HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

The Secretary of Health and Human Services identifies what the current administration has gotten right in dealing with the issue of poverty.

As Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius helms one of the federal government's largest civilian departments and spearheads implementation of the new healthcare reform law. She was previously a two-term governor of Kansas and named by Time as one of the top five governors in the U.S. From a political family, she's the first daughter of a governor to serve in the same position. Sebelius also previously served as a state legislator and was Kansas' first Democrat to be elected as insurance commissioner.


Tavis: Our thanks again to the wonderful work being done on the poverty series by the Media Mobilizing Project. In addition to their fine work that you’ve seen every night this week we chose to partner with Media Mobilizing on this poverty tour for their stated mission of giving voice to those often left out of the mainstream media, including many of their staff, who come from poor and working class backgrounds.

For more on this critical issue tonight, pleased to be joined by Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor who now serves, of course, as the secretary of Health and Human Services. She joins us tonight from Washington. Madame Secretary, an honor to have you back on this program. Thank you for your time.

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: Well, thank you, Tavis, good to be with you.

Tavis: I wanted to start, and I wrote this down to make sure I got it right, I wanted to start by sharing with the nation the actual mandate, speaking of mission, the actual mission of what HHS all about, and these are your words, your agency’s words.

That you are the agency, the principal agency, for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. That’s your mandate, your mission, as you well know, at HHS.

So I want to start by just asking you, speaking of the media and your mission, how often – and I’m not asking this to brown nose or asking because you’re on this program during a poverty week, but I’m really just curious because of my sense of what the media has and has not done on poverty over the years.

So here’s the question: How often does the HHS secretary get asked explicitly about poor people, about poverty in America?

Sebelius: Well, I would say probably not often enough, but we certainly have talk about poor people and get asked about what happens to people who don’t have insurance in America, what about health disparities, how do our poorest kids fare with early childhood programs?

What about their childcare situations? What about the food they’re eating and the neighborhoods they live in and the air they breathe? So those are parts of the conversations, at least, that I have on a pretty regular basis, and it’s certainly part of the mission that we take very seriously and that the administration takes very seriously.

What is happening to the most vulnerable, the least able to help themselves? Throughout our agency it’s healthcare, it’s essential human services, it’s support for poor families, it’s getting people back to work, it’s a whole series of strategies and programs that really hopefully keep people on the road to opportunities in America.

I want to give you an opportunity, I should say, in a moment, as the representative this week on this program, the representative of the Obama administration, I want to give you free reign to let me know, let the audience know, what you believe the administration has done best in these three years to help out poor persons in this country. We’ll get to that in a second.

But let me stay with this subject for a moment about the media and ask how it is you think we get a conversation going about eradicating poverty in this country, a conversation that ought to come out of Washington, many people believe, when the talk in Washington, Republican or Democrats, when the talk in Washington is always about the middle class and never about poor people, never really about poverty, but always the middle class? How do we get a real conversation going about poverty in America if we’re always fixated on the middle class?

Sebelius: Well, I think that there’s no question that the tour that you did to highlight what some of the situations are in inner cities and rural communities is an important piece of that conversation, but I think for most Americans what they want to do is be on the road to the middle class.

They want to have their children be in better shape than they were. They want to have the opportunities of a good job and a good education and healthcare that they can rely on. Know that they won’t go bankrupt if somebody gets sick or has a disease. Know that they’ll get excellent care.

So I think these strategies around how you put people on a pathway to the middle class, support the middle class, make sure that we’re paying attention to how people can support their families and take care of their kids is exactly what most people, the poorest in America and others, want us to do.

They don’t want to, I think, be separated out in their certain strategies involving poor people. They want people to be able to take care of themselves. That’s what I hear from folks each and every day, “I just want to take care of my kids. I want an opportunity to have a good job. I know my kids are going to get the same education and have the skills they’re going to need.”

A lot of the programs that at least we run in HHS and I think that the president has paid a lot of attention to are those pathway programs, getting people on the road to opportunity.

Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago what you hear as you move around the country as the nation’s leading advocate for poor people in government, certainly in the Obama administration. Let me give you a quick sense of what I heard, along with Dr. Cornel West, as we took this tour.

I heard, obviously, a lot of concern about what Washington is not doing for poor and working people. A lot of complaint leveled at Republicans, but a lot of people disappointed because they thought that things would be different under President Obama.

They bought into that notion of hope and change, and changing the way things are done in Washington. So I want to pipe down for just a second and let you make the case for what you think the Obama administration has done right, has done best, on eradicating poverty or helping out working class Americans.

Sebelius: Well, I don’t think anybody could make the case, Tavis, right now that we have eradicated poverty. I think what we have done is keep a floor under some of the most vulnerable people, and it really started with a series of initiatives.

The first programs that the president focused on, the Recovery Act and the expansion of the children’s insurance program, were about making sure that more people didn’t fall through the cracks.

What we know in the Recovery Act is about four and a half million people were kept from falling into poverty. They were able to have unemployment insurance, keep people on their Medicaid benefits and actually open up those services, even at a time when states hit a financial wall, those services were available to more Americans than ever before.

More money into early Head Start and Head Start, critical programs for kids. More money available for childcare services that allowed working parents to go to work and take care of their kids. New food nutrition programs, a new school lunch and breakfast program. New housing starts that kept people – Shaun Donovan, the secretary of HUD, says about a million people were kept from becoming homeless.

We’re talking about, as you well know, the worst recession since the Great Depression. So we’re talking about a financial catastrophe in this country and resources that really were directed to I think the most vulnerable folks, trying to make sure that they didn’t take the terrible brunt of the people who were losing 700,000 jobs a month.

So there was an enormous effort that went on. I spent a lot of time, we run the Indian Health Service and run a lot of programs throughout Indian country. There’s been the biggest investment in First Americans’ resources ever in any administration, and they are some of the poorest Americans.

So there’s been a lot of attention paid to where we have huge gaps in our programs and trying to get resources under some of the poorest people in this country. We have a lot of work to do, no question about it. There’s a lot more to be done.

But I think the list of what has been accomplished, which should include, I will say, the Affordable Care Act, having on the horizon an additional 34 million people about to have reliable health insurance in this country bringing the level of Medicaid up to 133 percent of poverty.

So no matter where you live, your geography won’t determine whether or not you get healthcare. And as Dr. Martin Luther King used to say the worst injustice, the disparity is in health. That is the most significant factor, and I think the president believed that and put a lot of his support and energy into making sure he was the first president in the country to finally cross that big barrier.

Tavis: I wanted to give you an opportunity uninterrupted to lay the case out, and I’m glad you did. What I hear you saying, though, in part, and what I hear Secretary Donovan at HUD saying, what I hear Secretary Solis say, quite frankly, what the president has said himself repeatedly is that it could have been worse.

Now, politically speaking, which I don’t want to go there with you, politically speaking, I’m not sure that’s a winning strategy next November, that it could have been worse, but it does raise this question as to what you say to Americans, almost 50 million now, who find themselves in poverty.

That number has increased during the tenure of the Obama administration. What do you say to folk who don’t want to hear that it could have been worse given what they’re in right now, because that doesn’t help their situation right now, and they believe that it might not have been as bad as it is now had the administration focused early and often on jobs as opposed to other issues.

Sebelius: Well, I think that again, I think it’s important for people to understand what did go on and where those dollars were directed and how important those dollars were. What the president then has proposed in his 2011 budget, what he’s got in his 2012 budget, what he’s got coming in the 2013 budget, where the resources are in the American Jobs Act, which are really aimed not only at jump-starting what as anybody would call a sluggish economy, but really looking at some of the long-term unemployed, getting folks back to work.

Some of the most successful programs, Tavis, that we ran were in the TANF area with subsidized employment. Working with states saying what you need to do is put some of these low-income families, put them in a job training program so that the employer gives them job skills, they get a job and then they get a pathway to actually keep that job and support their families.

We have a couple hundred thousand people who successfully participated, almost 300,000 young people who were hired. Those are part of the American Jobs Act, saying those are the kinds of strategies we need to move forward, not just keeping teachers in the classroom and police officers on the street, but we also need to make sure that some of the folks who need a pipeline to long-term employment, need training, need to be hired, have an opportunity to do that.

I think that’s why he’ll keep pounding away that that’s the most important thing Congress could do. As you know, last night the Senate decided not to allow the bill to go forward, but he’s not going to put this on the side shelf. He’s going to keep making the case to the American public that we have to get the economy started, and the economy includes everyone.

It’s an issue where we need all of our best talent to be educated, to be healthy and to be employed.

Tavis: Secretary Sebelius, as always, you’re kind to accept our invitation to come on this program. Delighted whenever you do show up. I thank you for sharing your insights tonight about poverty in America.

Sebelius: Sure. Okay, thank you.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

“Announcer:” Brought to you by the AARP Foundation.

“Announcer:” WK Kellogg Foundation – engaging communities to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Learn more at WKKF.org.

“Announcer:” The Annie E. Casey Foundation – helping to build better futures for America’s kids and families.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 29, 2011 at 11:56 am