Made Visible: Women, Children & Poverty in America – Panel discussion, Part 1

In Part 1 of a conversation on the rising numbers of women and children in poverty, panelists discuss the financial, social and economic disparities that women face in the U.S.

Women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups, and the numbers of women and children that are falling into poverty are growing. What will it take for America to put her women and children first?

Answers to this question and other related issues are examined by Tavis and a diverse all-female panel of thought leaders, opinion makers and influencers.

Guests include: Nely Galán, founder of The Adelante Movement; Dr. Julianne Malveaux, economist and president of Bennett College; Suze Orman, a leading authority on personal finance; Hilda Solis, 25th U.S. Secretary of Labor; Cecilia FireThunder, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe; Faye Wattleton, former national president of Planned Parenthood; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and co-author of Half the Sky.

Sponsored by:


Tavis: You go on first here, the Labor secretary. Women and children, as you well know, Madame Secretary, are falling faster into poverty than any other group of Americans. It is also the case that the younger you are in this country – it’s hard for me to even get this out, but the younger you are in this country, the more likely you are to be poor.

Something, it seems to me, is wrong with a nation that allows its women and children, oftentimes the weak and the vulnerable, to fall into poverty faster than anyone else.

So I want to start with you and ask why is, in fact, that the case? Why are women and children falling into poverty faster than anyone else?

Please welcome our Labor secretary, Hilda Solis. (Applause)

Secretary Hilda Solis: I’d like to begin by saying that one of the things that the president did, President Barack Obama, as soon as he got into office, was help provide funding to help provide support, a safety net, for all of these vulnerable populations, particularly women, women of color, and children.

And the emphasis there was to try to provide a network of services through the Department of Labor, workforce investment training, because education and training is really what the key is here. It’s about jobs. J-O-B, get a job. Let’s help people get a job.

Let’s make sure that young people have opportunities, and in this recovery, what we’ve seen is more participation on the part of women, because they’ve fallen out of the workforce. They have been stagnant in terms of their wages. There’s still that gap.

We still have the 80 cents on the dollar per male, and it gets harder when it’s minority women. For African American women, it’s like 70 cents on the dollar; for Latinas it’s 60, and for Native Americans it’s probably a lot wider.

But I would say that our efforts have been to try to put more people back into new kinds of jobs – renewable energy, healthcare, IT – and also stretching our imagination and put funding into programs that didn’t exist in the last decade.

So I have to give credit to those folks that help to support the funding for these programs, but now, in my opinion, is not the time to take away that safety net, because there are folks in Washington that would like to see us go back because they want to make the deficit the issue as opposed to helping vulnerable populations.

Now at a time more than ever, 15 million more women are taking advantage of our workforce investment training programs, and that tells me that we’ve got a long way to go. We need to do more to make sure that we incentivize, tax breaks, so we can create jobs and allow for individuals to stand up on their own and also look for their own jobs and create their own jobs.

So we’re looking at using the UI benefits in a different format by allowing people to do work-sharing, stay on the job, get paid maybe a subsidized salary, but also to start up your own business.

I think that’s really exciting for women and especially because many of us, we are the sole bread earners in our household. That’s what you’re seeing – you’re seeing a lot of kids, minority kids, that are still dropping out of school.

But by the same token, some of our programs are serving the hardest to serve population. The Job Corps program, the Youth Build program, and right now we need to see these programs expanded.

Tavis: Since you referenced deficit reduction a moment ago, I find it incredulous that there are actually people in Washington, to your point, who don’t just want to change the conversation from – well, not change; poverty has not been a conversation as much as it should be – but they certainly want to change the conversation to one about deficit reduction, but there are voices increasing in Washington, particularly given what’s happening around the globe, who are calling for austerity.

How is it possible that anybody in his or her right mind in Washington could possibly think that austerity is the answer?

Solis: Well, part of the I think miscalculation on the part of those folks that don’t understand what’s happening is that you can’t do both at the same time. What you do is you ease into it.

So you have to yes, look at where there is excessive spending that won’t hurt vulnerable populations, and that’s what the priority for this administration is. Even in this upcoming budget debate that we’re having for 2013, there’s also that very – how could I say – very much prioritized effort to expand our job training programs, and I’m happy that the president is doing that for the first time for dislocated communities, displaced workers, but also hard-to-hit neighborhoods.

He’s actually making a concerted effort to do that, and we’ve done already some of these programs through demonstration projects and also funded our community colleges, working hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs.

Because if you don’t get it right you’re going to keep funding things that may not show a good product or end result. So we’re forcing the way we do curriculum, the way we’re talking to businesses, to be a part of that partnership and to make sure that there’s a lock on it, and that we’re looking at jobs that are going to be real jobs, secure jobs that pay well, not just minimum wage.

We’re seeing up new applications on the Internet, what we call apps, so that women can look at each other’s wages across the board with different corporations, so they can start making some assessments and hopefully negotiating for higher salaries.

We shouldn’t have to wait for major legislation that just recently got passed when the president got in. But Lilly Ledbetter – come on, we were talking about pay equity here. Nobody should have to [be] discriminated doing the same job that a man is doing but not receiving any kind of wage increase or benefit package as well.

That poor woman and many like her have lost out, in my opinion, anywheres up to $360,000 worth of earning power because that money was not put into her paycheck when she was working 20 or 30 years on the job. (Applause)

Tavis: As I expected, the Labor secretary would give me all the room I needed to run with, and I’m going to run with it. (Laughter) There’s so much she said already just to unpack, I want to go first to my friend Dr. Julianne Malveaux. She is the president of Bennett College for women. She is one of the nation’s leading economists and the author of this book, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”

I want to ask by putting you on the spot and asking you, with all due respect to the secretary, whether or not you believe the numbers that we are being given – all kinds of numbers coming out of our government. I ask that because we are told, for example, that there are about 50 million of us living in poverty. We’re told that if you combine those living in poverty and those near poverty it’s 150 million people.

I wasn’t a math major; that means one out of two Americans is either in or near poverty. Then you get into the specifics of the Hispanic unemployment rate and the African American unemployment rate, et cetera, et cetera.

But let me just start by not coloring the question too much, asking you whether or not you as an economist believe the numbers that we are told, or is it worse?

Dr. Julianne Malveaux: Well, with the unemployment rates, Tavis, it certainly is worse. I think the secretary would concede monthly something is published called “Employment and Earnings,” and it details the unemployment rates. But inside this publication, buried inside this publication, is alternate measures of unemployment.

Now if the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent theoretically, the worst alternate measure is something like 14 percent. So 8.3 versus 14. For African Americans, the number is almost 25 percent. So that’s one in four – one, two, three, you. (Laughter)

I think that’s really important, so we haven’t talked about the people who’ve dropped out of the labor market, the people who have part-time jobs who really want full-time jobs. So the numbers that we see, the poverty numbers, Tavis, let me just put those out there, because we need to understand that poverty is at a level that has not been since 1993. That overall, our poverty rate rose between 2009 and 2010 to 15.2 percent. Again, that’s almost one in six Americans.

For African Americans, the number is 27.4 percent. For Latinos it’s 25.8 percent. For Asian Americans the numbers are lower, and interestingly, Ceci, the numbers on Native American people are not published. Theoretically, the sample size is too small.

Now, how do we have people in our population, and their sample size is too small? Well, I know why. But I’m just saying, rhetorically speaking –

Tavis: No, no, tell us why. (Laughter)

Malveaux: Well, under a president that will go unnamed, but he was president about 1981, they actually (laughter) wanted to stop collecting racial and ethnic statistics. They (unintelligible) said, “We’re all one America.” This is this post-racial notion.

Well, when I have a post-racial unemployment rate, then we can be post-racial. When Black folks have the same unemployment rate as white folks, as everybody else. (Applause) The native data, the Native American population is one of our smallest populations, but it seems to me that we ought to invest the resources in finding out what’s going on with this vital population in our society.

See, we’re cutting education. President of Bennett College for women, the most challenging thing, we got young sisters and brothers who want to go to college, but the dollars are not there. The Pell grant is $5,500. Tuition, room and board at Bennett is $25,000.

So where’s a sister going to get the other $19,000 from? Loans. Now, if you take out a loan for anything, you should take it out for education, to invest in your education, but I don’t understand why – and Suze might disagree with me – but (laughter) Suze, I’m a college president. I need those students enrolled in my college. (Laughter)

So to cut education while the president has said he wants us again to lead the world in the number of people with AA and BA degrees, it’s foolhardy. This is like a farmer that decides they’re going to eat their seed corn as opposed to planting it next year. We should not be cutting education.

While you have these task forces looking at the middle class, which we do care about, let’s also look at poverty.

Tavis: Since we’re in New York, when he hears me ask this question on national television he’ll probably run down here, so don’t be surprised if Bill Clinton walks in the back door in about 10 minutes. (Laughter)

But let me just ask you forthrightly and directly, specifically with regard to women and children in poverty, how much of this is Bill Clinton’s fault? You know what I mean by that – 15 years ago it was our friend Bill Clinton who pushed through this welfare reform bill, and Peter Edelman, the husband of our dear sister Marian Wright Edelman, who’s the most courageous fighter in this country on behalf of children, (applause) her husband quit his Clinton administration job over this issue.

So let me just ask you how much of the – are the chickens coming home to roost? How much of this mess right now is Bill Clinton’s responsibility?

Malveaux: Well, certainly. You call it welfare reform; I called it welfare deform. Because you took a system that may have worked imperfectly, and you made it even worse. You have a lifetime cap on the number of – how long you can stay on public assistance of five years. That makes no sense.

Bill Clinton was pandering, frankly, to the right when he did welfare deform. We all love Bill Clinton, but he was pandering to the right, and he was excoriated on the floor of Congress.

But let’s be clear that right now I don’t think anyone has an appetite – this particular Congress is one of the worst I think that we’ve seen in a very long time, especially around issues for women and children. They don’t mind cutting anything. They’re running around the country basically talking about austerity at the same time that we’re seeing people falling into poverty. (Applause, cheering)

Tavis: Faye. So Dr. Malveaux says that this is the worst Congress in recent memory with regard to the rights of women. I want you specifically to connect this war on women specifically now being waged in Washington, this assault, with poor women and their babies specifically.

Faye Wattleton: Well, there’s always been a war against the poor. This is not a country that has had a tremendous sympathy for poor people, so I think that the notion that somehow we have slipped into an era in which poor people don’t matter is not quite the way our history would define it.

We really don’t care much about poor people. So when we think about what is happening today against women in public life and in political life, it really isn’t something that is new to our particular society and to the political landscape.

It’s been going on for more than 30 years, and Americans really – these are not acts of God, no one came down from the mountain and struck lightning and said, “You shall oppose women and you shall take back women’s rights and you shall invade women’s vaginas in order to advance your political agenda.”

This has been a very long time coming, and we have allowed it to happen because women still do not have first-class citizenship in our society. All of us here have been working for that. It is a very long journey. But let’s make no mistake about it – what we see that’s going on in Congress now is a very long legacy. It’s a long legacy in the composition of the Supreme Court; it’s a long legacy in all that has taken place in states throughout the country.

Chip away, chip away has occurred over this last three decades. It’s very interesting, however, that that chipping away always seems to focus only on the sexual decisions of women and our reproductive decisions.

So I think we have to really ask ourselves why are there more children in poverty, why are families in disruption? Because a lot of what has taken place is that women are primarily the heads of households now, and we are not perceived as real first-class citizens. There is an effort being taken to take us back, for real, to the traditional role that we have played in society, which is mother and caretaker, as opposed to women in our own right that deserve the dignity of our humanity as women, whether we are mothers, whether we are wives, whether we are sisters or brothers.

We are women and deserve the right of that dignity. The war on women’s reproductive lives is really pretty stunning at the beginning of the 21st century, that we are engaged in a conversation, a really serious and political life, with all that is before us, with all of the challenges of our society, with all of the desire for peace in the world and movements taking place all over the world that have used us in many ways as an example and as the template for the aspirations of peace, that our conversation has devolved into a conversation about what birth control pill you will use.

It’s just simply unacceptable. It’s undignified and it’s unbecoming of a nation such as ours that we are engaged in those kinds of conversations.

Tavis: Help me understand, though, how – (applause, cheering). 1992 was labeled, you’ll recall, the year of the woman, because there were so many women running for national office, running for high office, many of them even winning, obviously.

So in 1992, just 20 years ago, we are celebrating the year of the woman. Twenty years later there is a war on women. How, then, do women get compelled to exercise their agency to run for high office, to be a part of the body politic, because whether we like it or not, that is the sphere in which these issues are addressed.

But why not exercise one’s agencies, one’s right to run for office, to be a part of that body politic?

Wattleton: Because women have to support women, and sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. (Applause) The difficulty that women running for higher political office find is finding that early support that does not say that you’re guaranteed to be a winner any more than men are guaranteed to be a winner when they go to their donors and prospects to say, “Support me. I have to do the kind of research that is necessary to put together a credible campaign.”

Women simply don’t find that kind of resource available to propel us, and until women say that this is going to be over – we are half the population. There is no reason for our women and for our children to be in poverty. There is no justifiable reason except complacency and an unwillingness of women to do what was done in the early part of the 20th century that made it possible for all of us to be sitting on this platform today.

Tavis: Women, the numbers are clear – women make up the majority of Americans who are in poverty, but I want to come to Cecilia FireThunder, one, because I just love saying that name – Cecilia FireThunder. (Applause)

When my friend Dr. Cornel West, who’s in the audience somewhere, but Dr. West and I took a poverty tour around the country last year, we started this poverty tour on a Native American reservation, and when we asked them for this documentary about poverty in America what about the recession, how has the Great Recession impacted you here on the reservation, you know what they said?

You know what the women said to us? “What recession? What recession? It’s always this way for us on the reservation.” And so, Cecilia FireThunder is a single mom back in the day. She has two kids; she goes on to become a nurse so that she can take care of her kids.

She later runs for office and becomes the first woman to be the president of her Sioux tribe. It’s a wonderful story of single mothers – (applause) of single mothers exercising their own agency.

So that when Dr. Malveaux says that we don’t even keep track of what happens on the reservation, Cecilia FireThunder, tell me what it’s like for women these days, poor women and their children, just trying to navigate life on a reservation where the recession means nothing to them because it’s always so much worse?

Cecilia FireThunder: First of all, I’m one of millions of American women who identify as Native American. We represent a little over 500 tribes in America, large and small, the largest being the Navajo, of course, and the second largest is mine, reservation, 2.5 million acres of land, 40,000 citizens living in my country. Over half of our population are 18 and under.

He talks about “what recession.” During the Depression I can recall my father and uncles talking, “What depression?” So in America, unfortunately, there is a huge piece of land between L.A. and New York City called Middle America, where we live.

Many of the Indian reservations are in Middle America. We have much land, lots of poverty. One of the things I like to remind the audience is that the American Indians are the only ones mentioned in Article VI of the United States Constitution where in fact the quote is “To honor all treaties made by this government and the United States of America.”

So the question arises if we are mentioned in the Constitution of this country’s founding documents, then why are we always hustling around trying to get more money to address the poverty in our communities?

The other thing I want to be very clear is that we have at this point, that the majority of the women who work in tribal communities are women. Most of the college graduates in our tribal communities are women. Many of the positions held in our tribal communities, whether they be principal, superintendents or teachers, are women.

So when you take a look at this huge leadership amongst women in our tribal communities, people say why are women, Indian women, taking the lead? We have a lot of entrepreneurs, we have small businesses. One of the greatest challenges that we face in our tribal communities is access, access.

We are so rural and so isolated it’s really difficult to get from point A to point B. Then you factor in poverty, then that makes access even more difficult, to get to a grocery store, to make sure your food dollars go farther, to get to a town to see a specialist.

So when we begin to take a look at where Indian people live, we’re looking at isolation and large miles between point A and point B, and that makes it difficult many times.

In a city you have subways and you’ve got mass transit. Out in our rural communities, we don’t have that. Yes, poverty exists and it has existed for many, many years in our tribal communities, and it will continue to exist unless some changes are made to be able for young women to go back to school.

We changed the laws; we changed the SNAP laws, what we call the TANF laws. There are many, many federal programs that may look good, but actually, when you start to implement those programs it makes it difficult for people in rural communities to be able to use those types of services and programs.

One of the other things that’s been really successful is just getting our young women back into school. We have a high dropout rate, and our dropout rate is connected to other social problems.

And I’m not going to – I could sit here and talk about everything; however, in many tribal communities like mine, women have stepped up to leadership roles. As the first woman president of my tribe, white women – I’m sorry, white women have a glass ceiling. How many of you have heard of the glass ceiling?

Well, in Indian America we don’t have a glass ceiling, we have a buckskin ceiling. (Laughter, applause) The buckskin ceiling works like this. Okay, buckskin is pliable, so it stretches. So for many years they made it – we felt like we were really making progress, and we’d get only so far – bang, it just knocks us flat on our rear end.

Then what it is is that that internalized oppression, and how in our communities of color we hold each other back. Not only women – thank you for making that comment – women hold us back, but sometimes some of our men hold us back, and this is where the buckskin ceiling came into play.

One of the things I wanted to share with you is I took my oath of office to be the leader of my nation, I was given a knife, a symbolic gesture, to use this knife to cut through red tape and to go – there’s places where there’s barriers.

So I always wanted – I tell this story because it’s so true. The first person who cut that buckskin ceiling, made a little cut, was Wilma Mankiller. The next person who jumped up and made another little cut might have been Winona LaDuke.

So as we take a look at Indian country, there were women who were cutting that buckskin ceiling. So on the day of my inauguration I took my knife and I went (makes noise) (applause, cheering, laughter) and it opened up.

Tavis: We’ll leave it right there for tonight. Look for you tomorrow night for night two of our conversation on women, children and poverty in America here from NYU. Until then, thanks for watching and keep the faith. (Applause)

“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:” AFT. Making a difference every day.

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

Last modified: January 19, 2014 at 9:38 pm