Made Visible: Women, Children & Poverty in America – Panel discussion, Part 2

In the second of a three-part discussion, some of the most prominent females in the U.S. address issues around women, children and poverty in America.

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.

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Tavis: As I said earlier, this conversation would not be possible today here at NYU were it not for the generous support of the American Federation of Teachers, so please welcome their leader, Randi Weingarten. (Applause)

I can jump right to this, because the link between education, or the lack of a quality education and poverty, is so well-established in this country. That’s the one thing we don’t have to debate. Even Republicans agree that there’s a link between miseducation, or lack thereof, and poverty, so no debate there.

The question is what is the link between poverty and a child’s ability to learn in the classroom?

Randi Weingarten: Let me just start by saying thank you, because we don’t ever talk about poverty enough and it’s always a one-off, and the fact that you are making this a priority so that we shine the light on poverty so no one can say it can be ignored. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Tavis: I appreciate it.

Weingarten: I find it in my field just morally reprehensible that the debate is a total false choice. Of the moment you utter the word “poverty,” if you are a schoolteacher, you immediately get, “Well, you’re using it as an excuse.”

Now, I don’t want to use it as an excuse, I want to mitigate it. I want to make sure we address it. There’s a bunch of things we need to do in terms of the advocacy, which this town hall is a part of, but also in terms of the interventions which people don’t believe we can do.

So I think that you have to have both tracks at the same time. So the question we asked was about the interventions. So right now, what we see, and this is pre-recession, there’s a 40 percent achievement gap between rich and poor kids.

Tavis: Four-zero?

Weingarten: Four-zero. That is double the achievement gap between Black and white kids – 40 percent. We know that one-third of the achievement gap, whichever achievement gap you want to talk about, happens for a child between zero and five years old, because kids are so nimble then, that’s when they’re sponges. They pick it all up, right? One-third.

We also know that when there is a good early childhood program – everybody, Republicans, Democrats, everybody loves early childhood – that there is a rate of return on investment of $7 for every $1 you invest in early childhood. Don’t know too many investments that are better than that.

So less than 30 percent of 4-year-olds are in publicly funded 4-year-old pre-K programs in the United States of America. So we know it works, we know it’s a great rate of return, we know particularly for kids who are poor, if we can get them in, it’s fantastic, and we don’t.

Take a place like New York, my hometown. It’s harder to get into a pre-K program here than it is to get into Harvard. (Laughter, applause) So when you talk about the issue of austerity, this is an intervention that we know will work, and why are we not doing it?

Not just doing it in a pilot program, and secretary of Education has a pilot program trying to put some money together, secretary of Labor has been fantastic in trying to find ways to put pieces of money together for these interventions.

But that is the measure and the caliber and the character of are we going to solve the problem. This is an intervention that works and can work hugely well. What we’re seeing in lots of places around America, two-thirds of kids have their only real meal, nutritious meal, in schools. (Applause) Teachers these days are spending on average $25 a month to feed kids.

We have to give up the ghost and say that education is here and everything else is here. Bring it all together, use schools as the hub and also focus both on fairness and quality at the same time. (Applause)

Tavis: I’ve got a thousand follow-ups once I – there is no community pushing harder right now on this issue than our Hispanic brothers and sisters. This DREAM Act has got to get passed. It has to get passed, it has to get passed. (Applause) It’s got to get passed.

Nely Galan is a Latina, obviously. She is an entrepreneur, has her own company, doing a lot of great work at the Adelante Movement to engage and involve women.

I have never seen a community that people want to exploit more politically, socially, economically, culturally. People want to exploit them in so many ways, and yet I’ve never seen a community that Madison Avenue here in New York craves more.

They are trying to get to Latina moms more aggressively than any other consumer in the country right now, and I wonder if you might speak to that dichotomy between being exploited on the one hand –

Nely Galan: Mm-hmm, right.

Tavis: – and being craved on the other hand.

Galan: It’s very difficult for all of us to read continual statistics about us that don’t really explain who we are, and that’s why I related so much to what you said, that kind of are a downer, that make us feel like we are – and that kind of are framed in a way that make us feel like something’s wrong with us and we are taking something away from this country.

The dichotomy is that when then you go to consumer products companies and to advertisers, they look at us as we’re like the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that’s because their numbers are nice numbers. Their numbers show that we’re living in a multicultural society, 30 percent of the country is multicultural, and 16 percent of that group are Latinos. By the year 2030 we will be 30 percent of this country.

Do you know that Latinas come from countries in Latin America where, we or our families come from Latin America, where we’ve seen governments come and go, where banks have defaulted, where we live in cash societies, where someone like me could never grow up to be me, ever?

I could never be an entrepreneur in some other Latin America country. So we come here in gratitude and in hard work, and when we hear things about poverty and our relationship to poverty, it almost is like – we say in Spanish (speaks in Spanish).

It’s a little shocking, because we don’t live in a state of mind of poverty. We think it’s a transitional thing. We’ve been in and out of poverty for generations, and it doesn’t mean we’re stuck there.

I think that’s very important. Latinos do not see ourselves as stuck in poverty, ever. When Latinos were in the worst boat, Latina moms, out of nowhere, were striking in the numbers. Latina moms were starting businesses.

When they went further and said, why, what is it? They don’t want to be rich, they don’t care, they don’t want to be famous – none of the American values. Because they didn’t want their kids to go under the bus.

I decided I am going to start a movement for Latinas. There has never been a movement for Latinas, and it’s called The Adelante Movement, because “adelante” means “move it, move forward.” (Applause, laughter) And it’s true.

So we started a tour in December and we’re going to go through the country, and all the information all the other people get, we’re going to give it to Latinas.

We have to remember something else that I hear in these board rooms all the time. If we want to ask people for something, then we have to come through too. If we’re asking the government to do something for us, then we have to vote. If we’re asking somebody (applause) – if we’re asking a corporation to give us money, we have to buy their products.

If we are asking a network to put more African American and Latinos and Native Americans on TV, then we have to watch their shows. It can’t just be a one-way street. We are no longer in a world – the world has changed. It’s not about them giving to us. We have the power to make or break their companies. We are bigger than the main – we are the mainstream. (Applause, cheering)

Tavis: That’s a nice segue to Suze Orman. Suze’s latest “New York Times” best seller – they all are, aren’t they, thanks to you – “The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Create the Future You Deserve.” How’s that for a segue?

Suze, last time you and I saw each other, you said something to me that just arrested me, and I must tell you I’ve been using this line across the country, and I ain’t going to lie; I haven’t been giving you attribution for it either. (Laughter)

Suze Orman: I bet I know what the line was.

Tavis: What was it?

Orman: That there is a highway into poverty and there is not even a sidewalk out. (Cheering, applause)

Tavis: That’s it, that’s it, that’s it.

Orman: I know when I say something that’s good. (Laughter)

Tavis: But if that’s true across the board, how much more true, then, is that for women and children, that there is a highway in but not even a sidewalk out?

Orman: Yeah. I’ve been sitting here and I’ve been listening. Aren’t you all surprised how quiet I have been –

Tavis: I was.

Orman: – this entire time? Because I’ve been listening deeply. I’m listening deeply because they’re all good reasons that we are here. The Congress this, the education this, Native American, Latina – the whole thing – and it all, in my opinion, boils down to what is every single person in this audience today, what is every single person who is watching this program today, tonight, listening to it on the radio, what are you going to do for yourselves? (Applause)

Women are very interesting to me, and it is no doubt that women have the ability to give birth, in most cases. In most cases, women have the ability to feed that which they have given birth to. So on some level, it is a woman’s nature to nurture, and she, in my opinion, will nurture every single person – spouse, family member, pet, plant, employer, employee – (laughter, applause) before she will nurture herself. (Applause, cheering)

But it is not until a woman is about 50, 55 or 60 and she is all by herself, her spouse has left her, her children now are grown and still living in her house (laughter) – it’s true – that she finally starts to say, “What about me?” (Applause)

Now when women come together, rather than working against one another, which girlfriend, they do. I cannot even begin to believe how much women love when I fail, as if when I fail at something it’s going to make them a bigger success.

Their ratings will be better on their TV shows; people will buy more of their books. Women, we have got to stand by one another. We have got to (applause, cheering) – we have got to help one another.

The solution, Tavis, in a very strange way, is everything everybody’s doing right here on stage, but it’s what you’re going to do for yourselves as well when you go home. Are you going to stop giving the store away to family members who could be working but they’re not working, so you’re supporting them?

Are you going to stop doing things that squander all of this money that you are making? Ladies, the day that you matter to who you are, to yourselves, and you’re willing to not come off of that point that you matter, is the day that true change in the United States of America begins. (Cheering, applause)

Tavis: I want to hear from Sheryl. Sheryl has done expert work on global poverty, and so this is not just a domestic thing. I want women to know that they’re connected to women around the globe. The co-author of “Half the Sky,” she’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Sheryl WuDunn.

Listen to these stats: The gap in poverty between men and women is wider in this country than anywhere else in the Western world. That tripped me up. Someplace else, maybe, but not the Western world.

Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70 percent are women. One point three billion people living in poverty around the world; seven-zero percent, 70 percent are women.

One of the things that you talk about, Sheryl, in your work, and Nely kind of hit on this and Suze just commented on it, one of the things that we know that works around the world is microfinancing. We see women all over the world in various countries who are starting their own businesses courtesy of this notion of microfinancing, these microfinancing loans.

So I wonder if you might address that or anything else you’ve heard, and then we’ll bring everybody else back into the conversation.

Sheryl WuDunn: Actually, as I have been listening, there are many things here that echo what I’ve seen in global poverty as well, and mind you, I actually am not in the field actually helping these people. Actually, I’m the messenger, so that’s very, very important, but it has given me a very broad view.

I think that in the first case, I think overall in this country we tend to look at poverty as a drag on the economy. We tend to look at people in poverty as a drag on the economy. Having a conversation about poverty is that we have to move from discussion of the problem, people in poverty as a problem, as people in poverty as part of the potential solution.

If we’re trying to grow the economy, where are you going to get the people who can potentially help grow that economy? It’s people who are in poverty. So you do need the foundation, you need education. That’s very, very important. But what’s also interesting is that I’ve seen solutions in education around the world that really could work well here.

Weingarten: That’s exactly right.

WuDunn: Some places in Kenya, some places in Cambodia, have done a better job with education – in China – than they have here in the U.S., and that’s kind of embarrassing, considering we have such experts here (applause) and wealth.

I’d like to draw on the experience of China. Now, I know that a lot of people think China is run by dictators, they’ve done terrible things to the dissidents, and they have. But they also have done something remarkable. So just 20 years ago we were talking about the year of the woman.

Twenty years ago most of the people in China were in poverty, and they were under a communist society. So not only did they have to combat an economic challenge, but they also had a political challenge and a social challenge. Twenty years ago they said education was really critical, because if we can educate our girls, even if they can get just to the middle school level, they can start working in factories.

We here in the U.S. call them sweatshops, but frankly, they were the best alternative that a lot of middle school and high school graduates had. So they worked, and they worked their butt off. The factories were located very near the communities, so if you could actually take – maybe it’s not factories, maybe it’s something else, but it’s something that gives a goal for the people in the impoverished communities to live for – potential jobs.

If they know that they can just graduate from middle school they can, even if it’s a vocational school, they can just get that job at that local shop or that local factory. That’s what happened.

So girls were educated; they actually were able to, as they became women, they were able to work in the factories. They started bringing home a paycheck, and that elevated their status in their household and in their local village and in their local region.

That’s what’s so critical, is giving people a way out of poverty, and there are ways out. So I know, Suze, you were saying the highway into poverty, you go on the highway, but there’s no side streets out. There are side streets out, and I think that we need to make sure that the conversation focuses on solutions, not the drag that poverty presents. (Applause)

Tavis: Now, I want to – thanks for being so patient.

Madame Secretary, Sheryl said something now that I want to come back to you on first. For those who are watching this program right now who will invariably say that this is the absolute wrong approach, for government to be making poverty a priority, that we have already spent more money than we should have spent trying to life women and children out of poverty, to them you say what?

Secretary Hilda Solis: I say they’re absolutely wrong. That we need to continue that safety net. You can’t make choices about cutting back during a time when we are not fully in recovery mode. We still have very high rates of unemployment. You heard it here – 8.3 whatever percent. We know it’s even higher in some communities.

Women have suffered the most. While we’re represented in the workforce, we’re not making the same wages comparable to where we should be and with men. I keep saying that.

So the real answer here is about more investments and training and certification. That’s why the president is putting a proposal forward to put in $8 billion to put into K-12 and also community colleges. We want two million people to come out of community colleges after a year with certifications and licensing.

Employers keep telling me, and when I travel around the country, “I want better-trained people; I want them to be flexible, adaptable. I don’t want the Ph.D. I want the person in the middle, the technician.” There’s a lot of folk out there that can be trained for these kinds of jobs. So I’m saying let’s make it happen.

But something that was said earlier about empowering women to run for office, Emily’s List is a good example of starting to help to give funding to support women. I was someone who ran for office and got early support, early money, from women, always women, but also learning that you have to build coalitions with other people.

Women look at issues and problems very differently from males. So let’s have fairness in the workplace. Let’s treat women easier and better if they decide to go into professional careers as an elected official. I don’t want to say politician, I want to say elected official, because I take that very personal.

There are a lot of women who ran for office that are not rich, and I know many of them. They gave up a lot of lucrative things, even the security of their families, to serve the public. We consider ourselves in many ways public servants.

So I want people to remember that, that it isn’t a bad thing to do, and there are a lot of good women that I know that serve in Congress that care about domestic violence, that care about women getting an upper hand, getting a good job, making sure that they have retirement security and that everyone has a fair shot at education.

Tavis: Randi, I’m coming in one second, I promise.

Dr. Malveaux, since Madame Secretary raised this issue again, the numbers are clear. Black and Latina women are twice as likely to be in poverty in this country as white women.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: The numbers are clear about that. Black women, the numbers right now are so abysmal for Black women in particular –

Malveaux: Yes.

Tavis: – for Black people more broadly, the numbers are worse for us, but Black women in particular.

There’s a deafening silence in Black America with regard to the Obama White House and this administration and what they ought to be doing about poverty across the board.

To my mind, the president, respectfully, hasn’t use the word poverty enough; hasn’t talked about the poor enough. That’s my own assessment and we can debate that another time.

But what we cannot debate is that there has been a deferential silence on the part of Black people more broadly, and Black women specifically. I love Barack Obama, I love Michelle Obama, I love the two kids, I love the image, I love all of that, (laughter) but there’s been a deafening silence in our community about poverty.

Why, how, can Black women be so silent about their own poverty right now in this area?

Malveaux: That’s a great question, Tavis, because when you look at Melanie Campbell and some people had a thing Friday, and she talked about the voting patterns of African American women. We are the most loyal Democrats that there are.

We voted overwhelmingly, 97 percent, someone said, for President Obama. Now, having done that, what have you done for me lately? (Applause) That’s really a question that we have to ask.

But I think there’s a schizophrenia in the African American community about President Obama. Everybody loves him. I love to love him. The brother’s fine, he’s smart, (laughter, applause) he’s got it going on. Tactically, given the recession, I think that the president should have done jobs first and then healthcare.

By doing healthcare first, he used up a lot of political capital, took a long time. Then he gets these Republicans and Tea Party people who do not understand that they get social services. (Laughter, cheering, applause)

Tavis: Yeah.

Malveaux: Yeah, Tea Party’s people’s mamas get Social Security, because (unintelligible) not supporting him. Their kids go to publically supported schools, but they’re sitting here saying, “Cut, cut, cut, cut.”

As Faye said, they diverted the conversation by talking about reproductive rights as opposed to economic rights. If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one. That’s all. It’s real simple. (Applause)

African Americans, I think, are extremely understanding of President Obama, but that should not prevent us from speaking in our own self-interests, and it should not prevent African American women from talking about this poverty, our children.

Here’s the other piece. Okay, can you imagine a President Gingrich or a President Romney or a President Santorum? We might as well just check our wombs at the store if President Santorum would be president. (Applause)

So for any flaws we see in President Obama, I think in this season he is better than any alternative that we can look at. (Cheering, applause)

Tavis: We’ll hold there for tonight. We’ll be back tomorrow night for our final night of our conversation about “Made Visible,” women, children and poverty in America, here from NYU. See you tomorrow night. Keep the faith. (Applause)

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Last modified: January 19, 2014 at 9:36 pm