Remaking America – Panel discussion, Part 1

In Part 1 of a conversation on “Remaking America,” thought leaders wrestle with solutions for restoring the country’s prosperity.

The middle class are the new poor. More children are going hungry. People are losing their homes. Must Americans wait on the government to mobilize, prioritize and energize the nation? These are issues that are explored in an in-depth conversation with a panel of thought leaders.

Guests include: Majora Carter, environmental justice advocate and producer-host of the Peabody Award-winning public radio show The Promised Land; Roger Clay, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development; award-winning journalist and human rights activist Barbara Ehrenreich; Vicki B. Escarra, president-CEO of Feeding America; personal finance guru and Emmy-winning TV host Suze Orman; Oscar-winning filmmaker and activist Michael Moore; and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West.

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Tavis: Barbara, I’m so honored that you are here. I want to start with you because the numbers here have been coming out so much of late, certainly in the last three or four months of 2012.

It seemed that every other day, there was a new statistic coming out about how bad things really are. The most recent one, though, from the Census Bureau, our government finds that one in two Americans is either in poverty or near poverty.

Now I was no math major in college, but I think that means half the country is either in poverty or near poverty  And if you add three categories together, the perennially poor, the new poor and the near poor, you’re talking over 150 million Americans. I want to start by asking very simply and very forthrightly how did it get this bad?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, let me just say about those numbers. You know, there’s been an idea for a long time that the poor are some kind of special group, some special demographic. They are over there somewhere.

Now we have to face we’re not talking about someone else. You know, we are talking about almost half of Americans struggling and that goes from the senior citizen who can’t make it on social security, it’s the young person who can’t pay off student loans, it’s the low-wage worker at Wal-Mart or something like that. It’s a massive phenomenon.

You know, we’re gonna have a whole discussion about how did we get this way, so I’m just gonna throw out one possible cause.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Ehrenreich: Because a theory from a long time covering not only from the right, but from some Democrats, is that poverty means that there’s something wrong with your character. You know, you’ve got bad habits, you’ve got a bad lifestyle, you’ve made the wrong choices.

I would like to present an alternative theory which is that poverty is not a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money [laugh], and the biggest reason for that shortage of money is that most working people are not paid enough for their work and then we don’t have work [applause].

Tavis: Dr. West, I want to come to you next to that. I want to build on what Barbara has laid out for us, at least in terms of wrestling with how it got to be this way.

Indiana University this week released a white paper called “At Risk” which really does detail what this great recession has done to the American public. It’s pretty clear from this report that the new poor in this country are the former middle class. The new poor are the former middle class.

Typically, politicians love – I guess their polls encourage them to speak to the angst of the middle class voter, but how do you talk to the middle class in ways similar to the past if the new poor in this country happen now to be the former middle class?

Cornel West: Well, I first just want to salute you in your leadership. Give Brother Tavis a hand [applause]. I was blessed to go to 18 cities in 11 states in seven days with Brother Tavis on the Poverty Tour that he came up with and his team facilitated.

We were able to see the middle class brothers and sisters of all colors, all cultures, all civilizations and sexual orientations because there were also immigrants with our brown brothers and sisters. They were Black, they were brown, they were white.

We started on the Indian Reservation because it’s always fascinating to look at America through the lens of the original people [applause], a very important starting point, the original people. We began with the notion that poor people are priceless and precious. This is each individual has a dignity that ought to be affirmed, and what did we see, Brother Tavis?

We saw the results of a system in place that has been driven by corporate greed at the top with oligarchs ruling and politicians rotating with money coming from the big banks, big corporations, pushing working people to the margins and rendering poor people superfluous, which is to say, either unnecessary or, in the great metaphor of Ralph Ellison, invisible.

So any time you talk about poor people, you got to talk about the larger systemic context. How could it be that the top 400 individuals have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million fellow citizens? There’s something sick about that.

Then how could it be that poverty hasn’t become the major moral, spiritual issue of our time? Because our leaders lack courage and independence. They’re too tied to big money [applause].

How could it be that the prison industrial complex has been expanding and $300 billion has gone into jails and prisons and the criminal justice system and yet, when it comes to money for schools, money for housing, money for jobs with a living wage [applause], it’s a warped system.

We’re here because Martin Luther King, Jr. and others said America’s a sick society. America doesn’t always have to be sick if Americans rise up the way the Occupy movement has been talking about and begin to talk about these issues seriously.

Long as there’s brown face, we overlook it. White middle class face, uh-oh, we got a problem now. We’re gonna have to deal with some things [laugh]. And that’s fine because we believe that white brothers and sisters have the same value as red and brown and Black and yellow.

And this moment, that’s why I’m so excited about the manifesto that we wrote, brother. We had a good time writing that thing. Oh, we did.

Tavis: Let me go to Roger Clay on the other end here ’cause I think that Roger can speak to something that Dr. West raises now. Dr. West suggests, if I can put it in this way, Roger, that poverty in this country for too many of us is color-coded.

How much of our lack of will to address heretofore at least the poverty question has to do with the fact that poverty is so color-coded?

Roger Clay: I went back and I looked for the last 40 years to see what the unemployment rate was for Blacks. Only in one year has it been lower than it is now.

So to support what you’re saying, Black folks have been hurting for a long, long, long time, but no one paid attention to it because we look at the unemployment rate for everybody and not for the various sub-populations.

So I think it’s just a good example of what happens in looking at a lot of problems of our different racial minorities is, if it doesn’t hit the white community, it doesn’t happen. It didn’t exist. What’s happening now, of course, is that there are a lot of white folks that have now fallen out of the middle class or are in danger of it, so now it’s a problem.

Like it wasn’t a problem before and Black folks have been there for that entire time, the last 40 or 50 years since we’ve been keeping statistics and, of course, much longer before that.

Tavis: One of the arguments that you’re hearing, Michael Moore – it’s always fun to ask Michael Moore a loaded question because it’s just more fun that way. Part of what we’re hearing from some of those white folk, Michael, is that what this conversation represents is class envy, that somehow people are envious, they are jealous, they are hating on people. We’re a bunch of haters on all the folk who have money. What do you make of that argument?

Michael Moore: Well, it’s not envy, it’s war. It is a class war and it’s a war that has been perpetrated by the rich onto everybody else. I mean, the class war is one they started.

The mistake they’ve made, just to deal with the racial part of this, is their boot has been on the necks of people of color since we began.

This is a nation founded on genocide [applause] and built on the backs of slaves, all right? So we started with a racial problem. We tried to actually eliminate one entire race and then we used another race to build this country actually quite quickly as a new country into a world power.

This country never would have had the wealth that it had, had it not had slavery for a couple of hundred years [applause]. They actually had to pay people to build America. We might just be at that point in Utah where we’re joining the two rails together, maybe at this point right now.

Here’s what I find really interesting. You know, corporate America and Wall Street, they’re always thinking about what’s in it for us? How’s it gonna work for us? They actually need poverty. They need poor people.

The system doesn’t work for them unless there’s always a good chunk of poor people. The mistake they’ve made is that they had a permanent poor class mostly of people of color, but a lot of poor white people too.

They had a permanent class of poor that they could use as essentially a threat to the middle class. If you asked for too much, if you asked for higher wages, if you’re expecting health benefits, if you want a day off, you could very quickly be over there with those people. So they knew how to use this group to manipulate this group.

The huge catastrophic, tactical mistake they’ve made because of their incredible greed and they came up essentially with the housing thing because, after they’d soaked the poor, after they’d used the poor, they thought, geez, we’re just not making enough money. What could we get off the middle class? Wait a minute. They all own homes. Let’s do the mortgage thing.

They made the huge mistake of taking that away from the white middle class. They went after them. They went after their homes. They moved their jobs overseas. They took their healthcare away. They made it so that their children would be the first generation in the history of this country who would be worse off than their parents’ generation.

The final thing I want to say to this is that what I don’t understand is that Wall Street and the banks have so over-played their hand here. They should have just eased up a year or two ago. You know, they should have maybe just backed off and then they could have had their larger class of permanent poor.

But I think it works in their benefit because, listen, why would we have poverty? If Wall Street and the rich thought poverty was bad, they’d get rid of it if they really thought it was not good for them, right? They have the means to get rid of it, but they don’t. They need it.

They need this large, large half the country, half the country living in anxiety and fear and the other half over here are the ones they’ll sell their goods to. That’s really actually messed-up economics because they’ve been going for the short-term gain and, sooner or later, they’re not gonna make their money on that.

Sooner or later, the Chinese are not going to be in poverty. People are gonna rise up in other countries. You’re not gonna be able to go over there and do this for ten cents an hour.

I think they’ve made a colossal mistake because I think you’re going to see – you’re seeing it now, this large group of the American public, the 150 million, rising up [applause].

Tavis: This conversation tonight here at George Washington is made possible thanks to the generous support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, so, one, please thank the Kellogg Foundation for making this possible [applause].

There is particular question submitted from the Kellogg website that I wanted to get to tonight because it’s a great segue, Suze Orman, to you. Michael just talked about and referenced a number of times the group of Americans who have always been poor. I called them earlier the perennially poor.

There’s a question from the Kellogg website. It says, “All too often, children who grow up in poverty tend to stay in poverty. What factors do you believe contribute to this life-long trajectory among American families?”

That phrase got me, this life-long trajectory amongst too many American families. I want to ask Suze to comment on that because we know Suze Orman as the most regarded financial expert in this country, to my mind.

You might not know that white Suze grew up on the Black side, the south side, of Chicago [applause] in a whole lot of poverty and, obviously, she has made her way out of that, but she has a unique perspective on the perennially poor in this country that might, again, not seem plausible at first glance. But, Suze, talk to me about what keeps people in poverty.

Suze Orman: What’s interesting is this, and I’m gonna take just a little different approach on this, if I can.

Tavis: You certainly can.

Orman: Years ago, I kept saying to everybody – I’m sure if all of you have ever heard me speak, you have heard me say, people, be careful. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and sooner than later, the middle class will not exist. The people that call in to the Suze Orman Show now that’s been on the air for 11 years used to be middle class.

I’m here to tell you they are all now in poverty. The face of poverty has changed. The face of poverty is the person sitting next to you. It’s every single color. And what keeps us in poverty is that there is a highway into poverty and there’s no longer even a sidewalk out.

To get out of poverty, you have to have a source of income. You have to have the ability to generate money so that you are not poor. It is not brain science. But you cannot make money if there isn’t a job for you to have.

Even if you do make money, you can’t afford to pay things especially when you see the prices of food out there and what it costs. So everything is set up, as Michael has said, that once you are poor, they have you exactly where they want you.

Now I don’t give them as much credit as you do in that I don’t think they’re smart enough to know what they did purposely [applause]. I don’t. I think they go after money and we don’t know what to do because we’re not educated on money.

So when somebody says to you, “Sign here, you can have your American dream,” you believe them. And you believe them because you want more for yourself and why would they lie to you? Well, they did, everybody.

There is only one person that can get you out and that is you, and you have got to start taking your own power, giving power to your voice, stop sitting down not saying anything [applause] and just settling for less. If you settle for less, you’ll always be less.

So what changes this is when people start to voice how unhappy they are. What also starts to change things, if you simply stop buying from the corporations that are keeping you down [cheering].

Tavis: I want to ask Majora a question to my right here about the link between poverty alleviation and environmental remediation, and I want to ask that, Majora, because poor people, those who are perennially poor, aren’t just stuck in poverty. So often, they’re stuck in certain pockets.

That is to say, certain neighborhoods, and they can’t get out and those environments get dumped on. There are lack of resources, often there is no transportation, there is environmental racism.

So there’s a link between poverty and environment. Talk to me about the link between poverty and environment.

Majora Carter: It’s very real. My work has always been based in showing that environmental equality could be used as a tool to create economic stability and opportunities.

I’m very well known for the type of things like transforming dumps into parks, but ideally, what those kind of projects actually did was just to provide a very visual reminder that things, just because they look a particular way right now, don’t have to be there always. So it’s a very visual way to do that.

But environmental equality is very simply a belief and a principle that no community should have to bear the brunt of lots of environmental burdens and not enjoy some environmental benefits.

We know now that race and/or class – it’s both actually – will determine where you find the good stuff like parks and trees and things like that and where you find the not so good things like the waste facilities and the power plants.

But there is hope and opportunity that I think we’ve kind of missed a lot of, the fact that we can create a new economic opportunity around things like how do we adapt our country, in particular our coastal areas and our cities, to deal with the way that the climate is changing?

You know, the fact that we can use environmentally sound ways to support things like storm water management and energy conservation while creating real jobs that provide opportunities, accessible jobs in particular for people that have been left behind by our education system for so long, whether it’s green roofing and urban forestry management, things of that nature that really provide municipal services as well or even using real estate development as a platform for engagement, for the kind of community development that aspires to really help undo the unintended consequences of integration that made it so that, when communities were once at one point more racially segregated prior to when segregation was legal, but then later on once we had integration, those that had more money were able to leave, leaving some very vulnerable people in these pockets of poverty.

So if we can use real estate development to create truly mixed income, communities bring back the kind of resources so that poor people aren’t always so poor, bringing in things like manufacturing and different types of commercial opportunities, always keeping an eye toward the type of environmentally sound things that do not continue to destroy the fabric of our communities.

We can do that. We’ve done it and we know we can do more of it [applause].

Tavis: Vicki, thank you for your patience. I appreciate you sitting through…

Vicki Escarra: …saving the best for last.

Tavis: [Laugh] I love that modesty. It’s actually perfect timing because what Majora was talking about a moment ago in these pockets of poverty are that people get stuck. They get stuck with these conditions.

One of the things that you know better than anybody in this auditorium is that, in these pockets of poverty, people have access to less than, whether we’re talking high-quality food, fresh fruit, fresh meat, fresh vegetables, etc., etc., etc. They’re exposed to less than in these pockets of poverty.

But I think, that said, when most Americans think about hunger, when they think about food and security, they don’t think of that as an American problem. We think about the infomercials we see on late-night television, little African babies with big bellies.

But talk to me about what the numbers are saying to us about hunger and food insecurity in American right now.

Escarra: Yeah. So the numbers are huge. I mean, there are 50 million Americans in this country that are hungry and that means that they don’t know where their next meal is gonna come from. They’re fretting and worrying, if their parents, about how they’re gonna feed their children.

If they’re little kids at school, they come in oftentimes on Monday mornings with not enough to eat and they’re fidgety and not learning in classrooms. We know this because we’ve done a lot of work with teachers that talk about this. They’re senior citizens that are living on a fixed income and they are too modest and embarrassed to ask for help.

So we’ve seen the numbers since the recession. We’ve seen the numbers doubled. 150 million people? I mean, come on, guys, this is a crisis. We’ve got a crisis in front of us. But the interesting thing which goes back to several things that various panelists said is it is, up until now, been hidden. We all know somebody that is struggling.

The work that we do at Feeding America – we do the biggest piece of research around hunger in America that’s done – shows that it’s doubled since the recession, as I said, but also the people that are coming to our food banks and into food stamp offices for the first time has grown by 30% and that 30% are people that are visiting that have never been there. So it is the middle class.

I was thinking about this as we were getting ready for the panel. You know, this country has come together and solved some really big issues around race because of great leaders like Dr. King, have solved great issues like women’s suffrage because of Susan B. Anthony and this is an issue of leadership and we need to join hands together and lead.

150 million? That’s half of our country. If we can’t do something about this now, then we never will [applause].

Tavis: We have to leave it there for tonight, but join us again tomorrow night for Part 2 of our terrific conversation. You can access Remaking America in its entirety by visiting our website at Until next time, goodnight from Washington and, as always, keep the faith [applause].

Narrator: 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.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation, engaging communities to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Learn more at

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm