“Vision for a New America” – Panel discussion, Part 4

We wrap the broadcast of our panel discussion on solutions that are—and are not—working in the war on poverty.

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: Mariana?

Mariana Chilton: Oh, where to begin? No matter what your leanings are and whether you know about education or not, let’s turn to the banking world for some of the language that you’re talking about. Investing in very young children is the best investment that you can make. It has the greatest return on investment.

And we know that because those first three years of life are the most important for cognitive, social and emotional development. You’re so right in saying that you’re only two years old once. That is the most significant window of time. And I do think there must be an infant or a toddler in here. I do hear that child [laugh], which brings me to the next point.

Yes, we have class warfare in this country, but unfortunately, it’s like an unusual class warfare. Why? Because those who are poor are completely left out of the national dialog on hunger and poverty.

And that’s a bipartisan effort, by the way, to keep people who are poor out of the national dialog and that’s why I started Witnesses to Hunger which is working with low-income women to be able to take photographs and provide direct testimony on their experiences with raising children in poverty, how to break the cycle of poverty.

And I’ll tell you that there are so many conversations that have been happening. This concept of silence is the betrayal or the fact that people have been silenced for so many years. That is a massive, massive betrayal.

The first thing that the women who are poor and who are raising young children will tell you is that poverty is solvable. They expect nothing less. Why? Because they are raising their children. They are expecting their child to be the president of the United States, to be a lawyer, to be a doctor, and they want the best education for their children. They want the best type of food. They want to have a safe and affordable home to live.

The women that we work with are investing so much into their children. They’re having to trade off paying for rent or paying for food or trade off paying for whether they’re keeping the lights on and paying for food. That is unconscionable in this country (applause). Thank you.

All of us can expect more. So what we need to do is make sure that low-income women are included in that national dialog. I have to say that the women I’ve spoken with are genius. They are brilliant to survive in the world – in the United States today, they are so fantastic entrepreneurs. They are wise. They have a lot of grit and they’re stronger than any of us on this stage, I’ll have to tell you that.

It is a brain trust in America that we are not utilizing. We need to make sure that low-income people are a part of the national dialog and a part of this stage and being listened to in Congress, not just the special interest lobbyists. We need to have people who are low-income and taken seriously as a national expert (applause).

Tavis: Congresswoman?

Marcia L. Fudge: I just want to say that I sit on the Agriculture Committee which is the committee of jurisdiction over food stamps. We just, out of committee towards the end of last year, passed a farm bill where my colleagues – and I will call them that because I am in public – my colleagues voted to cut food stamps by $16.5 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

So I voted against the bill clearly because I thought that it was just outrageous. They voted against it because they didn’t think it was enough. We have people who actually literally work in the House of Representatives who do not believe that there is poverty in this country. So any of them that are watching, I want you to just go to the other side of town to wherever it is you live (applause)

These same people believe that, if you don’t work, you are lazy. These same people believe that, if your children don’t get a good education, something is wrong with you. These are the craziest people I have ever seen in my life (laughter). Just absolute nuts.

So if we continue to send people to Congress who don’t even understand what their job is, who don’t understand that government’s job is to take care of its people, then we are never going anywhere as a country because we deal with nuts every single day.

These people are evil and mean. They care nothing about anybody but themselves (applause). So if you think you’re going to have something bipartisan, you need to think again. It’s not happening (applause).

Tavis: I’m like Roseanne now. I’m really feeling sorry for you (laughter). I’m gonna push you higher up on my prayer list tonight when I go home.

Fudge: Well, thank you, ’cause I sure need it.

Tavis: Yeah. But on a serious note, though, we saw this play out in the fiscal cliff negotiations and we’re gonna see it play out again, Jeffrey, in the debt ceiling.

If you’re right about this – and this is your language, I ain’t got to call them crazy or nuts – but there are people who are entrenched in Congress. They come from districts, they come from states, where this is not their priority, it’s not their issue. So Congress, again, is polarized around the issue of poverty.

We said earlier there’s a bipartisan consensus that poverty doesn’t matter, but Congress is really polarized on this issue. If you’re right about your assessment of some of your colleagues, then how do we ever imagine that the plight of the poor is gonna get addressed?

Fudge: Just by doing what you’ve been giving these little blurbs about. Make them sit down, convene a group of people to address the issues of poverty, and people out there have to stop being silent (applause). Any time I get a phone call in my office, if I get a phone call in my office or a letter in my office, I believe that at least 50 of my constituents believe the exact same thing.

So if you start calling your Congress people and your senators and saying to them you want them to address poverty, trust that they listen. Don’t just assume or be angry when you turn on the news at night and throw something at your television.

Your television can’t talk to us. You have to do it yourselves because, if you don’t, then they’ll once again – every year, a number of us take the food stamp challenge. We live for one week on what we would get from food stamps. People here it for a minute. We get a little news media about it and then everybody forgets about it.

Until we get more voices, until more people understand how important and significant this is for us, then they are going to continue to pat us on the head and say, “Okay, we’ll give you your press for this one week, your food stamp challenge week.”

Until they see hungry people, until they see babies who don’t eat every day, until they realize that the fastest-growing group of children in schools today is hungry and homeless children, until we can make them see it, they are not going to believe it (applause).

Tavis: So that’s a perfect segue…

Cornel West: So this is part of the problem…

Tavis: I’m going to Dr. West, but that’s a perfect segue for me to remind those of you who may have just tuned in, or tell you if you’ve just tuned in, that this is our hashtag, #povertymustend. If you’re spreading the message about what you’re hearing and seeing tonight, that’s the hashtag. It’s #povertymustend and our website is afuturewithoutpoverty.com, afuturewithoutpoverty.com. We could do this every day. We can come back here tomorrow or the next day and the next day and do this every day.

There is no comparison between what we’re doing and what would happen if the president of these United States gave a major public policy address to the nation on what we’re going to do in his second term to eradicate poverty and then, if he gave us an assignment and told us what to do to help him get that done, to go out and help make him do it.

The president ought to craft a national plan to cut poverty in half in the short run, to eradicate it in the long run in the richest nation in the world. If the president wants a legacy of which he and we can be proud, he’s going to have to make poverty a priority in his second term (applause). Dr. West?

Cornel West: That’s right. And I’ll say, too, my calling has to do with love and justice, and love and justice is always weak. That’s precisely why the Black prophetic tradition in the history of this nation has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf because we recognize that, first, you had to have a suspicion of government. This is why I resonate with my conservative brother.

And the reason why is Martin Luther King, Jr. was under the FBI surveillance from January 1956 ’til the day he died! Governments can be repressive, vicious, ugly, violate your rights, violate your liberties, crush your people, generate the propaganda! We need that sensibility too.

Governments can also be affirmative if they’re helping poor and working people. Governments can use their power to support corporate elites. That’s the beginning of Crypto-fascism when they come together with no accountability whatsoever, not just politically, but economically (applause). That’s in part where things are moving.

Let me say this. Martin Luther King, Jr. today could be taken to jail without due process or judicial process under the National Defense Authorization Act (applause) because he had a connection with a Freedom Fighter who was called a terrorist named Nelson Mandela. He just got off the terrorist list in 2008 of America. Let’s be honest about that. Because he had a relation to a “terrorist” and, under the present administration, you can assassinate Americans, you can take them to jail without due process.

That’s a repressive side of the government that the Black freedom movement has always been suspicious of. We got Black political prisoners right now in America and they’re in there precisely because the repression came down so hard and their love was such that they were willing to tell the truth that was a threat to the status quo, and we don’t even talk about them.

That’s why the culture of fear is not just silent, I don’t think, my dear sister. People are afraid. They’re afraid to lose their jobs. They’re afraid to lose their status. They’re afraid of not going to the nice tea parties. They’re afraid of not going to the White House.

You can’t have a culture of fear and generate a movement. That’s why it’s not just about justice. Any justice that’s only justice will soon degenerate into something less than justice. We gotta talk about love. Martin was a titan of love. If you’re not talking about love and willingness to sacrifice, all this is just sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. We’re not going nowhere.

Tavis: But how you gonna talk about love…

West: We’re not going nowhere!

Tavis: But, Doc…

West: You got to hit the streets. You gotta go to jail! You gotta be willing to die! That’s what the movement’s about! And if you’re not willing to do that, then keep your jobs and drink your tea (laughter). That’s what we’re talking about. We’re in a state of emergency (applause)!

Tavis: Let me ask you, Doc…

West: We’re in a sense of urgency! People are dying out here (applause)!

Tavis: But, Doc, since you raised this notion of love, since Martin, the notion of love in our public policy has been absent. You talk about or try to put love – we’ve heard in the last eight years, we’ve heard about compassionate conservatives. I want to come back and ask you in a moment whatever happened to compassionate conservatism.

But love at the center of our public policy is like oil and water. It’s a foreign concept. But that’s exactly what Martin did. He put love in the center of the public square. Why have we abandoned that notion? Love just means that everybody’s worthy just because.

West: That’s exactly right. No, it’s the rule of money. We live in the rule of money. Everybody’s up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And you can’t have integrity, you can’t have love, you can’t have trust if everything’s up for sale and everybody’s up for sale.

If your leaders are up for sale, then they gonna talk one way and get inside and do something else. That cuts across ideology, it cuts across political party. That’s why both parties are so tied to the rule of money, but it’s big money, not poor peoples’ money. It’s big money, you see?

So when we talk about love, this is not namby-pamby stuff. You see, for Black people who’ve been hated for 400 years, institutionalized hatred coming at us, and we dish out John Coltrane. We dish out Curtis Mayfield. We dish out Martin King. We dish out Ida B. Wells-Barnett. That love in the face of that hatred, that’s a spiritual high ground. It’s a moral high ground and the whole country had to take note of it with Martin.

The whole world had to take note of it and that is what is weak and what is feeble and it’s not a question of skin pigmentation. It’s a question of the quality of your morality and your spirituality and all of us are a cracked vessel (applause). All of us fall short. But if we don’t accent it, then the children continue to perish.

Tavis: Speaking of children, Jonathan Kozol. Then I’ll come to the Speaker.

Jonathan Kozol: There’s no talk of love in education anymore. The word is competition (applause) and the president is guilty of this to the same extent that his predecessor was. He takes No Child Left Behind, which is the worst single piece of education law in my lifetime (applause).

It’s straight out of Charles Dickens. Drill and kill, train them for exams, don’t let them ask questions, no. If they did, they might start asking why their politicians never keep their promises.

No talk of love, competition, president takes No Child Left Behind, he’s gonna soften it. What does he come up? Race to the Top, yeah. There’s going to be 12 winners and – I’m not good at subtraction – 38 losers. The word enterprise – sorry, I’m a very patriotic American and I like capitalism. It’s been good to me. But the word enterprise is sickening. It has had a pathological effect upon our attitude to public schools.

The billionaire boys club, you know, the big Wall Street guys who want to privatize our schools and run them for profit, are setting up academies where they steal Dr. King’s name. Dr. Martin Luther King Academy of Leadership and Enterprise, you know. Or sometimes they’ll name them, you know, for Langston Hughes or Frederick Douglass.

I always wonder why, you know – I don’t think Black people should let them name these schools for people they love. I think they should name them for people they don’t like (laughter), like Clarence Thomas Academy of Self-Help (laughter), something like that, or self-hate. Okay, here are a few points quickly.

Tavis: Right.

Kozol: First of all, I’m going to be unfashionable tonight. Everyone in Washington, it seems in both parties, seem to think that the way to solve the problems of our schools is not, you know, don’t give another cent, don’t give them another penny, to make the schools look like places that are inviting, that respect the value of children. They’re ugly buildings, you know. Aesthetics count. Don’t do that, but beat up on their teachers (applause) and that’s the trend today.

And attack the unions. Let me say something about that. I heard about the Chicago Teachers Union from teachers in L.A. last fall on book tour. I flew to Chicago to stand with them the day they went on strike and they were right to go on strike (applause).

I’m going to tell you something. I’m in schools all the time and, when I was a young teacher, I remembered this. Schools are overwhelmingly – the teachers are overwhelmingly women. You go to an NEA convention, you know, if you’re a guy, it’s wonderful (laughter). It’s like 50 women to every guy. I love it.

But let me say something. When they scapegoat teacher unions the ruthless way they do, whether it’s teacher unions or nurses unions, they’re attacking some of the largest unions in this country of devoted, unselfish, inspired, loving, tender, good, female human beings (applause). They’re women. It’s an attack on women.

Okay, last thing I want to say is this. I remember, of course, as we all do, Dr. King’s almost last words when he said, “I’ve been to the mountain” and that mountaintop, you know, is something that some of us look back to all the time. It’s like a symbol of hope.

It’s biblical, but it’s something we’d like to get back to. We wish we could get there again. But the dialog of school reform, just like the dialog of healthcare, is picayune. There’s nothing transcendental in it. There’s nothing courageous in it. It’s like they’re tinkering around the edges of inequity.

That’s what President Obama is doing. You know, fix the schools, they say. Fix the schools, which is a very suggested word because, you know, fix them, it’s a mechanistic term as though our schools were auto shops and our kids were commercial commodities. I hate that word. They say it isn’t working. Fix it. Here’s what I believe. I just think that’s emblematic of the low level of dialog. That’s what I’m saying.

My favorite American poet happens to be Langston Hughes and that’s because I was fired from my first teaching job for reading his poetry to my fourth graders. It was considered dangerous. I was fired for curriculum deviation from Boston public schools, hired shortly after for curriculum development by the Johnson administration (laughter).

But my favorite poet worldwide of all poets happens to be the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. And there are lines, I think, you know, many of us learn in school and then forget. He said, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We need that passionate intensity on our side, our side of the poor children of this earth.

I beg the president to summon up the courage and real audacity to give us that prophetic voice. And if he doesn’t, it will be a terrible betrayal of his role and he’ll miss the opportunity to leave behind a beautiful legacy in history. It will be his tragedy as well as ours (applause).

Tavis: We’re clearly headed to a real debate about austerity. I don’t believe austerity is the answer, some do. There’s gonna be a big debate about that, Mr. Speaker, in the coming weeks as we get to this debt ceiling conversation about austerity.

But talk to me from your perspective about this notion of compassion and conservatism. There was this movement, you know, eight, 12 years ago, to present that as an alternative, compassionate conservatism. What happened to that, as you see?

Newt Gingrich: I’ll be glad to go down that road, but I don’t think it’s particularly useful. I think Jack Kemp in the ’70s was trying to genuinely develop a real understanding of how to break through at every level. Break through in housing, break through in learning, break through in jobs and Kemp, who I always told people, as a football quarterback, had showered with more African Americans than most Republicans knew. Just had a deep, passionate commitment to every human being he’d ever met.

He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known because his heart was big and he did love everybody to a point sometimes of driving you crazy. You’d think “Slightly less love, Jack. It’s okay.” And he was the genuinely compassionate conservative. I think, frankly, the use of it by the Bush people was a political slogan to show that they were softer than the Gingrich Republicans. But they didn’t think through any kind of serious systematic program.

Now I have to tell you. I want to commend you. Just sitting here, I’ve heard two or three ideas sufficiently radical that would never have occurred without this conversation (applause). I didn’t say right or left. I just said radical (laughter).

One of them is we got to quit talking about schools and talk about saving the children and then figure out what saving the children leads you to in a whole series of steps which does involve nutrition and involves prenatal care. It involves a lot of things.

But if you start with saving the children, you somehow skip the bureaucracy, the testing and all the other things and start back with are we – but then what I want to say to the brand new head of the Congressional Black Caucus, I want to step way out here for a second ’cause I…

Tavis: I can’t imagine you stepping way out, but go ahead (laughter).

Gingrich: But I was impressed with the intensity of your comments about some of your colleagues (laughter). But I think part of the challenge we have in America is that real dialogs take more than 90 minutes.

Tavis: That’s right.

Gingrich: Or more than two and a half hours. Here’s my proposal which I will carry to the Republican side if, after you think about it, the Congressional Black Caucus wants to do this. I believe the Congressional Black Caucus members should offer to match up with a Republican member with each going together to spend three days, for example, in your district and then you spend three days in the Republican district (applause).

And those six days will lead to a conversation that will both help us move back towards a little bit of healthy bipartisanship and help each side have a slightly different understanding and maybe start to create some friendships from which we could actually begin to rebuild the ability to govern this country (applause).

Tavis: Good idea.

Fudge: If you can make it work, I’m in (applause). If you can get your side to do it, I’m in.

Gingrich: I will find enough Republicans…

Fudge: I actually have some very good Republican friends.

Gingrich: Check it out. Tell me how many of your folks are willing to visit…

Fudge: Deal.

Gingrich: I will find that number of Republicans and make sure that it happens.

Fudge: I love it, I love it (applause).

Tavis: Let’s hear it one last time for this terrific panel. My thanks to everyone here at George Washington University and to all of you for tuning in on this critical issue of poverty all week long. Until next time, goodnight from Washington. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith (applause). Thank you all.

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

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the 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. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

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

Last modified: January 28, 2013 at 3:03 pm