A group of eight people got together one day a couple weeks ago at George Washington University to talk about poverty. C-SPAN filmed the symposium and made it available online. I saw the link to it on twitter, but put off watching it because, holy guacamole, it’s 2-1/2 hours long and who has that kind of time? Well, I made the time over the weekend and I’m telling you, it’s definitely time well spent.
The program is titled Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity and is moderated by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley.
The panel is diverse and features some familiar names as well as some I’d never heard before, all of whom have impressive credentials. They are (alphabetically): Majora Carter, Roger A. Clay Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, Vicki B. Escarra, Michael Moore, Suze Orman, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West.
I can’t remember when I’ve heard a more intelligent, articulate and passionate group of people discussing issues of great importance without the entire thing devolving into petty argument and one-upmanship.
Yes, there are a few odd moments when you have to ignore the egos and overblown rhetoric and just focus on the content. I think that’s to be expected with a group like this. I mean, c’mon, Michael Moore and Cornel West on the same stage? But those moments are rare and Smiley as moderator does a masterful job.
The focus is on how we got here and what we can do about it. They discuss the demonization and criminalization of poverty, the inescapable downward spiral of debt, the peril and permanence of student loans, the connection of food stamp application information to criminal databases, the impossibility of improving a bad FICO score, the implications of poverty on hunger and malnutrition and obesity, the effect on education and innovation. On and on, connecting one issue after another like dominoes on a giant game board of failure. The discussion is fascinating and sobering.
Some of the facts are shocking. There are currently 150 million people in the United States who are living in or near poverty. That’s half our population. Half. How can that not be at the top of our list of concerns? How can that not be at the forefront of national debate? Yet it’s a problem that is largely ignored. The poor and near poor are a group that always has been and still is marginalized. Allowing, expecting them to struggle daily, perennially, hopelessly, with the crushing debilitating effects of poverty verges on criminal negligence and it is indefensible.
Yet the composition of that group who are poor, especially the racial makeup, is changing. The middle class is disappearing and poverty is fast approaching a tipping point where it will no longer be possible, or politic, to ignore the problem. How shameful for us as a society that this problem might now gain wider attention and perhaps attract solutions simply because it currently affects more white people than ever before.
This discussion is frank, if unfailingly polite, and might make you uncomfortable. That’s a good thing. Probably it’s a necessary thing.
I don’t want to debate politics here. This shouldn’t even be a political issue. It’s an issue of social injustice. A matter of human decency. Poverty is a huge festering sore that we must address, regardless of political leanings.
Watching this symposium and digesting the facts and opinion presented by the participants is a damn good place to start. Yes, it’s 2-1/2 hours long. So bookmark the page and pause and re-start as you are able.
If you’re like me and find articulate thoughtful discussion to be compelling and can’t hit the pause button in spite of your best intentions to do so, I suggest you not start watching it at 2:30 AM. Really.
But given what’s at stake, I don’t think any of us can claim we are too busy to give this issue a mere half hour of our attention every day for a week. That’s the least we can do.