“The Nation” poverty correspondent Greg Kaufmann

Called “one of the most consistent voices on poverty in America,” Kaufmann weighs in on hunger, politics and policy.

Through his blog, "This Week in Poverty," The Nation's poverty correspondent Greg Kaufmann attempts to increase media coverage of poverty, share new research, elevate the voices of people living in poverty and offer readers opportunities to get involved with organizations working to eradicate poverty. He also serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, founded by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. Kaufmann's work has been featured on several websites, including BillMoyers.com and WashingtonPost.com, and he's spoken at numerous conferences. He's a graduate of Dickinson College and studied creative writing at Miami University in Ohio.


Tavis: We continue our conversation now about poverty in America and what can be done about it, what can and should be done to eradicate it, with Greg Kaufmann of “The Nation” magazine, who writes regularly, and I do mean regularly – like every week – about poverty in America. Gregory, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Greg Kaufmann: It’s great to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: I celebrate you because you’re one of the few people who actually covers the poverty beat in this country, and I appreciate “The Nation” magazine for giving you the space to do that on a weekly basis. You’re also working with BillMoyers.com.

Kaufmann: Yeah, I contribute to them as well, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, Bill has been good on this issue as well.

Kaufmann: Yeah.

Tavis: I want to start our conversation, particularly given that you are a writer that covers this every week, giving the audience some sense of how miniscule the coverage really is of poverty.

I imagine that one out of two Americans is either in or near poverty. If half the nation had cancer or half the nation had HIV/AIDS, or half the nation was illiterate, that’d be a major crisis –

Kaufmann: Yeah.

Tavis: – and something would have to be done about it if one out of two of us were in that kind of trouble. Yet that’s the reality where poverty is concerned. One out of two are either in or near poverty, and we can’t seem to get a conversation about it, in part because the media doesn’t talk about it.

Let me give you some sense of what I mean by this so you don’t just take my word for it. Media coverage of poverty in America, from 2007 to 2010, poverty was 0.2 percent – 0.2 percent – of lead media coverage.

Compare that to prominent news topics. Politics, 16 percent; business, 4 percent; immigration 1.4 percent; education, 1.2 percent; science, 0.6 percent.

So there was a slight bit of improvement in 2011 and 2012, as you might imagine, as we headed towards the presidential race.

Kaufmann: Sure.

Tavis: In 2011 we went to .22 percent, and in 2012, January through May, .25 percent. So as we got closer to the White House, or the election for the White House, it went up just a bit.

But that’s still 0.25 percent. Why, then, does the coverage of this issue that millions of Americans are trapped in so miniscule?

Kaufmann: Well, that’s a great question. I remember both you and I were working to push questions about poverty into the presidential debate and we didn’t get one.

I’m not exactly sure. You’d think it’d start to change. I think we’re all in the same boat right now in terms of needing – unless you’re at the very top you need a more equitable economy, Tavis.

I was struck before the new poverty numbers came out in September from the U.S. Census Bureau, just a few days before that the economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty released a new report showing who had gotten the gains since the recovery, right?

Ninety-five percent of all gains since 2009 went to the top 1 percent. Sixty percent went to the top .1 percent – people making over $1.9 million a year. So it doesn’t leave much for the rest of us.

So what I’ve been waiting to see is people starting to see us in that common boat, which I know you talk about that all the time, so that poverty isn’t isolated from the issues that everybody’s facing when you’re talking about needing better jobs and better wages.

Tavis: Let me go back before I go forward. When Greg is talking about that we were – and we weren’t the only ones. But a lot of people were trying to get this topic covered more expressly during the presidential race.

As you saw from the numbers a moment ago, the media covered it a bit more. But in four debates, that would be three presidential debates and once vice presidential debate, there wasn’t a single question about poverty.

Not one question posed to the vice president-to-be, not a single question posed to Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama in three debate. Not one question about poverty. That’s been going on for quite some time.

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: That wasn’t just this cycle.

Kaufmann: Mm-mmm.

Tavis: Greg and I have done the research and gone back a number of years through a number of presidential debates, and there hasn’t been not even a single, solitary question about it.

How is it that we elect the leader of the free world every four years and this issue can’t be pushed higher up on the agenda? Again, I come back to the fact that so many Americans – poverty is no longer, not that it ever was, it’s no longer color-coded. If anything, it’s colorblind.

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: All of us are victimized by it. How is it though that we can’t seem to get traction even on a conversation when people are running for president?

Kaufmann: Yeah. Well, I’m starting to think, Tavis, the more that we do this work, that it’s really going to take a broad-based movement.

It’s really going to take us sort of moving from – as you and I often say, why isn’t there the political will? If only there was the political will. I think the new question has to be what am I doing to help create the political will? What are we doing to help create the political will?

So when I look out there and see, for example, we see some pretty good movements right now for immigration reform, marriage equality. I think that’s what it’s going to take in terms of addressing poverty.

I think it’s going to take people going into the communities, making it visible, standing together, agitating, civil disobedience – all the things we’re seeing with those other issues.

Because we have great advocates in D.C. working on poverty – and I mean great advocates. I love these people. But I don’t care how good your talking points are or how great a report you write – nothing’s going to change, nothing ever changes in this country, right, unless it’s a significant movement. That’s my experience.

Tavis: So Lyndon Johnson, when he was president – as you know, in 2014 we will celebrate, commemorate, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of his war on poverty.

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: I’ve been saying this for some days now. The next four years – and I’ll come back to your point about how we mobilize – but the next four years give us a real interesting and unique window.

In 2014 we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the start of Johnson’s war on poverty – that’s 2014. Four years later in 2018, we’ll commemorate 50 years since MLK, Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: So 2014, 50 years since Johnson’s war on poverty; 2018, 50 years since King’s Poor People’s Campaign. That’s a four-year window that if those of us who really care about this issue really push, I think we can get this issue higher up on the American agenda.

But it comes back to your point – how we get mobilized. Sometimes the most difficult people to mobilize are the people who are fighting the hardest just to hold on.

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: Because these are the persons who are most impacted by it.

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: So what’s your sense, writing about this every week, of what’s happening in the country? Are there some best practices for how we can mobilize and organize the people who are most impacted by this?

Kaufmann: Right. Well, and I’m not an organizer, but when I’m talking to people – and I’m glad you mentioned about people being, working so hard just to survive. I think we have to keep that in perspective.

I’m just going to throw another – you and I like numbers. But the new poverty numbers showed that more than one in three Americans are living below twice the poverty line, so that’s less than $36,600 for a family of three.

So we know all those people are struggling to just afford the basics. Not able to pay for food, housing, healthcare, education – forget about savings. So you’re right, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to tap into those communities.

What I see is that there are a lot of communities doing good work, a lot of leaders in those communities. We need organizations that can go into the community and not say this is how you do it, but let’s work with them.

Let’s see what you’re doing right, bring that out to the surface more. I’ve talked recently with Center for Community Change, Deepak Bhargava. I bet you’ve talked to him on your shows.

They’re going to be launching a campaign. They’ve been at it for 45 years. They’ve worked on immigration reform, voter registration, affordable housing. They’ve said the next thing is a poverty movement.

So they’re going to be working at the local state level, trying to fashion campaigns around local issues, but also network to create those kinds of federal demands and pushes. They’re a good group that’s going something. Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Tavis: One of our supporters.

Kaufmann: Yeah, yeah. By the way, before I say this, let me say I get no funding from them, or foundation money, which I probably should make more effort at that, so I’m not saying that for this reason, though. (Laughter)

But they’re one of the few foundations really willing to invest in movement-building. They’ve got grantees all over the country, and they’re working with their grantees to start a membership organization, much like AARP is recognized for retired people.

But this would be for low-income people to have a real presence in D.C., led by low-income people. They have a track record of doing that. One underreported story during the presidential campaign, they brought together tens of thousands of families.

They brought them in a handful of sites, linked them up virtually, and they created their own platform, their own convention on what issues were important to them.

So I see them as somebody who – and their grantees. If they really set their sights on this membership organization, it’s going to happen.

Tavis: Let me jump into that, because you mentioned – since you’re talking about the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and I’m honored to have them as one of our sponsors over this four-year period.

Got Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the California Endowment, the Wyncote Foundation, American Federation of Teachers and others that we’re signing up every day to support this campaign with measurable outcomes over the next four years, this ending poverty in these silent spaces.

So Marguerite Casey and the other persons I’ve just mentioned, most of those persons are philanthropic organizations, which leads to a very simple question. Can philanthropy lead on this, or does it have to be philanthropy-plus?

Because in some ways, that’s where most of the work is being done. The government’s turned a blind eye.

Kaufmann: Right.

Tavis: I’m just trying to get a sense of where the push is going to come from beyond philanthropy, or is that enough.

Kaufmann: Yeah. No, I think it’s from the grassroots up, my opinion. I think philanthropy can help develop the capacity of the people and the resources that are already there, because a lot of these community-based organizations would have nothing without philanthropy.

So I don’t see them as the leader as much as an enabler to do what’s already happening. I recently – there was an award given to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and I think they really set a bar for what can be accomplished at the grassroots.

They won what’s called the Freedom from Want medal from the Roosevelt Institute, who recognizes groups and individuals who exemplify Roosevelt’s four freedoms that he spoke up in his famous address in 1941.

But anyway, this is a group of farm workers, all right, which historically are the most powerless and low-paid – it’s one of the most powerless and low-paid groups in the country.

Twenty years ago, they started working together to raise wages, and they formed coalitions with people of faith and students and other citizens and other workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers successfully, starting 20 years ago, raised wages through hunger strike, 30 days, through 250-mile march, through work stoppages. It took them five years, but they raised those wages.

But then they realized that really, it was the buyers of the tomatoes who were keeping their wages down. They started a national boycott of Taco Bell, and they won. Four years later, Taco Bell started paying extra for the tomatoes.

Now today they have a code of conduct. They’ve set a bar for what can be achieved if you’re persistent, if you build coalitions. You really can achieve quite a bit.

Tavis: I think the point that you have raised in this conversation, which I’m glad you raised, because I think it is the central point, which is it’s past time for us to stop asking why there is no political will, and to raise the question that you’ve raised, which is what am I doing? How am I exercising my agency –

Kaufmann: That’s right.

Tavis: – to help push those persons to find and engage the political will that’s going to require to change this issue of poverty in America?

Anyway, Greg Kaufmann, I celebrate him, as I said at the top of this conversation, because he’s one of the few people who covers this issue every single week on TheNation.com and of course works with BillMoyers.com as well.

So if you want to know anything that’s going on in the right against poverty in this country, Greg is my source, and he ought to be your source to keep you informed for how this fight is being fought and how it can be won. Greg, good to have you on this program.

Kaufmann: Great to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: October 23, 2013 at 9:20 pm