August 13th, 2011, by

If you’ve heard of Barbara Ehrenreich, the National Magazine Award-winning American journalist, human rights activist and renowned muckraker, it’s probably related to her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. To expose the terrible living and working conditions of America’s legions of working poor, Ehrenreich spent months traversing the country, working as a hotel maid, waitress, nursing home aide, housecleaner and Wal-Mart salesperson, while trying (with varying degrees of success) to live on the money these minimum-wage jobs brought in.

The book was a huge hit, becoming a New York Times best seller and garnering praise from across the nation. Ehrenreich has been busy since, writing books about the polarization of American politics and the surprisingly negative effect of positive thinking on our culture, but now, ten years after Nickel and Dimed, she returns to the subject once again, discovering that things are largely much worse for America lowest wage earners.

In a recent essay on Salon, How America turned poverty into a crime, Ehrenreich turns a hard gaze on the laws and institutions that are, effectively, making it a crime to be poor during one of the worst recessions in American history. Indeed, while the people in her book struggled to feed and house themselves and their families ten years ago, it was during a time of great prosperity for the rest of America. Now, things have gotten much, much worse.

According to Ehrenriech, as many as 29% of American families could be living in poverty, and thanks to laws that treat these mostly hard-working people like criminals, it has become an even more difficult cycle to escape. Check out the piece on Salon. Ehrenreich is one of the best voices on the side of the working poor in American journalism, and she needs to be heard.





July 27th, 2011, by

This week, production for Tavis Smiley on PBS began its annual hiatus. Tavis will use the month-long break to not only get some much-needed rest and continue his Foundation’s annual Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, but also to kick off a 15-city national Poverty Tour to raise awareness about the plight of the poor.

Did somebody say something about Tavis getting some much-needed rest?

Our Web site staff did manage to track him down for a few summer reading recommendations. Because Tavis has conversations with so many authors on his television and radio shows, we were curious to know which books he thought we should add to our summer reading lists.

Check out his recommendations below, and be sure to watch his conversation with each author. Tell us what you’re reading this summer as well!

1) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
This literary phenomenon and New York Times best seller is the story of a poor Black woman whose cancerous cells were used for science without her permission.

“I think that the story had been told over and over in little magazine articles and newspaper articles, and it was always the same little nugget of the story – this one woman’s cells taken without her knowledge – became this important thing in medicine,” says Skloot. “Nobody really saw much; what the story’s about is her family. That moment in history, it’s ethically complicated, but it was really common to take cells without people’s knowledge in the ’50s.”
Watch the full conversation

2) Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, by Annie Jacobsen
Jacobsen’s New York Times best seller addresses what is happening at the Nevada air force base and attempts to explain what could be so secretive that U.S. presidents are denied entrance.

According to Jacobsen, “You’ve got all kinds of government presence in the desert, none of which the government will talk about what’s going on there. They still, to this day, will not officially say that Area 51 exists.”
Watch the full conversation

3) Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John Farrell
Focusing on iconic American, Clarence Darrow, Farrell brings to life one of this country’s grandest defense lawyers.

“He had this amazing sense of empathy and compassion,” Farrell says. “When given the choice between taking one route, making a lot of money and joining corporate America or doing something like defending an indigent person who was really stuck, Darrow would come, time and time again, on behalf of … the damned in American life.”
Watch the full conversation

May 26th, 2011, by

Remember in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor, how a bunch of women came forward saying he’d groped them and otherwise behaved in a matter unbecoming of a public figure (or a decent human being)? Turns out they may not have been Democrat shills after all. Hunh.

I was living in California at the time and remember being quite surprised that the allegations were so easily and effectively swept under the rug. Even if half of the claims were true, what kind of behavior was that for the leader of America’s most populous state? I wondered why it didn’t bother the people voting for him.

In any case, as we all know, he won. Twice. And most of those women were never heard from again… until now. It seems that the whole secret-lovechild-with-the-housekeeper thing did more than ruin the Governator’s marriage. As a recent post on Jezebel reminds us, the affair with his domestic helper may have been consensual, but that appears to be the exception.

Meanwhile, California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman is calling for an investigation into whether Schwarzenegger used government funds to pay off his maid/lover. “During Arnold’s campaign when women came forward and raised issues about his sexual advances and activities he and his minions denied them vociferously and actually accused the women who came forward of being liars and manipulators,” said Bauman, “What a shock that it was we Californians who were lied to and manipulated by Arnold.”

And while this may seem like a nice bit of publicity for one Democratic Chair, it seems to have the ring of truth to it, at least according to this statement from a hotel security officer, who claims to have repeatedly seen Schwarzenegger using government vehicles to transport his mistresses to and from his hotel suite.

It’s hard to know if this scandal will quietly disappear as these things tend to do, but at least those of us who suspected this guy wasn’t on the level can feel slightly vindicated. Even so, it’s not a very satisfying feeling.

May 24th, 2011, by

When Tom Selleck came to the set recently, he brought a gift in honor of Tavis’ new book, FAIL UP: 20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure.

The gift was a quote from Calvin Coolidge about persistence.

Tavis read the quote during the conversation, and a couple of viewers asked that we share the quote with them again online (h/t Tondra and Melany A.).

So here it is. It certainly is powerful.


Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” ~Calvin Coolidge

May 15th, 2011, by

Erik Prince, the embattled founder of Blackwater — the American private military contractor accused of various shady dealings in the Iraq war — has a new army. After selling Blackwater (since renamed Xe Services), he’s continued his work as a private military consultant, assembling mercenaries for whomever has the cash.

Most recently, according to a lengthy report by The New York Times, Prince has been tasked with assembling an 800-member battalion of a private army for the leaders of Abu Dhabi, whose main function would be counter-terrorism and putting down internal revolts. To this end, Prince and a group of advisers composed of American and British retired combat officers, recently assembled a group of Colombian mercenaries at a desert compound in the Emirate.

According to the Times, while the Colombian soldiers were expected to be ready for deployment within a few weeks of their arrival, it soon became clear that they were far from prepared, some of them having never fired weapons before. Notable, however, was the reason for assembling an army of Spanish-speaking mercenaries (as well as South Africans, British and Americans) in an Arab country. Says the Times, “Former employees said that in recruiting the Colombians and others from halfway around the world, Mr. Prince’s subordinates were following his strict rule: hire no Muslims. Muslim soldiers, Mr. Prince warned, could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.”

Of course, mercenary armies are nothing new–from medieval times to the most recent war in Iraq–but this latest revelation sets a disturbing precedent for the area. Like prisons and schools, outsourcing military tasks to the private sector raises a lot of issues of whose best interests are at stake. In Abu Dhabi, the mercenaries would be commanded by that emirate’s ruler, but they would be motivated strictly by a paycheck (and a modest one, according to the Times). No one should be allowed to profit from war, least of all those, like Erik Prince, whose ethics have been repeatedly cast into doubt.



April 24th, 2011, by

Last week, two photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed while covering the popular uprising in Libya. For most of us, who see the images captured by journalists like these in the news every day, it’s easy to forget the real danger that goes into reporting from conflict zones.

Hetherington was known recently for his work on the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo, which he co-directed with author Sebastian Junger. He was also winner of the World Press Photo of the Year award for his shot of an exhausted soldier in Afghanistan. Hondros, too, was an accomplished photographer, who had also worked in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo and had been awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal, an esteemed war photography commendation.

Here’s an interview with Hetherington on PBS’ NewsHour, in which he discusses his work, as well as his new book of photos from Afghanistan, Infidel. And here’s a gallery of some of Hondros’ work put together by the Guardian.

Of course, for Hetherington and Hondros, they would likely have been the first to tell you that it’s not their own stories that matter, but rather the ones they are trying to capture and send out to the world.

April 22nd, 2011, by

How do you write about the sex lives of past presidents without being salacious? If you’re controversial publisher Larry Flynt, you co-write a book with history professor David Eisenbach and call it One Nation Under Sex.

“I knew nobody would want to read a history book written by a pornographer, so I was just covering myself there,” says Flynt in the Web-exclusive video below.

Flynt’s book has been well received, with Publishers Weekly writing, “Flynt and Eisenbach favor analysis over sensationalism, providing a new perspective of the men and women who have shaped our nation.”

In this Web-exclusive video, Flynt explains what he feels we can learn from the sexual transgressions of past presidents and answers the tough question of why Americans seem to be so obsessed with sex.

“People, I think now, want more information, and no book has ever been written like this. Publishers of history books are conservative; they tend to only want politics and policy. They don’t want to know about sex,” Flynt says, adding, “Well, I know that there’s a market out there that does want to know about the sex lives of politicians.”

Be sure to watch the Web-exclusive video below, tune in to the full conversation tonight and share your thoughts. Do the private lives of presidents and elected officials matter? Should we care? Why do we?


April 10th, 2011, by
Image via US Dept. of Justice
Image via US Dept. of Justice

Since being sentenced in 2009 to 150 years in prison, we haven’t heard all that much from Bernard Madoff, the man behind the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

Recently, a couple of Financial Times staffers, David Gelles and Gillian Tett, went down to visit him in prison. They spoke with Madoff for two hours — or rather, Madoff told them his story — in probably the most candid interview he has ever given.

The article, from this week’s FT Magazine, chronicles Madoff’s rise from upstart outsider financier, to one of the most revered men on Wall Street, to one of the biggest villains in the economic crash. He tells his story with a surprising even-handedness, even talking candidly about what he’s been doing in prison (seeing a therapist, reading Danielle Steele novels).

For someone who was the subject of so much media attention, it’s fascinating to hear him tell his story from his own perspective and get a little more insight into how the mind of such a man might work. 

April 6th, 2011, by

Most know award-winning veteran talk show host Larry King from his signature CNN program. He’s also a very funny guy. Even though King turns the tables on Tavis by asking the questions in a two-part conversation airing this week, Tavis couldn’t resist moving back into his usual role, if only for a moment.

Watch this preview clip of King describing his upcoming comedy tour, and tune in this Thursday and Friday as the two talkers reflect on their combined 70+ years of broadcasting experience.



April 1st, 2011, by JANE ISAACS LOWE

This post was previously published on March 21, 2011 at Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

Marist College recently conducted a survey to determine what superpower Americans would most like to have. More than a quarter of Americans said they would want the power to travel through time, which tied with mind-reading as the most popular choice.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we often wish we had the power to travel through time. We wish we could anticipate and adequately prepare for the challenges that lie ahead, especially to improve the health and well-being of the most vulnerable among us.

Fortunately, we got a taste of that superpower with the expertise of the Institute for Alternative Futures. While time travel may be the stuff of fantasy, we can look into the future — or rather, many possible futures — with the aid of scenario planning. This approach is helping us to understand how our society and the vulnerable populations within it could change over the next two decades.

Being healthy has as much, if not more, to do with our social circumstances — where we live, learn, work, and play — than our access to medical care. And if you’re vulnerable, it often means you don’t have the same kinds of opportunities to make healthy decisions as others. What opportunities you do have may be undermined by poor education, inadequate housing, low income, stress, or violence.

Recognizing the importance of such social influences on health, the scenarios we analyzed looked at a range of factors ranging from education and technology to food, cultural shifts, and crime.

Not surprisingly, two drivers of vulnerability loomed larger than the others: what happens to the economy and jobs, and how the government responds. Even a strong economy does not guarantee a drop in the ranks of the vulnerable. Likewise, there are ways we can respond to economic hardship that would ultimately improve their prospects.

The following is a quick overview of the four scenarios we considered:

The economy rebounds after the Great Recession. Education improves and benefits most families. But automation and offshoring prevent many jobs from ever coming back. Governments are constrained by their debts. Despite some improvements, the ranks of the vulnerable expand.

The double‐dip recession is followed by peak oil in 2016. Prices for energy and food rise rapidly while low‐ and middle‐income jobs continue to disappear. Government services and payments are cut severely, while vulnerability rises significantly.

A depression follows the Great Recession. Massive unemployment and hardship prompt a shift in values that leads to an economy that is fair and works for all. Governments are forced to be effective and education advances opportunity across populations. Vulnerability is reduced.

The economy recovers. High debt levels limit what federal and state governments can do. Families and communities become more self‐reliant and entrepreneurial. Technology yields low‐cost energy and food. Communities develop local currencies, barter services, and support innovation. Vulnerability is reduced.

These scenarios allow us to anticipate what might be, to imagine, to check assumptions, to leave less to chance, and to act in smarter ways to enhance the impact of our efforts and resources. The optimal response is to develop strategies that will work across a range of different conditions. For example, finding cost-effective solutions to vulnerability that can be deployed locally, but also scaled nationally, makes sense in any of the scenarios. All the more so if those solutions address interconnected factors — such as health, education, employment, and housing — at the same time.

This is a particularly challenging time for vulnerable populations and for the country as a whole. We still face high unemployment and deep, long-term deficits with budget cuts that imperil safety net programs, education, and health care. And signs that policy leaders will reach consensus on effective solutions to entrenched challenges continue to be elusive.

But just as Americans are largely in agreement about what superpowers they wish they had, we are confident that there are many innovative and practical strategies that could improve the health and well-being of our most vulnerable populations and that the majority of Americans could embrace.

The time to start identifying those solutions is now, guided by thoughtful, provocative tools that help us take that leap forward in time.

Jane Isaacs Lowe is Team Director and Senior Program Officer for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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