“Vision for a New America” – Panel discussion, Part 1

In part 1 of our special four-night series, Tavis moderates a panel of opinion-makers focusing on the crippling issue of poverty 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) Good evening. I’m Tavis Smiley, and we’re delighted to be here in the nation’s capital on the campus of George Washington University in the listener auditorium. We’ve been here now three years in a row, I think, always trying to bring the nation to come to terms, help the nation to come to terms with an issue of national importance.

For the last few years we’ve been talking ad infinitum, ad nauseam, about the issue of poverty, and how it is that we get serious about making poverty a priority in this country.

It just seems to me – and we’ll mix this up tonight – it just seems to me that teetering on cliffs and bumping up against ceilings is not a good economic policy for a nation, much less for prioritizing poverty in this country.

So we’re going to talk tonight about what each and every one of us can do as Americans, what agency we have to push our leaders to make the reduction and eradication of poverty a priority in this nation, as we sit here tonight on the campus of GW in the nation’s capital.

In just a number of days, the president will be inaugurated for a second term. He will be inaugurated on the holiday honoring the person who I regard as the greatest American this country has ever produced – that’s my own assessment – Martin Luther King Jr. (Applause)

So the president will clearly be in the foreground, but Dr. King looms large as the backdrop, and now word comes from the White House that they’re going to use King’s Bible for this historic and iconic celebration. So we’re going to talk tonight about how we honor the legacy of Dr. King by focusing more attention on the issue that he gave his life for – the poor.

King once said that we need to “civilize ourselves.” These are his words – “We have to civilize ourselves by the immediate abolition of poverty.” Obviously, we are not quite there yet, but we hope that tonight’s conversation will aid us and abet us in trying to make sure that we look out for the least among us.

I’m pleased tonight to be joined by an all-star panel. (Applause) So Jeffrey, I want to start with you, in part because you’ve come the farthest. I guess you get to go first. Plus, I want to keep you awake (laughter) in this conversation.

Jeffrey Sachs: All right. I’m awake.

Tavis: Yeah, so I figured I’ll get you going first. I want to start, though – and I’m not one that likes to use a bunch of stats, because they can be hard to follow. But because this program right now is being seen live across the nation, I want to make sure that those watching us, Jeffrey, can get a chance to kind of contextualize what’s happened with the issue of poverty across the nation.

These are numbers that come from 1989. Here’s what we know since 1989. The top 5 percent of Washington, D.C. households – in the nation’s capital – made more than $500,000 on average last year. The bottom 20 percent made less than $9,500 last year.

I’m now economist, but that’s a ratio, Jeffrey, of 54 to 1, and the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, is the worst of all the 50 states in the Union. So that’s what income inequality looks like here in the nation’s capital.

Income inequality has increased in 49 of 50 states since 1989. The poverty rate increased in 43 states, most sharply in Nevada, ravaged, of course, by the housing bust, and in my home state of Indiana, that saw a rise in low-paying jobs.

In all 50 states, the richest 20 percent of households made far greater income gains than any other quintile, up 12 percent nationally. Income for the median household, in the very middle, fell in 28 states, with Michigan and Connecticut leading the way.

The five largest increase in inequality in this country since ’89, all in New England – Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The decline in manufacturing jobs, in case you’re wondering, hit New England’s poor and middle pretty hard, while the highly educated benefitted from the expansion of biotech and – you won’t be surprised by this – finance.

The only state that did not see a rise in inequality is the state I was born in. I grew up in Indiana, but I’m born in Mississippi. Get this – it had an insignificant dip. The Magnolia State was one of the few to post a small drop in poverty and a rise in income, but it still ranks as the worst in the nation on both counts.

Just want to give you some sense of what’s happening with income inequality in this country since the year 1989. Having said that, Jeffrey, I want to start with you first, and just ask a question that is important as we sit here tonight, on the eve of the inauguration on Monday, just days ahead of a debt ceiling conversation, days after a fiscal cliff negotiation. Was the fiscal cliff deal good for poor people?

Sachs: Tavis, for 30 years we have not addressed this issue except for the wonderful work that you and Cornel are doing, and these wonderful people on the panel. Politics has neglected the poor. One can say that there was a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty for much of this period.

The United States has by far the most poverty of any of the high-income countries, taking as a share of the population. We have the highest inequality; we have the most entrenched underclass. We have had the biggest increases of inequality by far and we’ve had the least political response of any high-income country.

So we’re standing out on our own. This has been a 30-year trend of soaring incomes at the top, stagnation in the middle, and falling through the floor on the bottom, and the political system has refused to address this for 30 years.

So we have reached a calamitous situation in this country, but the fact of the matter is nothing that’s being done that was done at the fiscal cliff, and what lies ahead, most likely, will not in any deep way address this crisis.

Tavis: So how frightened, then, are you about poor people being stuck, I guess, between a rock and a hard place? If the cliff is the rock, then the ceiling must be the hard place. But how concerned are you about what’s going to happen? We all know this is the big elephant in the room, these entitlement cuts, and I’m anxious to get to Speaker Gingrich in a second here. But these entitlement cuts, I sense, and we all sense, are going to be on the table.

We don’t know what the president really is going to do. We do know that we won’t know until March how good this fiscal cliff deal is, until we get to those cuts, but how frightened are you?

Sachs: Well, I think that there’s nothing that we could predict that’s going to make a decisive change in the issues we’re going to be talking about right now, because we have been squeezing government. The so-called “discretionary” part of our budget, that is the part for education, for job training, for labor markets; also for infrastructure for the environment, for climate change, for other issues.

That part of our budget is just continuing to shrink, and I think we’re going to unfortunately look back after whatever deal is done in February, March and so forth, and see a near-disappearance of this part of our government.

So we are abdicating the most fundamental responsibilities to take care of the people who are most in need, and also to take care of our own future. Because I would say that it goes beyond the question of poverty. It goes to the question of a broken infrastructure, which we absolutely refuse to address.

When I come back from a trip abroad, believe me, I’m coming back to a rickety infrastructure in this country, where you look at our airports and our roads, the highways you travel. They’re 50 years old, because we’re not reinvesting in this country right now.

So our problem is that we’re not taking seriously any of our problems. Of course the poor are the most urgent. They’re the ones clinging, trying to hold on. We’re not taking care of that. But when we have a disaster like Hurricane Sandy that hit the whole East Coast, people have been warning for years with the rising sea levels, with the more intense storms, with the climate change, we have to get our infrastructure right.

We thought we’d found that out from Hurricane Katrina. Of course we did nothing, because our government is not responding to any of the major challenges we have in this country. The idea, starting around 1981, was to starve the beast, so-called.

Just get the size of government down. What we’re doing is incapacitating our ability to face the deep problems that we have in this country. One of them is an underclass that on its own cannot find a way out and no longer has any kind of helping hand.

Tavis: I think Jeffrey Sachs just shanked you. (Laughter) I thought –

Newt Gingrich: I don’t know if I’m happy –

Tavis: I’m being funny. I’m being funny.

Sachs: Nothing personal. (Laughter)

Tavis: I thought I heard him say that one of the mistakes we made was back in the ’80s, when you were around and running things, one of the mistakes we made was making our priority all about shrinking government. So tell me what – yeah.

Gingrich: Look, Jeffrey Sachs and I have a fundamental disagreement, and I suspect most of this panel, we have a fundamental disagreement about a couple of facts.

It is a fact that this coming March is the 49th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson declaring war on poverty. It’s a fact that we have spent over $16 trillion in those 49 years, and it has failed. I like your hashtag – poverty must end. I agree entirely. But let me give you two sets of dissenting views.

The welfare reform program worked. The greatest decrease in child poverty in America came under Bill Clinton with a Republican Congress in the late ’90s, and that’s just a fact. Jeffrey’s shaking his head no. It’s a fact.

In fact, the lowest level of Black children in poverty in history was 1999-2000. So you can make an argument that having the welfare system shift towards opportunity would work. I’ll give you a parallel today.

Tavis: Before you go further – I’m going to give you all the time you need.

Gingrich: Go ahead.

Tavis: So what would you say, then, to those of us who read “The New York Times'” front-page stories – I’m sure you did – when they did the review 15 years after Bill Clinton’s Welfare-to-Work program, that women and children were falling faster into poverty than anybody else, (applause) and it was that program that helped push them in there? That’s what “The Times” says. Were they wrong?

Gingrich: Yeah.

Tavis: Were they wrong?

Gingrich: Yes. It’s easy for me as a conservative to say, “Sure.” But “The New York Times” is often wrong. (Laughter) That’s easy. But let me carry you two steps further. I’ve been worked with former California assembly leader Pat Nolan on a project state-by-state to get people out of prison if they are there for nonviolent crimes, to get them brought back into society.

You can’t discuss how we’re going to solve some of these problems without rethinking prison in America. (Applause) Okay?

Tavis: We agree on that.

Gingrich: Now that’s a very difficult challenge for both parties. One last example, just to show you how we ought to be thinking differently. Unemployment compensation – I just was last week with Sebastian Thrun, who’s at Google, who taught a course with 151,000 people registered, 140,000 of whom actually completed the course, and the top 440 graduates were students who weren’t at Stanford.

They had taken the course and learned so much they beat the highest-ranking Stanford student. All right? Now his goal is to reduce tuition by 90 percent in higher education. Now let me apply that to the unemployed.

If you give people 99 weeks of unemployment, that should be an associate’s degree. We have no provision today to say if you sign up for unemployment, here are courses you could take that would help you get the skills so you can get a job. (Applause) It’s a fundamentally different approach.

The key to poverty is productivity. The key to productivity, as Jeffrey suggested in passing, is being honest about an underclass, in itself a very dangerous phrase. We don’t have people who lack culture; we have people whose cultures are very destructive of their capacity to enter prosperity. (Applause)

Tavis: Let me ask this one question, and I want to get it out of the way so you can explain what you meant when you said it so that we can all hear it. When you referred to Barack Obama, while you were running, as a “food stamp president,” tell me what you meant by it. Tell me what you said and what you meant.

Gingrich: Well, since you know fully well, a vast majority of the people who get food stamps are white. That couldn’t possibly have been a reference to race. It takes the elite media to assume that referring to food stamps – what I meant was he has followed policies, and this is a different, but important argument, he has followed policies which have limited job growth for the last four years.

This is the weakest recovery of any period since the Great Depression, and if you don’t get a recovery, you don’t have jobs. If you don’t have jobs, you’re not in a position to help people get out of poverty because there’s no place for them to go to.

So we’ve had policies which make it relatively easier to extend unemployment, relatively easier to have food stamps, but we’re not helping people get back to a level of investment and productivity that creates the kind of jobs we need to get out of here.

You look at Japan, which has been in recession since ’89, you look at Greece, which has over 25 percent unemployment, Spain, over 25 percent unemployment. I worry about a recovery that is not creating jobs and is not pulling people into a better future. (Applause)

Tavis: I want to say right quick, and well come back to this repeatedly, our hashtag – for those in the room you can see it on the wall; for those watching at home, hashtag poverty must end. So #povertymustend, if you want to participate in this conversation and share this message around the world.

Our website is called AFutureWithoutPoverty.com – AFutureWithoutPoverty.com. Mr. President, it’s time for a major policy address to eradicate poverty in America. We want to know as our leader what you believe must be done to make poverty a priority in this country. Secondly, will you consider, sir, convening a White House conference to eradicate poverty and bring the experts together? We’re doing it right now on gun control.

But look what it took for us to get to this point of doing it on gun control. What more has to happen? How many more people have to die or fall through the cracks before our leader (applause) decides that it’s important enough to convene the experts to create a national plan? (Applause)

So let me come to John Graham, who’s the dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. New book out called “America’s Poor and the Great Recession.” Tell me why you’re hopeful that any of these ideas – and pick a couple of them and tell me why you think that they could be agreed on by the left and the right in Congress.

John Graham: Tavis, thank you for allowing me to be here today and offering a Midwest perspective on these issues. (Laughter) I’d like to give you two pieces of good news from the Midwest of America. Number one, both President Bush and President Obama realize that having a government that’s in a war on the auto industry is not good for America. (Applause)

The result is we have lots of new people being hired in the Midwest, not only at GM and at Chrysler but also at Honda and Toyota, and the auto industry is getting very healthy very quickly. It’s not just benefitting the executives. There are $5,000 bonuses going to workers at GM and Ford for this year at the end of the year in terms of a benefit.

Another example is natural gas, one of our cleanest fuels. Both President Bush and President Obama recognize that having a regulatory system that smothers innovation in the natural gas industry does not help the economy. Both of them have allowed an explosion in natural gas production, one of our cleanest fuels.

This is causing jobs in manufacturing that used to be going to China to come back to the United States, and it’s been a very positive development for our economy.

So the first point I want to make is when the two parties and politicians can get together on some of these issues, some good things can happen. With respect to poverty specifically, it’s I think a well-kept secret that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama abdicated indexation to the minimum wage to the rate of inflation. It doesn’t matter now because we have no inflation.

But as the economy gets better, if we don’t index that minimum wage to inflation people at the bottom of the income spectrum are going to lose ground rather than gain ground in the recovery, and it’s a modest, sensible thing that we should all agree on. (Applause)

Tavis: Dr. West, I want to come to you now, because I was running around doing some media today, and I understand you were doing some media as well, and I actually was in the car at one point today here in the nation’s capital when you were on a local radio program, talking about this conversation tonight. So thank you for promoting that.

Dr. Cornel West: Mm. Mm.

Tavis: But I’m coming to you now because I heard you start to sound off with regard to your thoughts about what it means for Barack Hussein Obama to be sworn in to a second term as president on the King holiday. So you heard the applause in this auditorium when I suggested that in my view, and I think in your view, that Dr. King was the greatest American we’ve ever produced.

So we know that he looms large, we know the inauguration’s happening on the holiday, we know this is the first time that a president will be inaugurated with a King monument, memorial, just down the street. His Bible now has been brought into the equation.

Let me just start by asking you for your opening thoughts on what – help me, which you do so well, given what you teach, help me properly situate what’s about to happen on Monday vis-à-vis poverty in America.

West: No, but first I just want to salute you, my brother. We’ve been in the trenches now for 20 years, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes demonized, sometimes ostracized, but we’re stronger than ever, and we still coming. We still going. (Applause) It’s a blessing, though, brother, it’s a blessing.

Tavis: Appreciate it. Appreciate it.

West: But no, when I got the news that my dear brother Barack Obama, President Obama, was going to put his precious hand on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible, I got upset. I got upset because you don’t play with Martin Luther King Jr. and you don’t play with his people.

And by “his people,” what I mean is people of good conscience, fundamentally committed to peace and truth and justice, and especially the Black tradition that produced it.

All the blood, sweat, and tears that went into producing a Martin Luther King Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment in a presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that he presents to all of those in power, no matter what color they are. (Applause)

No matter what color they are. So the righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation, and that makes my blood boil. Why? Because Martin Luther King Jr., he died owing to three crimes against humanity he was wrestling with: Jim Crow traumatizing, terrorizing, stigmatizing Black people, lynching and so forth, not just “segregation,” the way the press likes to talk about it.

Second, carpet-bombing in Vietnam killing innocent people, especially innocent children. Those are war crimes Martin Luther King Jr. was willing to die for. And thirdly was poverty of all colors. He said it’s a crime against humanity for the richest nation in the history of the world to have so many of its precious children of all colors living in poverty, especially on the chocolate side of the nation and on Indian reservations and brown barrios and yellow slices and Black ghettos then; we call them hoods now, but ghettos then.

So I said to myself, okay, nothing wrong with putting the hand on the Bible, even though the Bible’s talking about justice, Jesus is talking about the least of these. But when he put Martin’s Bible, I said, “This is personal for me, because this is a tradition that I come out of. This is tradition that’s connected to my grandmother’s prayers and my grandfather’s sermons and my mother’s tears and my father’s smile.”

It’s over against all of those in power who refuse to follow decent policies. So I said to myself, “Brother Martin Luther King Jr., what would you say about the new Jim Crow? What would you say about the prison industrial complex? What would you say about the invisibility (applause) of so many of our prisoners, so many of our incarcerated, especially when 62 percent of them are there for soft drugs, but not one executive of a Wall Street bank has gone to jail?” (Applause, cheering) Not one.

Martin doesn’t like that. Not one wiretapper. Not one torturer under the Bush administration at all. Then what’d you say about the drones being dropped on our precious brothers and sisters in Pakistan (applause) and Somalia and Yemen? Those are war crimes just like war crimes in Vietnam.

Martin Luther King Jr., what would you say? My voice hollers out, “Then don’t tame it with your hand on his Bible. Allow his prophetic voice to be heard.” Martin, what would you say about the poverty in America now, beginning with the children and then the elderly, then our working folk, and all colors? Not just here, around the world.

Don’t hide and conceal his challenge. Don’t tame his prophetic fire. So as much as I’m glad that Barack Obama won – I think that brother Mitt Romney would have been a catastrophe, and I understand (laughter) Brother Newt told the truth of vampire capitalism, but that’s true for the system as a whole, not just Mitt Romney in that regard. (Laughter)

But when Barack Obama attempts to use that rich tradition – Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells-Barnett – use the tradition of A. Philip Randolph, use the tradition of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, use the tradition of Tom Hayden and so many others struggling to produce that voice that pushed Martin in the direction that he did, I get upset.

People say, “Oh, Brother West, there’s Smiley and West hating Obama.” No, no. We just loving the tradition that produced Martin Luther King Jr. and we’re not going to allow it to be in any way sanitized, deodorized and sterilized. (Applause) We want the subversive power to be heard. That’s what made me think when you said he’s going to put his hand on that Bible. (Applause, cheering)

Tavis: So we’ll leave it right there for now, but more of this conversation over the course of the next three nights. Until next time, 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 9:25 pm