“Vision for a New America” – Panel discussion, Part 2

The discussion continues with some of the country’s most prominent thinkers and advocates addressing the notion of making poor people a priority in America.

The numbers are clear, the middle-class are the new poor. More children are going hungry every day. People are losing their homes. Poverty is threatening U.S. democracy.

On January 17, 2013, in Washington, DC, Tavis convened a panel of some of America's most prominent thinkers and advocates for a thought-provoking, action-inspiring conversation about poverty in the U.S. For three nights, we rebroadcast this special event devoted to the issue of how eradicating poverty in America can be made a national priority.

Panelists included: Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and associate professor of Drexel University's School of Public Health; Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United; Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH); Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House; John D. Graham, dean, Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs and author of America’s Poor and the Great Recession; Jonathan Kozol, author of Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America; Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; and Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary professor and author.

[The "Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty" program was held at The George Washington University Lisner Auditorium and sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation and Opportunity Finance Network.]


Tavis: (Applause) Let me start with you first, Jonathan, and then I’ll work my way back this way. I mentioned earlier Jonathan Kozol has done I think the best work, to my read, the best work over so many years now.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with his findings and what he thinks, he’s done the best work and certainly has spent the most time with children in poor communities, and no one has done anything better than he’s done making, establishing, and helping us to better understand the link between education and poverty.

I think as a matter of politics, Speaker, we all know that there’s a link between education and poverty. But Jonathan’s done the work on it, so Jonathan, just give me a top line of this new book, “Fire in the Ashes,” and these 25 years you’ve spent with children and the link to poverty.

Jonathan Kozol: Thanks, Tavis. Well, let me just – I rather forgot – Cornel always gets my blood boiling, because I (laughter) agree with him so deeply, and I’m old enough so I remember Dr. King. I was a young teacher in Boston and a white guy living in a Black community, and the Black ministers did me the honor of letting me stand by his side the first time he ever came to preach in Boston Common.

His words changed my life forever. That’s when I turned my back on an academic life and decided to teach fourth graders in our poorest neighborhoods. Dr. King – I get so angry every year on his birthday, or on Martin Luther King Day. I hear politicians who turn their back totally on every single thing he lived and died for, but never lifted a finger to bring an end to apartheid schooling, which is now at a higher rate than it was the year he died.

They say, “I too have a dream,” (laughter) and you can’t play games with the dreams of our prophets. Dr. King did not say “I have a dream that someday in the canyons of our cities north or south we will have test-driven, anxiety-ridden, separate and unequal schools.” That was not his dream.

Cornel West: Yes, yes, yes.

Kozol: So we’ve ripped apart his legacy, and then we use his name in vain. All right. My thing, as you know, is children, children in their schools. I’m not an economist. I wish I’d taken ec 1 at Harvard, but I was scared of numbers.

But my world is children. The only tried and proven avenue of exit for the poorest children in this country from the destitution of their parents is to give them absolutely terrific, exciting, beautiful, spectacular and expensive public education. (Applause, cheering)

And to fund it not simply at the same high level as the richest suburbs, but at a higher level, because those children need it more. (Applause) I’m just going to say one more thing about that, Tavis. In the past few years, class size has been soaring in our schools because they’ve been laying off teachers.

I walk into public schools in New York where I find 36 children in a fourth grade class, right back to the 1960s. I walked into a high school in Los Angeles – 40 kids in a 10th grade social studies class. I made the mistake of asking the teacher right in front of the kids, “How in the hell do you teach 40 children?” and she said, “Don’t ever ask that question.” She said, “Here, find out,” and then she left the room (laughter) and let me take the class. But let me say something. I’ll just stick to that one issue for now.

Tavis: Right.

Kozol: There are a lot of factors that go into terrific education, but one thing I know for sure is that the size of the class a teacher teaches is one of the most important factors in the entire pedagogic world. (Applause) I’ve heard plenty of old-time conservatives – Pat Buchanan once yelled at me, remember him?

He once yelled at me on TV and said, “Oh, that’s nonsense. I had 50 in my class and it didn’t hurt me.” Oh, I said, “Well, I’m not sure.” (Laughter) But the fact of the matter is look, let’s be blunt about it. I have rich friends, some who still like me, and a few, like Harvard classmates, and they’ll say to me, “Jonathan -” and these are people who read my books and they say they care about these poor kids in the Bronx.

They’ll say to me, “Jonathan, does class size really matter for those children?” and I’ll always ask them where their kids go to school and how many children in their classes. Typically, if they’re in a lovely suburb, it’s 16, 18. Parents panic when it gets to 21. If they go to lovely private schools like some of our friends in Washington, it’s more like 15.

Then I see these kids packed into classrooms where there are more children than chairs. I don’t know how everybody else on this panel feels, but here’s what I believe. A very small class size and the intimate, affectionate attention, this enables a good teacher to give to every little girl and boy.

If that’s good for the son of a prosperous physician or a successful lawyer or the daughter of a senator or congressmember or the president himself, then it’s good for the poorest child of the poorest woman in America. (Applause) That’s my own belief.

West: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Kozol: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: So Jonathan – I’m getting everybody involved here, then we’re going to have some fun here. So Mariana (unintelligible) let me come to you, because as I sit and listen to Jonathan talk so brilliantly, I’m thinking of the Chicago teacher’s strike of just months ago.

The president’s former chief of staff – we know he just announced a new one – but the president’s former chief of staff, now the mayor of Chicago, when those teachers went on strike, he demonized those teachers, Rahm Emanuel. Most of the so-called “liberal” newspapers demonized those teachers, including “The New York Times.” (Laughter)

Demonized those teachers. There are a number of things that stand out for me in my mind, very quickly, about that strike, but the one thing that just hit me so viscerally, I recall talking about it on my radio program, was that the one decision that both the teachers and the mayor and everybody got right was to leave the schools open during the strike so the kids would have something to eat.

Y’all remember this? But for those schools remaining open, those kids in Chicago, 97, 98 percent who qualified for the free lunch program, they would have had nothing to eat daily while the teachers were on strike.

So your work is trying to establish in America hunger-free communities. What does that say to us, that in the city of Chicago, this grand city of Chicago, where the president’s from – and I’m not trying to demonize him, but that’s his hometown – that schools had to be left open for the kids in that city to have something to eat?

Chilton: What does it say about America that we can’t decide on how to educate our children, but all of a sudden we can think about what they’re eating and making sure that they get a meal? Then at the same time think about okay, let’s make sure that the kids are getting an education and school lunch, but forget about school breakfast.

I think about the legacy of Martin Luther King and if I could dip into that strong prophetic tradition and think about what he said, as “Let us be dissatisfied.” It’s a divine dissatisfaction with what’s going on in this country in terms of our education system, but especially in terms of hunger.

The fact that we have 50 million Americans that lived in food-insecure homes – that means hungry homes – last year, and the majority of those homes were homes that had young children. If you think about it, one in four young children in America under the age of six is suffering from food insecurity.

We know that affects their child development, we know that it increases hospitalization rates, and it costs us an enormous amount of not only social and human suffering, but economic suffering in terms of the healthcare consequences and the costs.

So long before a child even crosses the threshold of kindergarten, that child’s potential is truncated because they are food insecure, because they are hungry, because their families don’t have enough money for food.

Now I want to pick back up on you, Congressman Gingrich, because when you say our programs don’t work, you’re absolutely wrong, and I come from a tradition of science, scientific background. I do scientific research on food insecurity and hunger, and I have been doing that for 15 years. I want to tell you that the food stamp program is one of the single most important programs that we have in this country. (Applause) Thank you.

We know that food stamps prevent hospitalizations for children. It’s a good investment. If you think about it, pediatric hospitalization costs $24,000 for three days. That same amount of money is what could feed a family of four for a year. That’s a great investment, because it prevents hospitalizations.

Number two, it promotes child development – cognitive, social, and emotional development – so that by the time children are in school they can learn well, and let’s hope they’ve had some breakfast, and then they can get some lunch as well, so that they can learn and listen to those teachers and learn about those prophetic traditions, right?

The other program that works beautifully is the WIC program – Women, Infants, and Children. (Applause) This will be my last point, because I know you want to bring in the other people, Tavis, but I have to speak to this. What it does is it brings in all of the comments so far together.

If we think about the WIC program, 50 percent of the newborns in our country are poor enough to participate in the WIC program. Fifty percent – one in two of newborns. Now if you think about it, that’s awesome. That’s awesome effectiveness. It’s awesome breadth and reach. The rest of the world looks to us as a leader in making sure that we are preventing malnutrition and low birth weight.

We know that’s effective. But if you also look on the other side and think about the magnitude of child poverty, that one in two is actually eligible for this program and participating in it, we have a major problem on our hands and a major crisis. If you think about what’s going to happen, if sequestration happens, and we’re thinking about the discretionary budget, how is it possible that the WIC program is in the discretionary budget, along with whether we build bombs? (Applause)

So the WIC program is potentially at risk if we are not very careful. We must make sure that that program and the other programs such as early childhood education are protected, because for every one dollar that we spend on WIC, over three dollars is saved in Medicare expenditures.

We know that WIC actually works. So you’re wrong, Newt, in terms of whether our federal programs work. Those two programs are phenomenal. They are fabulous. They work, and they promote child health and wellbeing, and they make us a better country.

Tavis: One of the reasons why – (applause) (unintelligible). One of the reasons why we are here for this conversation is to talk about what works, to debate what doesn’t, and we’re going to get into that, I promise. The Speaker will get a chance to respond, and all of you will get a chance to respond. I’ve just got three more people, very quickly, I want to get involved in this conversation, and then we can, as I said, I promise you we can mix things up.

I want to go to Rose Ann DeMoro, who is one of the great union leaders in this country, and I want to come right to her because we’re going to get into solutions and we’re going to hear from the Speaker and everybody else, but there is something that they have been advancing called the Robin Hood Tax, and I invited Rose Ann here specifically tonight to tell you about this Robin Hood Tax that’s gaining steam.

All kinds of influential Americans are starting to buy into this, and I want you to hear about it from her as another solution to the poverty problem in America. Please welcome Rose Ann DeMoro.

Rose Ann DeMoro: Thank you. (Applause) Well, on the Robin Hood Tax, it’s simply a tax on Wall Street. As we all know, Wall Street doesn’t pay its fair share. (Applause) It’s a minimum amount when stocks or bonds or derivatives or currencies are bought and sold. There’s a minimum amount – 50 cents in the case of stock, on a $100 trade.

We all pay sales tax on everything that we buy. If we sell something, we pay tax. This is saying to Wall Street you have gotten such a pass. When you talk about education, I want to ask you, where are the jobs? They’re not just trickling down or bubbling up; there are on jobs in this country.

I work for the labor movement. It’s being decimated by the right wing and by the forces, the cowardly forces. There are no – and talking about – and I will talk about the financial transaction tax, because it’s a part of a solution.

But I just want to tell you I represent registered nurses in the unions across this country, and they are of the finest tradition of Martin Luther King. They’re about humanity. They don’t make distinctions among patients. They don’t care if you’re rich or if you’re poor or if you’re Black or if you’re white or if you’re a man or if you’re a woman.

You’re their patient. They protect you, they fight for you. What they’re finding is because of the obscene profits in the healthcare industry and the most inept system in the industrial world – the American medical system – the patients are being pushed out. The children are coming with malnutrition. Sometimes the only lunches they get is when they go into the emergency room.

This is just – the shame that basically our decision-makers in Wall Street have brought to our country is presented to nurses on every shift and every hour in the hospitals in this country. You know what I love about nurses? They don’t stop in terms of fighting with their hospitals, and they fight like hell with their hospitals in terms of taking care of their patients, because they see people when it’s very late.

People who haven’t had cancer screenings, people who basically can’t afford their medications as the drug companies make $60 billion in profits. (Unintelligible) at our hospitals wealthy, $52 billion in profit. Billions of dollars and trillions sitting in reserves of the wealthy, and our children are starving and people are presenting with almost near-death.

But what the nurses have done is to say I’ll fight for them in my hospital, but I’m also going to fight for them in the streets, and we started a Robin Hood campaign that says Wall Street, you’re going to pay your fair share in this country.

I know Jeffrey Sachs is with us on this, and we’ve been working with people all over the world, and there are some leaders in this world, like in France, that have said austerity isn’t the answer, that we should tax Wall Street trades. It’s not Wall Street there, but that basically (applause) it’s time to give something back.

People shouldn’t – I actually wonder, and I mean really, I just really wonder, do they care about what the nurses see? Do they care about the vulnerability of America right now? One illness away from bankruptcy. That’s what everyone is.

Most people are underinsured. There’s going to be 30 million people uninsured, even with Obamacare. Even the people who have insurance, they can’t even figure their insurance out – co-pays, premiums.

Ultimately, the insurance companies are just robbing the country, along with the financial sector. People are being left out. (Applause) The jobs that are being created, they’re lousy jobs. Seven out of 10 of the jobs that are being created are hardly what you would consider jobs.

I work as a member of the labor movement too. I represent nurses, and I fight like hell to make sure that they can fight for their patients and for themselves. But their retirement’s under attack. Why should their retirement be under attack?

The entitlements – oh, that’s an entitlement. Well, that’s our money that paid for those entitlements that’s being recycled back to us. (Applause) So we’re really pretty angry, I have to tell you, and we’re organizing a movement, and it’s in the streets and it’s in Congress and it’s across the world, and we’re not going to stop. Because for nurses, they’re not policymakers.

They don’t have the comfort of being able to sit back and say, “That’s not my problem.” It’s their problem every second of every day in our hospitals. So would you like me to talk about the Robin Hood Tax anymore? (Laughter)

Tavis: I’ll come back to you, I promise. (Applause) I promise I’ll come back to you. You mentioned Congress. Please welcome to the new head of the CBC, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. (Applause, cheering)

I’m trying to imagine, Congresswoman, how – we talked earlier about these fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings. It’s clear that there is legislative gridlock in this town. What happens to the poor in the months to come with this kind of gridlock, and we already see the lines being drawn, the battle lines being drawn about what is to happen when these entitlements get on the table in March. What happens to the poor as you see it in the coming months?

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge: Let me just first say thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of this conversation. I’m happy that you have been carrying on this kind of a conversation over the last few years.

But let me just try to see if I can put something in context for you. I think that something we never really talk about is that a lot of this fiscal cliff stuff is really just smoke and mirrors.

When you sit back and realize that the largest portion of the debt of this country is really three things – one is two wars that we’ve never paid for, one is a Medicare part D that we never paid for, and the other is the Bush tax cuts, those are the largest portions of the debt of this nation.

So what they are trying to do now by talking about cutting what you call entitlements and what I call earned benefits, (applause) is to protect the cuts that they’ve already made.

If you look at where we are, earned benefits – and there really is truly only one entitlement in this country, and it is Medicaid – and if we don’t have enough of a moral imperative to take care of the poorest people in this country, then I don’t know what we are all doing here. (Applause)

We have to stop and think about how we can, in a Congress that is supposed to represent the will of the people, that we ignore 46 million people. It didn’t just start under this president. When George Bush became president of the United States, 17 million people were in poverty. When he left, 30 million people were in poverty.

That does not include then going into the ditch that we went into as he was leaving office. So this has been a problem for a very long time. I think what we have to, though, understand is you cannot just cut and constrict government, because when you do, it goes all the way down the pipeline. It’s not a cut, it’s a shift.

So when you start cutting at the local, state, and county level, then you create a bigger problem than you think you have solved. It’s all a game. (Applause)

Tavis: Since you said this, let me ask right quick for a follow-up – you accurately laid out what happened to poverty under the Bush administration, and then (makes noise) you stopped, as if we stopped then. A guy named Barack Obama was elected –

Fudge: Oh, no question.

Tavis: – and those poverty numbers continued to get worse under Barack Obama. Let’s put the facts on the table. They were bad under Bush; they kept getting worse under Barack Obama. Sachs writes about this in his latest book, “The Price of Civilization.”

I’m only raising that not to demonize either one of them per se, but I’m raising that because I’m wondering how it is to your mind that poverty gets made a priority, whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.

Fudge: I think that I did say that when we went into the ditch as Bush was coming out of office, poverty continued to increase. There is no question about that, and it has increased significantly.

I do not believe that as a nation – not just the White House; from the bottom up, any of us – have done enough to address the issues of poverty in this country. We talked about Dr. King. One of the things that he said was there comes a time when silence is betrayal.

So if we are all silent (applause), any president is going to address issues that we make him address, whoever that president is, Republican, Democrat, no matter what. So I can say in all fairness that even though I don’t believe any of us have done enough, if you look at the two major pieces of legislation that were passed by this White House, Obamacare, which everybody’s been yelling and screaming about, significantly helps poor people. Significantly. (Applause)

If you look at the stimulus, in the stimulus there was $2 billion for food stamps. There was more money for Head Start than has ever been put into a bill since it started. (Applause) There was more money put into poor schools. Pell Grants were increased. Unemployment insurance was extended.

I’m not saying it was enough, but I’m saying let’s put the facts on the table and then go from there.

Tavis: Okay.

Fudge: Because if they hadn’t done that, it would have been worse.

Tavis: Fair enough. (Applause) That’s all we have time for for this evening, but we’ll have much more from GW over the next two nights. Until then, good night from Washington, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. (Applause)

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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

Last modified: January 19, 2014 at 9:26 pm