“Vision for a New America” – Panel discussion, Part 3

We continue our broadcast of a special event from Washington—a conversation about one of the most important, but often-forgotten issues of our time: poverty in the U.S.

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, cheering) Speaker Gingrich, I wonder if – because you and I (unintelligible) I wonder if you can help me imagine what a White House conference to eradicate poverty where the left and the right are present to talk about ideas that could work, that they could agree on.

Take me inside that room, since you’ve been in many of these rooms, and give me a sense of, at this moment, what some of the ideas on the table might be that could get discussed. And in that, you can respond to whatever you wanted to respond to earlier.

Newt Gingrich: Well, the fact is for about 60 percent of the cost of most public schools in big cities, Catholic schools graduate an extraordinarily high percent of kids who go to college. Now as a thought experiment, what if we said to the Catholic schools we will let you enroll as many poor children on the same ratio of going to college, and we will fund it?

All of a sudden overnight you had an explosion of highly disciplined schools with passionate that costs 60 percent as much, and it can get to 15 students per class. Now, I’m just giving that as an example. Or take a variety of other things where you have certain kinds of charter schools that have extraordinary graduation rates.

I was in a school in Philadelphia that had been a public charter school, and we had a junior in the school, and the same building, the same neighborhood, the same students, but in three years’ time, fundamentally changed culturally. I said, “What was the big difference?” He said, “In the old school they expected us to fight, so we fought. In this school, they told us the first time we fight we’re getting kicked out, and I want to go to college.”

Every teacher hung her college or his college flag outside their room, every teacher was engaged. The question they asked those kids all day was not, “Are you going to college,” it’s “What college are you going to?” They just inculcated a fundamental change in a very poor neighborhood with funds – so if we could get to an agreement on that scale of change, I would be for whatever level of funding it took, because I think the point about 15 students is right.

Poor children need more schooling and better schooling than middle class and upper middle class kids, and that is a fact, and it’s a conversation we don’t have the guts to have in this country.

Last point though is I never said we should abolish the food stamp program, which I helped vote for. I never said abolish WIC, which I have voted for. I will suggest to you after 49 years of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, if you tell us there are 50 million kids who are in insecure food environments, I would have to ask you what is wrong with the food stamp program that those kids don’t have adequate nutrition, (applause) and what do we need to do to change that system?

Because there’s something profoundly wrong when we spend this much money and have that big a gap in their experience. (Applause)

Tavis: Jeffrey, let’s deal with this now. My friend Newt Gingrich and a lot of my other Republican friends, when they want to make a point about what’s not working – as my friend Danny Davis would say, when they want to make the point of what is not the answer to the prayer where poverty is concerned, they go right at Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

Was the war on poverty a failure, or did we have any successes? Did we see the number of poverty, of poor, start to go down? Properly contextualize for me the way you see the war on poverty. We’ve heard what the Speaker has to say. Let me hear your point of view on this.

Jeffrey Sachs: First of all, the Kennedy-Johnson years had the biggest decline of poverty in the history of this country, and it has been conservative propaganda to repeat (applause) that this was a failure over and over again. It’s nonsense. If you look at the poverty rate in 1959 and compare it to the end of the decade, that was the biggest single drop we ever had. This is pure propaganda.

Now the fact of the matter is that when you say we need to carve out protection of WIC or we need to carve out protection of education, it’s all going down. We should understand there is no “carving out” right now. It’s under assault, and we just passed in what was called a victory, we just made permanent the Bush era tax cuts for 99 percent of the households in this country.

That was the so-called “victory.” What we are doing is breaking the base to spend on any of these programs. Newt says “I’ll support it if it works.” No way, because we don’t have money for that because the taxes on Wall Street disappeared. Taxes on the corporate sector disappeared.

You look at where the corporate sector keeps its money – Cayman Islands. (Laughter) That’s next to Mitt’s money. (Laughter) We have constructed this. This is not paralysis in Washington; this is a bipartisan approach, unfortunately. (Applause) Both parties have been on this. The only difference is the Republicans do it gleefully, the Democrats do it wringing their hands.

But they’re both with the corporate sector. They have both sided with (applause) cutting the taxes on the top. They are both party to the disappearance of the civilian programs of our national government, which work. If you look at the budget, unfortunately, that President Obama has put on the table, the civilian discretionary budget, the non-security discretionary budget under this president is to decline from about 4 percent of national income in 2010 down to below 2 percent by the end of this decade to 1.7 percent of national income.

For what? For jobs, for training, for education, for all the infrastructure, for the environment, for climate, for science, for technology. We’re gutting the government. This is the hard truth. What’s likely to happen in two months is to solidify this, because nobody’s speaking out for the government.

We’re talking about protecting a few entitlements. That’s the rear-guard action. Don’t kill everything. But we are squeezing to nothing, because you’re absolutely right – the top do not pay. They’ve been given every way to get their money out tax-free, and it’s trillions of dollars that have been lost in addition to what’s been wasted in these absurd wars.

Tavis: Dr. West, if I can get some quick responses, we can move around some more. I want to come to you though, because Jeffrey Sachs said something a moment ago, and I think he’s right. There is a – I’m paraphrasing now, but there is a bipartisan consensus in this town –

Professor Cornel West: Absolutely.

Tavis: – that the poor just don’t matter, and so they end up being rendered more and more invisible. What’s troubling, though, for so many of us, when you talk about a guy like Lyndon Johnson, who in doing what he did made it very clear that he knew he was writing off the South for the next 30 or 40 years by pushing the kinds of programs that he pushed – the war on poverty, to say nothing of the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act.

But let me just ask you a point-blank question. I was going to ask this of the congresswoman, but I think I can predict her answer, and I’ll get back to her. But let me ask you – have the Democrats abandoned poor people? Have they abandoned the issue of poverty the way that they used to be? (Applause) Have the Democrats abandoned the poor?

West: Well, I want to have my say, but my dear sister, you want to defend them? Because I’m going to come down hard.

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge: Yes. Yes – no. No, no, no. (Laughter) No, no, no.

West: So I want to get – let my dear sister speak, now.

Fudge: Thank you so much.

West: Oh, yes indeed, indeed.

Tavis: I’ll let you go first, then.

Fudge: Thank you so much.

Tavis: You go first.

Fudge: Let me say two things. First off, I’m not owned by anybody.

West: There you go.

Fudge: Let me make that clear to y’all.

West: There you go.

Fudge: No corporation or anybody else.

West: That’s right.

Fudge: Secondly, let me just say that Democrats have in a lot of ways written off poverty. I don’t disagree with that. It’s no different than guns. If they can’t figure out what to do about it, then they don’t do anything about it.

But let me also say that the Congressional Black Caucus has taken this issue up year after year after year. (Applause) No one fights for poor people more than we fight for poor people. No one fights the battle. It was the Congressional Black Caucus that basically was willing to hold out on the last vote we just took because of the pay-fors.

See, people don’t understand. When you look at this, we say, “Well, how did you pay for the doc fix?” Let me tell you how they paid for it. They paid for it by cutting things like dialysis and renal failure treatment and diabetes. Who does that affect?

So we understand clearly that our caucus is not always on our side, because they get so caught up in all of the middle class, the this, the that. Let me say to you now the Congressional Black Caucus, who just had its retreat today, in our meeting, saying we are not going to go for raising the age of Medicare. (Applause)

We are not going for putting Social Security on the table, because we know that just increases the poverty in this country.

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. I’m going to let Doc respond, but since you went there, and I want to be transparent and always attempt to be authentic in these conversations so we can make some progress.

You are the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, but I’m saying stuff now that you know, and saying stuff now that if you read, you’ve seen this reported everywhere, so this ain’t Tavis grinding no axe.

The president, the first Black president, Barack Obama, and the Congressional Black Caucus had an interesting dance y’all were doing in the first term. You can Google it and read about it in a variety of sources that there was some tension between the White House and the Congressional Black Caucus, and you all decided you were going to go out anyway and create your own jobs fair.

You went around the country and set up these job fairs. But this tension between the White House – at one point y’all couldn’t get a meeting. This is the Congressional Black Caucus – at one point y’all couldn’t get a meeting with the Black president inside the White House.

These are the facts. I’m raising that because I’m wondering what that relationship is going to be like now that you’re the new chair in this second term, and what happens to the Black poor? I was stunned by this, because when you all – this is credit to the CBC – when you all did raise your voices, raise your voices, oftentimes in tension with the White House, the Black folk in your districts would go off on you for giving the Black president a hard time.

Fudge: That is true.

Tavis: Somebody say “amen.” Y’all saw this.

West: That’s right.

Tavis: So I’m just asking how this relationship is going to work in the second term, given that Black poor are catching the most hell.

Fudge: Well, let me just say my perspective on this – I can only speak for myself, being the new chair – I certainly anticipate having a good relationship with the White House, but I would say to you what I say to everyone else. The president’s job is different than my job. (Applause)

I come from a city that is one of the poorest cities in America. I can’t go home and not say that I talked about poor people. I believe that with any president, you have to say what you believe. If that means pushing, then we have to push. I don’t believe that any president wants to ignore the pressing issues of our day, whether it be poverty or any others.

Tavis: Right.

Fudge: But there is so much on their plate that if we don’t do what we need to do, then it’s our fault and not his. (Applause)

Tavis: Okay. And now for the hammer. (Laughter)

West: Well, what I was going to say is that I think that there’s been a shame of silence, not just in the Black community, but in the progressive community, of telling the truth about the White House, which talks one way but often moves in another direction. (Applause) It’s time to be explicit about that.

In the Black caucus I can understand, because you’ve got a Black constituency who themselves have a protective disposition toward a Black president who is being viciously and unfairly attacked from the right, like “Fox News” and other places, where you don’t tell enough truth.

I don’t mind the critique, but when they start lying, then I’ve got to defend the president, right?

Fudge: Right.

West: So then you figure, okay, you’ve got a president who’s dealing with a right-wing, a white backlash with a Black man in the White House. So you say you come to his defense, but oftentimes, he’s not defensible when it comes to issues of the poor, new Jim Crow, prison industrial complex and so on. (Applause) You just can’t defend him.

So in that sense, the shame of silence that Brother Tavis and I have been talking about is one that needs to be highlighted precisely because the legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Harold Washington, Ron Dellums. There have been politicians on the inside who still tried to move in a certain direction and got in a lot of trouble.

Now I want to get back to Brother Newt’s point about fundamental change, because I want to highlight that. We do need fundamental change, but part of it has to do with Sister Rose Ann’s point about jobs. You can have all the magnificent education in the world, like they do in Greece, but if you have no job, they have nowhere to go.

Now why is it that we don’t have high-quality jobs? Well, one reason is is because in the last 30 years you’ve had the financial sector and Wall Street move to the center. Forty-one percent of profits in the whole nation going to the big banks, who do not generate jobs. They don’t generate any wealth that’s connected to productive value.

It’s wealth in private pockets. They’re sitting on $3.4 trillion right now. They’ve got $700 billion worth of bailout that the homeowners didn’t get but the banks got, and they also got nearly interest-free loans of $7.7 trillion.

The top 38 banks got $34 billion each. Can’t some of that money be used for decent housing, quality education, jobs with a living wage? (Applause) This is what Martin was talking about. Our priorities are so warped because we’re living in a culture that is shot through with corrupt self-interest and avarice and greed, and nobody gives a damn about the folk catching hell.

The very notions of solidarity, of being concerned about others – that’s why public education is under assault. That’s why I opposed you and Brother Sharpton and Brother Bloomberg running around talking about education. (Applause) Why? Not because I don’t trust you as human beings in terms of your decency, but I radically oppose your policy. Why?

Because public education is predicated on the notion that you’re concerned about other people’s kids and just not your own kids. (Applause) I don’t care what color. You’ve got to be concerned about all the children. Our children and all the children.

But no, not any longer. All of this privatizing, profit obsession, all of this preoccupation with just short-term gain as opposed to long-term integrity. It’s being pushed to the side. I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care what class you are. That’s part of the decadence of our civilization and we ought to be honest about it. We ought to tell the truth about it. (Applause) It’s the only way we’re going to turn it around.

Tavis: Let me just ask you a point-blank question: Do you believe there is class warfare in this country?

Gingrich: I believe that there is a fix between the big boys at the Federal Reserve, the big boys in the New York banks, and the big boys who wrote Dodd-Frank. I think that bill is a disaster, because it shifts power right to the 10 biggest banks. It basically creates a government-bank coalition.

I think it is amazing we went through the last five years and there have been no – unlike the 1930s, there have been no serious investigations of what happened to all the money. (Applause)

I agreed – I find myself sitting here thinking, I’m about to agree with Dr. West on a topic that will (laughter) – dissertations could be written about this particular thing.

Tavis: Right.

Gingrich: The only place you puzzle me is when Secretary Duncan and Reverend Sharpton and I went around, I think we were going around on behalf of precisely all the children.

West: And public education too, public education.

Gingrich: Yeah, we wanted everybody – remember, public education can also be publicly funded education, as long as it’s open to everyone. It cannot have any restrictions.

West: I see what you’re –

Gingrich: So I want to find a way to get to schools where – and I would say that frankly, in terms of public education in the current structure, if you could tie the money to performance and you could ensure that there was rapid change in any building where the children are not being served well, then I would be much more comfortable, and I’m willing to go to 15 children per classroom, because I think that point is exactly right.

Tavis: Jonathan, is the speaker right or wrong?

Kozol: He’s dead wrong. (Laughter, applause) There’s no question about it. Look, I don’t want to waste too much time tonight on rehashing the voucher argument, the right-wing John Birch Society voucher argument.

Tavis: Right, right.

Kozol: We killed that 20 years ago, so now the conservatives don’t call it vouchers anymore, they have other sweeter terms for it.

Tavis: But are charter schools the answers for children?

Kozol: No. There are a few good charter schools that get the lion’s share of attention because they’re cleverly selective in who they admit, and they’re also self-selective in who hears about them and gets into them in the first place.

Charter schools, especially the ones that are getting private corporate money from right-wing foundations, what they represent is a narrowing of civic virtue to the smallest possible parameters. I’ll fight for my kid in this little boutique school of 200 children, and I won’t raise my voice on behalf of all the millions that I’ve left behind. (Applause)

But more important to me, Tavis, if I can is to follow up on Cornel’s point, where he spoke of all of those billions or trillions of dollars sitting there on Wall Street. I want to make a concrete, specific, useful suggestion to President Obama.

Get hold of that kind of money, here’s the best preventive medicine that I know of to rescue children from hereditary poverty, and that is to give them absolutely rich, full, exciting, enticing, not drill-and-grill but developmental preschool starting when they’re two years old.

West: Yes, yes. (Applause)

Kozol: I’m sick of people, and I won’t say who, but one member of Congress who is with us here tonight mentioned to me, “There’s no proof that Head Start worked.”

Well, ask any kindergarten teacher in America which kids in her class had Head Start and you’ll find out whether or not it worked. Every kindergarten teacher, every first grade teacher knows right away.

The crime today is that even with some modest increase in Head Start that the congresswoman referred to by President Obama, very modest increase, more than half the poor eligible children in this country don’t even get a single year of anything at all resembling real preschool education.

Now I happen to know what the rich get for their children because I grew up in privilege. They can’t fool me. (Laughter) They tell me. They don’t think I’ll tell you, but I will. (Laughter)

Here’s what I’m saying. If I were the president I would take all those billions of dollars that are being wasted right now on the testing corporations and I would pour that money into three full years of the best preschool education in the entire world. (Applause)

If this nation can’t afford to do that – it costs about $40 billion – if we can’t afford to do that, I don’t see what hope we have of upholding any sense of dignity or pretense of democracy in the eyes of people in the rest of the world.

Tavis: I hear you.

Fudge: Very good.

Tavis: This conversation couldn’t be more timely, couldn’t be more propitious. I say all the time, according to Dr. King, that budgets are moral documents.

Sachs: Yes.

Tavis: Budgets are moral documents. You can say what you say, but you are what you are, and we know who you are when you put your budget on the table –

Fudge: That’s right, that’s right.

Tavis: – and we can see what your budget priorities are.

Fudge: Right.

Tavis: That’s why this conversation couldn’t be more timely, because we’re just days away. It’s going to be a nice big party on Monday, but after Monday, as we start to move closer toward these debt ceiling conversations and these spending cuts get placed on the table, the poor are likely to take it on the chin, and that’s why we’re in Washington tonight having this conversation live on C-SPAN.

Our hashtag is #povertymustend. Our website is A Future Without Poverty – AFutureWithoutPoverty.com

Jeffrey, has the demos, have we lowered our expectations? I wonder what we say to fellow citizens who in fact have lowered their expectations. There’s always this debate we’ve had, some of it tonight, about what the proper role of government ought to be, and I suspect we’re going to get into more of that conversation in the coming days as to what the proper role of government should be.

What are our expectations? Are they too low? Some of my friends on the right make the exact opposite argument – that our expectations of government are too high. Talk to me about expectations. What do we have a right to expect in the richest nation in the world?

Sachs: I think it’s important that what Rose Ann and Jonathan were saying about what should be done is not theory. It’s actually being done in countries around the world with demonstrated, proven results. So every child in many countries of Europe start out with that preschool, and the results are that unlike this country, there isn’t hereditary poverty – exactly what you’re saying.

It’s proven. This is not a theory. What you’re saying about the health system is completely proven. Our health system costs an extra $750 billion a year for exactly the same services that you would get in other countries.

The Institute of Medicine just issued a report that the waste and fraud that comes from this for-profit system is 5 percent of our national income, wasted. Now that sector owns both parties in Washington, and this has been off the table, but it’s not theory, because this is what other normal countries do. We’re just not normal. (Laughter) Our politics got hijacked. Our politics got hijacked.

Tavis: But we are the greatest nation in the world. It’s that notion of American exceptionalism. So how could this be happening elsewhere and not be happening in the greatest nation in the world?

Sachs: Because one of the things that the greatest nation in the world refuses to do is look at any other nation.

DeMoro: Exactly. Exactly. (Laughter) Exactly.

Tavis: So we’ll leave it right there for now, but join us again tomorrow night for the conclusion of this terrific conversation. Until then, good night from Washington, 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 9:27 pm