

CONAN: Tavis, if so many people now define themselves as lower class, if so many people are among those below the poverty line, that's a big voting block.

SMILEY: It is a big voting block. And you would think, Neal, that it would make a lot of sense to both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama to stop talking just about - exclusively about the middle class and start to speak to the angst of 150 million Americans, 150 million, one out of two of us who's either now in or near poverty. Three groups make up the poor in this country, the perennially poor, the near-poor folk, who's just a paycheck or two away, Neal, and thirdly, the new poor, as we call him in our book, better known as the former middle class.

So just - it seems strategically sensible to me that you might want to start speaking to the angst of those who are falling through the social safety net as opposed to just believing or imagining, at least, that there is some amorphous middle class out there that is like it was 20, 30 years ago.

CONAN: But when you start to do that, you generally get accused of wanting to redistribute wealth, take it away from the wealthy and the middle class and give it to the poor. People start talking socialism and...

WEST: Yeah.

CONAN: ...well, a lot of politicians don't win elections that way.

SMILEY: I don't buy that argument. I don't buy the argument that you can't make this argument work. When half of the nation, again, half of us, 150 million people was either in or near poverty, this is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. It clearly - pardon my English, ain't black or white. Look at these poverty numbers that came out this week from the Census Bureau. Look at the dismal job numbers last week. This is an American catastrophe, Neal, that's about to be cemented. Poverty is threatening our democracy. Poverty is a matter of national security. And so I think you can actually make the argument and make it work.

The Democrats used the word poor or poverty three times for every 25,000 words at their convention, according to The New York Times. This might surprise you, Neal. The Republicans said the word poor or poverty five times for every 25,000 words. So interestingly, the Republicans at least gave greater lip service to word poor or poverty than the Democrats did, but I don't buy the argument that you can't sell this. You can sell this. You can sell to the American people that we've got to do something about the growing numbers of the poor if you make the argument.

CONAN: And - but how do you translate that anger and that logic that I hear from you, how do you translate that into politics and into policies?

WEST: Well, one, you got to be a statesman rather than a garden-variety politician. You need the language and the courage of an FDR or a Lincoln or even an LBJ as it relates to domestic policy, which says that the future of American democracy is fragile as it is. It's predicated on how well we do in treating poor and working people. And in order to translate that as both issues of justice and issues of survival and being honest about the one percent, the oligarchs, the plutocrats who own 42 percent in the wealth and the 400 individuals who have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. When FDR said, economic royalists are my foes and I welcome their enmity, that takes courage. We don't have politicians these days at the highest level, only the Bernie Sanders and a few others, to say that kind of thing.

CONAN: We want to get some callers in on the conversation. If you're part of that one-third of Americans who consider themselves lower class, what's the one thing that keeps you from moving up? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Katherine. And Katherine is on the line with us from Tucson.

KATHERINE: Hi. I am 60 years old. I have a bachelor's degree. And I'm working as a taxi driver despite the fact that I have seven foreign languages. And I'm definitely lower class. I'm running under $15,000 a year.

CONAN: I think that's below the poverty line.


WEST: It is.

CONAN: What is keeping you there?

KATHERINE: The fact that I have to work so many hours that I cannot finish my masters and certification to teach English as a second language overseas.

CONAN: The argument, then, how do you solve that situation, Tavis Smiley or Cornel West? You proposed solutions as well as articulating the problem.

SMILEY: We do. First of all, we hear this story, Neal, everywhere we go. Last year, nine cities, 18 cities. Early this year, another 20 cities. And now on this tour, four battleground states. We're going through Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. We heard this story earlier today in Alexandria. Everywhere we go, we meet people with these kinds of stories.

You make - to your question though - progressive tax codes, number one. Number two, putting women and children first. Women and children are falling faster into poverty than anybody else in this country. Number three, a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. We got reminded all last week or so at the Democratic convention what the president did on Lilly Ledbetter the minute he got inaugurated. Why not have the next president immediately call a White House conference on the eradication of poverty? Bring the experts together. Let's create and craft a bipartisan national plan, Neal, that would allow us to cut poverty in half in 10 years to eradicate it in 25 years? This is not a skill problem. This is a will problem. Do we have the will?

CONAN: It is a will problem. Changing those tax codes - and, Katherine, thank you very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Changing the tax code, you say that as if it's going to be easy. There's a huge argument right now over the Bush tax cuts. And cutting - eliminating the tax cuts, which President Obama would like to do and which Republicans resist to the last breath and to the last vote, ending them against those earning over $250,000 a year.

WEST: Well, that's true. I mean, you need to have persons in the Democratic Party who are fundamentally committed to fundamental fairness of it. We just - the first two years, for example, Obama administration, you would have thought that those Democrats would be able to get through more progressive legislation. We know about the Republican obstructionism. We know about the difficulty that the president has had vis-a-vis the conservative Republicans. But it's a matter of not just will and - but also intellectual clarity and also an honesty about telling American citizens the truth about the social misery and all.

SMILEY: And, Neal, very quick. There's some more basic stuff that we could do. Even before you get to arguing about tax codes - and, of course, nothing happens in Washington without an argument these days. The president clearly has had lot of obstructionism to deal with. But he ran on a platform saying that he was going to push to raise the minimum wage to 9.50 an hour.

The reason why that sister in Arizona has to work so hard is because we don't have a living wage in this country. We have a minimum wage. We ought to be - we ought to at least be $10 or just over $10. But I read a stat the other day, Neal. To have kept up with inflation right now, if we had done that, the minimum wage right now will be $25 an hour. Now that might sound extreme, but the point is that where we are now is a long way from $25.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Debbie Myers: John Edwards' campaign was all about poverty. It went nowhere. Is that because there is no money in poverty? And, of course, there turned out to have been other problems with the John Edwards' campaign but the point remains.

WEST: Well, one, I mean, we hope that our concern about poverty, which is a moral, spiritual and political issue, is not a matter of just finding money in it. I know Tavis and I are not getting a penny out of what we're doing. In fact, this is Tavis's birthday, four different cities the same day. And he - and we are paying ourselves to support this particular tour.

But most importantly I think it - the issue of poverty comes and goes, and it's the timing right now. Look at what's going on in Chicago with this historic struggle between labor and the city. It's the timing. It's people waking up organizing, taking a stand and saying, in the name of fairness, we will not take it anymore. We want decent wages. We want decent work conditions, especially given the high levels of productivity that Wall Street for the most part has benefited from.

CONAN: And you say that and yet you also know that union shops have dwindled dramatically in this country. And now, the pressure on public service unions is increasing in many, many states.

WEST: Absolutely. You're absolutely right. But it's not just the trade-union movement. It's the manner of shaping the climate of opinion that I'm very supportive. Both of us very supportive of the best of our trade unions, especially the struggle in Chicago against Rahm Emanuel and the city. But it's the shaping of the climate of opinions so that poor people and working people's plight becomes more at the center rather than the lives of the rich and famous.

Neal, can I add very quickly that we've had a greater debate about poverty on America on your program, TALK OF THE NATION, than we've had between Romney and Obama. One of the things that we're doing and saying unapologetically on this tour is that Mr. Lehrer, October 3, and then Mr. Schieffer and Ms. Raddatz and Ms. Crowley, the four Americans who've been distinguished to moderate these presidential debates, need to put poverty at the center of these debates.

SMILEY: Let us see Obama and Romney go at it. Let's hear from them how they're going to prioritize the poor. In the last race for president, three debates between Obama and McCain, the word poor did not come up one time. Obama didn't raise it. McCain didn't raise it. The moderators didn't ask about it. We can't abide another campaign season where the candidates are not pressed to talk about the issue of poverty. The moderators can make that happen.

CONAN: Tavis Smiley and Cornel West on the Poverty Tour 2.0. They co-host "Smiley & West" from PRI and also co-wrote the books "The Rich and the Rest of Us," with us on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Trace is on the line with us from Houston.

TRACE: Hi. Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

WEST: How are you doing there, brother?

TRACE: I wanted to say that, you know, I went into a technical field for laser scanning and three-dimensional modeling. And we would run around and document refineries and chemical plants and whatnot for production, and safety and whatnot, documentation. Now, the company I was working for had outsourced our services in the modeling field to India and other countries that they pay less.

In doing so, what had happened is it shut down my work flow, and thus in the future, putting the work on the people in the United States to a lesser and lesser demand, where everything became more outsourced. And we should keep everything in. And what's happened now, is that the field that I'm is being outsourced, and it's hard to get back into that field without having the financial backing to start a new a new company.

CONAN: So outsourcing - I'm not sure how much you know about this particular industry. But outsourcing in general is American manufacturing jobs go to Mexico, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and so many other places.

TRACE: Right.

WEST: I think it's just clear that the globalization of our economic system has failed poor and working people, that capitalism, as it is presently constituted, is not working for poor and working people because there's cheap labor in various parts of the world. There's a race to the bottom to keep their profits high. The demonizing of unions, the marginalizing of the poor and the subordinating of working people makes it very difficult to deal with this increasing inequality in these obscene levels of poverty, especially among our precious children of all colors. And I think this is important, what the brother is talking about when he's talking about outsourcing.

CONAN: Yet how do you bring those jobs back? You described the problem well. But how do you bring those jobs back? What do you do (unintelligible)?

WEST: Massive of public and private investment, and jobs for bridges, and sewage systems, and roads and encouraging our private sector that we have to generate jobs with a living wage and using the power of government to ensure that there's a commitment to public interest and common good and not just private profit at the highest level to produce more yachts for the well-to-do.

CONAN: More taxes, in other words, to pay...

SMILEY: No more - no, no. We're talking about a structured transformation of employment, my brother, not just taxes. We need more than taxes.

CONAN: Where do you get the money for all of these infrastructure projects? The states are broke.


SMILEY: That's true. Where do we get the money for the wars? Where do we get the money of the prisons? Where do you get the money for the jails?

WEST: And that's what I meant, Neal, when I said that it's will problem, not a skill problem. Whenever this country wants to do something, it finds the resources to do it. That's what - and I know you're just asking questions. You're a brilliant host. But for those who really ask that question as if they, you know, they mean it, the reality is that when we want to get something done, we do. And the money is there, it's just that poverty has not been a priority. No president, Republican or Democrat, since Lyndon Johnson has made this, the eradication of poverty, a priority.

But when we want to bailout Wall Street, we find the money. Want to bailout the auto industry, we find the money. When we want to go to wars, whether or not there's good evidence to go there in the first place or not, we find the money. So, again, we don't buy the argument, there's not enough money. We just - it's about priorities. We believe that budgets are moral documents. Budgets are moral documents. You can say what you say, but you are what you are and we see who you are when you put your budget priorities on the table.

CONAN: Kathleen in Colorado: Medical costs have put my husband and I in the former middle-class column. My husband's semi-retired. Last year, took a 50 percent cut in pay, keeping our health insurance for 30 hours a week of work. We need socialized medicine. And, well, the president did pass what his opponents and now he, too, calls Obamacare.

WEST: Oh, and I wish Obamacare really were socialized medicine. I wish we can get these pharmaceutical companies and private insurance companies out of the driver's seat and we could actually cut the cost and allow for the assets of our fellow citizens across the board. I'd put it another way. Let's just give everyday citizens the same medical plan that Congress has.

CONAN: Tavis Smiley, Cornel West are on the Poverty Tour 2.0. They co-host "Smiley & West" on PRI and co-wrote the book, "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto." Where are you off to next?

SMILEY: We've been to Ohio. We just finished in Virginia. We are on the way now to Delaware State for our lecture there tonight, then on to Philadelphia tomorrow and Philadelphia at the Tenth Memorial Baptist Church. After Philly, we're going on down to Florida, to West Palm Beach. And so we are going to four states and just trying to beat the drum, trying to raise awareness about this issue that cannot be ignored in this critical election.

CONAN: And happy birthday, Tavis.

SMILEY: Thank you, Neal. I had a great time. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Tavis Smiley and Cornel West joined us from the BBC studios in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.