The Poverty Tour – Part 2

Part 2 of the week’s Poverty Tour shows puts the spotlight on the new poor. Around the theme of “I Had Everything,” Tavis also talks with Vicki B. Escarra, CEO of Feeding America.


Tavis: In our second installment of the poverty tour we focus on the new poor in the country – people in many cases who used to be in the middle class. Tonight’s episode is called “I Had Everything.”

[Begin film clip]

Dr. Cornel West: The blues ain’t nothing but a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. My bluesman right here, man. The white literary bluesman. (Unintelligible) every play he’s ever done, I teach him in my class.

Female One: (Unintelligible) the Tennessee Williams festival (unintelligible). You have chosen Columbus, Mississippi; this is not a poverty town.

Early Robinson: Me and my wife have been here, all over Columbus, Mississippi, trying to get help. Both of (unintelligible) jobs. Got to pawn cars just to keep our home.

Tavis Smiley: The new poor are the former middle class.

John: I had a job, I had a family, I had everything a person’s supposed to have, the car, the whole bit, and I’m down to nothing right now.

Dr. Cornel West: Will it be love and justice, or will it be hatred or revenge? And the blues said, “It’s all about the love. It’s about the love. (Unintelligible) caravan of love.”

Rep. John Conyers: There are more poor white people catching hell than there are Black people (unintelligible).

Cheryll Chambliss: I was with a nonprofit organization for 18 years. I’ve had my car repossessed and my home is up for forced sale.

Rep. John Conyers: We are in a class war right now.

Dr. Cornel West: You must come to terms with memory. You must come to terms with the reality you cannot not know, which is the hurt and the pain.

Tavis: The largest economic institutions were brought to their collective knees at government’s doorstep in search of salvation – the bailout. Wall Street socialized its failure on the back of Main Street. The resulting housing crisis and jobs crisis fostered a poverty unseen in generations – a poverty not just of inner city ghettos and barrios, but of the suburbs crossing all racial lines.

Nearly one-third of the middle class, mostly families with children, have fallen now into poverty.

Tavis Smiley: Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Cornel West. All right. (Applause)

Dr. Cornel West: Oh, what a blessing to be at the heart of the blues land. I’ve always considered myself a bluesman in the life of the mind, because the blues ain’t nothing but a (unintelligible) graphical chronicle of a personal catastrophe express lyrically.

The blues is universal. We don’t care what color, what culture, what civilization. Everybody has some catastrophe, but the question is, what is your response to the catastrophic? Will it be love and justice, or will it be hatred or revenge? And the blues said, “It’s all about the love.”

John: This is the homeless vet forum, that’s what we are. We’re the homeless vets at Freedom House. You talked about the poverty, that, that’s right. I had a job, I had a family, I had everything a person’s supposed to have, the car, the whole bit, and I’m down to nothing right now. (Unintelligible) in retail for almost 30 years.

I was working for one of the major stores who decided last year they needed to close 140 of their stores down. All of a sudden, everything was thrown out from under us. I worked with people that had been with the company 30, 40 years, a year or two left to be able to get kind of whatever pensions or the things that they had worked hard to be able to have in their retirement, people that only had like a year or so to go lost all of that.

Because I didn’t have the job, I also lost my home, and because of losing my home I had, my wife and I, I had to make sure she was cared for because I couldn’t. There wasn’t any way. So we split up and we’ve been separated for about nine months now.

Dr. Cornel West: So much love, it is (unintelligible) BB King might be (unintelligible) sometimes when (unintelligible) but you could feel the love when he plays Lucille, because he knows that he’s messing with misery, but misery never, ever has the last word, even if all he could do is stroke his guitar and sing his song.

Tavis Smiley: A million Americans of all races, colors and creeds are finding themselves in poverty. More children of all races, colors and creeds from 2008 to 2009 joined the ranks of the poor in this country than at any other point in time in recorded data in the history of this country.

A country for me is not a great nation unless it takes care of its babies. (Cheering, applause) Unless you take care of the babies –

Rep. John Conyers: The unemployment rate in Detroit is 31 percent. That’s a depression. That’s not a recession.

Cheryll Chambliss: I just want to speak to the fact that I know I did everything that I was supposed to do over time. I educated myself, educated my children, homeownership, and I’m not unique. I’m a person that has been laid off of my job. I’ve had my car repossessed and my home is up for sale.

My boss explained to me that he could hire two twenty-somethings for my salary and I can bring a lot to the situation where people are looking for experience that I’ve had over these last 30 years, but to just kind of put me out to pasture when I’m not ready is devastating.

Tavis Smiley: Because when she says that she is the face of poverty, she is. I’ve been saying and Dr. West has been saying consistently on this tour that the new poor in this country are the former middle class.

Cheryll Chambliss: There is poverty on so many different levels, poverty like we’ve never seen before, and there’s such a, just there’s so much greed at the top and so much corporate greed that something has to be done.

Rep. John Conyers: There are more poor white people catching hell than there are Black people right now. We are in a class war right now. It’s not coming; it’s already here. They just didn’t declare it.

Tavis Smiley: There was a white woman who was standing on the sidewalk who was waiting for our bus to pull up so she could read Dr. West and me the riot act, the riot act.

Woman One: (Unintelligible) the Tennessee Williams festival (unintelligible) y’all are upsetting me. You have chosen Columbus, Mississippi. This is not a poverty town.

Tavis Smiley: She didn’t like the idea that we were bringing a poverty tour, pull up outside this big poverty tour bus, you’re stigmatizing our town.

Early Robinson: I’m an ex-military man, we both lost our jobs (unintelligible) very (unintelligible). Got to pawn cars, got to do everything just to keep our home. Strong, healthy, can do it all, got all kind of skills. Nobody’s just not hiring.

Tavis Smiley: You’re husband and wife; both lost your jobs in the same month?

Early Robinson: Same month. February 2011. Been trying to keep the house (unintelligible) and both our cars is pawned.

Christine Robinson: I’m not a talker because I’m a (unintelligible) because I get emotional.

Early Robinson: Don’t do that.

Christine Robinson: Like Early said, he been cutting grass, I go clean houses. I have worked with all kind of patients; I got my (sounds like) senior license. I can do just about anything. I’m willing to do it. They cut us off (unintelligible) penalize us; we make $2 too much.

(Unintelligible) just like she said, our life insurance for 30 years, gone, car insurance, gone, they came and turned the cable off last week, the gas gone out the house. (Unintelligible) living, but like you said (unintelligible) and we have each other and we have God, and we just keep on going.

Larry Tate: Prairie used to just serve the elderly and the disabled. Now we serving everybody that need to serve. This year we had a budget of $2 million. 2012 our budget’s going to be about $800,000. So that limited all the service that –

Tavis Smiley: From $2 million to $800,000.

Dr. Cornel West: From $2 million to $800,000.

Tavis Smiley: It’s not even half; it’s less than half than what you had.

Larry Tate: Yes. Those are the cuts that came from the federal. So you can see now we’re going to have very limited service in 2012, and when we’re dealing with a big issue of poverty. So that’s just going to make things worse. It just seems like to me that the government has forgotten about the people, and we need to put that emphasis back on the people.

Dr. Cornel West: Columbus, Mississippi. The birthplace, of course, of the greatest lyrical playwright in the history of the country. His major theme is those who escape from reality. The engagement with reality, the engagement with history and the engagement with memory requires an engagement with poverty.

So the blues coming out of Mississippi is an engagement with history, an engagement with memory. It’s an engagement with poverty and a resilience against it. Endurance, fight back, and this is a love tour that fights back.

[End film clip]

“Female One:” 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

“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.

  • mizzmax

    I am continuing to share these segments on Facebook. I think that it is truly sad that American children and mother’s have to go without eating. I always work to teach my son not to take food for granted since he has no idea what it’s like to go without. He didn’t believe me when I told him that for some kids, the only meal they get is at school. We are truly in a state of Emergency. Thank you Tavis for bringing this issue to light.

  • Stephen Hand

    Most Americans have food. to eat It’s affordable housing the politicians do not want to talk about.

  • Ivan J.

    Thank you Mr. Smiley and Dr. West for having the courage to: TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT POVERTY IN AMERICA. I supported President Obama in the previous election and I just contributed a small donation on his re-election site to show my support again. I am an American of African decent. I grew up poor in the heart of rural Mississippi. According to income, I would be considered “middle-class”, but according what my “Madea” taught me, I am a part of the human race. Human beings should care about one another. I am just as American as Americans of European decent, so Pres. Obama should get in front of the mirror and practice saying the word, POOR. I applaud him for being the first U.S. president of African decent, but it time for him to direct some concern about the depression that poor Americans are enduring. Thank you Mr. Smiley for holding our elected leaders accountable.

  • Anonymous

    I am so happy that this “taboo” subject is being addressed. Everyone is acting like all is going well when it’s not. Working people are suffering but keeping their mouths shut. Thanks for hearing the silent screams of desperation.

    Yes, some folks are doing well but the middle class (new poor) are definitely not. Companies had to cut back on employees meaning more work and more hours away from family; no raises have been given to lots of folks for years – they are glad to be employed. But look at the cost of living – gas is costly, healthy foods are costly; working people are fighting to get loan modifications from banks yet the banks are giving them a hard time – families need to be able to stay stay in their homes. The banks should encourage homeowners to stay in their homes and pay even a miniscule amount for their mortgage payments because they were indeed bailed out by the government. They need to help bail homeowner’s out in return. If banks were more interested in their customers, they would see that a small mortgage payment is better than streets and subdivisions filled with abandoned/foreclosed homes.

    Banks should have been and still can be held accountable. They should have had to modify principals and been rewarded with money from the government on a sliding scale. e.g. if they help between 1-x homeowners to stay in their homes, they should have received x amount of money, etc.

    My mother urged her children to vote for President Obama because we believed that no matter who we voted for, nothing would change. We listened and voted. The president’s slogan was – HELP IS ON THE WAY. We still admire him but we need help.

    Mothers are being urged to attend colleges but if they had a low GPA from when they attended college as a teen, they are denied Federal Aid. In essence, the offer to return to school is there but they cannot sign up for classes because they have to pay for at least 2 courses plus books and materials out of their pockets.

    I have a Master’s Degree in Psychology and my student loans are approx. $75,000. How am I to make it when I am tossing and turning every day wondering how I can consolidate my loans? Where is the help for people like me? My goal is to become a PhD but how can I afford to return to school? Where is the incentive for a person like me.

    On another note, immigration was supposed to be reformed – what happened to that?

    Mr. Smiley and Mr. West – thank you. Hopefully, you can help transform the lives of many by addressing this situation.



  • Erika Zuniga

    Working as a Reemployment Counselor for the state, it saddens me to hear their stories and struggles. The new poor are the middle class is an accurate picture of the America I see everyday. Without jobs people loose their sense of dignity. We all need to be informed so that we may seek to change current policies. As Maslow states in order to reach self-actualization every citizen should have access to an education, food, and shelter. We need to stand united and hold these politician accountable.

Last modified: October 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm