From Poverty to Prosperity

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.


Filed under deep thoughts

10 responses to “From Poverty to Prosperity

  1. Lou

    Unfortunately, IMO, the demise of the middle class has been an ongoing problem for years. Witness the disparity between what CEOs make and what their “underlings” make. Then check out how the rest of the world pays their workers and leaders. Witness how easy it is for workers to get laid off if the shareholders are not getting “their just do”. Most private sector companies are publicly traded and the CEOs come first, then the shareholders, then – apparently – no one. Not to mention the crooks who gave loans to people who could not afford them and the crooks who actually falsified (Countrywide) the loan documents to make it look like the person could afford what they couldn’t. It’s a serious conumdrum!


  2. Lou

    Oh – and once we lose our middle class this country will deteriorate into a third world country with rich and many poor and nothing in between.


  3. Lou, I agree that this is not a new problem. The rich get richer, etc. One interesting point made in the video is that the perpetually poor are used to it. They’ve never “had” anything and are more likely to just accept that fate. But with the middle class now becoming poor, you have an entire class of people who were used to having nice things. And they’re not as likely to just sit back and accept their “new reality.” Especially now when it’s becoming increasingly easy for large groups of individuals to organize and make themselves heard in a meaningful way via social media.

    There are some interesting times ahead of us as a nation.


  4. Heidi

    More availability to help would..well…help. In MN, hunters wish to donate the phesant, venison and turkey they bag…but they can’t unless its processed by a professional butcher…who hates doing it…becasue the food shelf people want to use only *certain* butchers. This is BS. Many families have gardens and would like to donate exess produce…but they can’t…because its not been processed through government channels. Many farmers feel the same way about milk and eggs. Time to CUT THWE RED TAPE and get the help to thsoe that need it. Furher, re: Credit Scores…it si a sham. I have worked with credit my entire professioanl life and know firsthand what it does to the middle and lower economic classes…again…cut the red tape. Cut. The. Damn. Tape.


  5. Lou

    Interesting point about the poor “accepting their fate”, but more likely (these days) they get into drug dealing and other things that will provide money to purchase what they want.

    The former middle class, on the other hand, is (at least at the moment) terrified and barely hanging on wondering if they will have a job next week. I would like to see the “middle” class rise up and teach the established political system a lesson, but ain’t gonna happen – too much established dug-in power and brick walls to climb. The system needs so many changes that who knows where to start? It’s a conumdrum… sigh…


  6. Heidi, I agree. We have regulated ourselves to ridiculous extremes. I think we may well see a return to some kind of barter system. At least on a small local scale.

    Lou, I just can’t accept that stereotype of poor = criminal. The poor people I know don’t turn to crime. They simply do without. It’s heartbreaking. But I think there will come a turning point where people are going to find their power and make themselves heard. And I don’t think it’s as distant as the people in power believe it to be.

    As I said, interesting times ahead.


  7. Lou

    I did not mean to say that all poor people turn to crime – that is simply not true and I should not have been so cavalier. Unfortunately, where I live all too many people do turn to crime. Every night on the news, there are home invasions, shootings (yes, every single night), and robberies. I probably have a distorted view. We do, however, have many who are simply struggling without turning to crime. I donate as much as I can to the local organizations that assist those people.


  8. Oh, Lou, I know that’s not what you meant. I know you better than that. I apologize for the implication. Honestly, I think I’m too bone tired from work this week to be trying to make sense of anything. Obviously, a lot of people who commit crimes *are* poor, so of course there is some kind of correlation with the accompanying sense of desperation. Poverty is a huge problem. I think it’s important for all of us to start talking about ways to solve it.


  9. cbpen

    Around here they have been having donations from gardners and farmers going to the food banks. They have a program called “Plant An Extra Row” for local gardners. They plant extra and donate that. And, because a lot of them garden because they love it, they plant a lot extra. I guess it really helped all through last summer and fall. It was the first year for it. They also have meat donations and I think the processing is donated too.

    I saw 2 parts of the Smiley thing on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show a while back.


  10. Pen, that is encouraging to hear. I think we’ll be seeing more of this. I used to have a nice vegetable garden. Then came Quincy the Wonder Dog and his enthusiasm for eating EVERYTHING. [sigh] I could have a garden again now, except I’d have to cut down a couple large trees to get enough sun.