Q&A: Tavis Smiley on poverty

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"This manifesto, backed by stubborn facts and damning statistics, will erase any doubt that we are just experiencing a crisis in our country; we are dangerously close to cementing a permanent American catastrophe." So goes the introduction to The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, published in March 2012 by the powerhouse duo of Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West. The two, who have hosted a radio show together since 2010, are heading out next week on another leg of their Poverty Tour, which is all about using their clout as public intellectuals to focus attention on the oft-unspoken "p" word.

Smiley and West will appear next Friday at Clowes Memorial Hall to talk, take questions and sign books. And it's a busy homecoming for Smiley: on Tuesday, before he heads to Clowes, Smiley will take part in a panel discussion on poverty alongside, among others, John Graham, the Dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, whose new book on poverty, America's Poor and the Great Recession, includes a foreword written by Smiley, a SPEA grad. We spoke with Smiley on Tuesday morning, just before going to press.

NUVO: It's hard to massage census numbers. The percentage of school-age children living in poverty grew between 2007 and 2011 in one quarter of U.S. counties. There was a statistically significant increase in the school-age poverty rate in 832 counties during the same period. The U.S. Department of Education reported last year that more than one million students attending public schools are or have been homeless. This is an epidemic, isn't it?

Tavis Smiley: The statistics are quite stark, and there's really no avoiding the numbers, but we do anyway; we put our head in the sand. The reason why this conversation is so timely and so critical is because we won't know how good the fiscal cliff deal is until we get to March. In March, when we have these conversations about the debt ceiling and about the spending cuts that the Republicans are going to push for - if we think this conversation is tumultuous, wait for the debt ceiling conversation, because when spending cuts are being debated, I can guarantee, I can tell you right now, that poor people are going to end up taking it on the chin. The President has drawn a line in the sand; he's done that before, and we'll see if he stands firm this time. It's an interesting metaphor: Poor people are always stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the fiscal cliff is the rock and the debt ceiling is the hard place. And that's where we find ourselves.

NUVO: And to quote from the introduction to the book you recently co-wrote with Dr. Cornel West: "Let us be clear: An economic uptick or recovery will not solve what we witnessed while traveling across this country." The fiscal cliff may have been avoided, but what difference does that make to those without money to lose?

Smiley: That's right, and that's why this conversation is so important. What Dr. West and I have been doing is traveling the country - and we're coming back to Butler after the SPEA event, which I'm delighted to do as a proud SPEA graduate - what we've been doing with this Poverty Tour is, number one, trying to get people to understand how critical these issues are. Number two, we're specifically calling on the President to deliver a major policy speech on policy, a la Lyndon Johnson and his War on Poverty. The timing, once again, couldn't be more critical. And the other thing we're calling for with this particular tour that we're kicking off in a matter of days, we're calling for a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty. We're going to colleges and universities around the country to get involved with pushing the White House to hold this Conference - and for one simple reason: to bring the experts together on the issue of poverty, to bring the poverty fighters together, and to create a national plan that can cut poverty in half in 10 years and get close to eradicating it in 25. This can be done - it's a skill problem, not a will problem - but it requires a national plan. The reason we keep teetering on cliffs and bumping into ceilings is because we don't have a national plan that we're going to stick with for 10 years to cut poverty in half and stick with for another 15 years to eradicate it. Other countries have done this - and even we have done this; during the Johnson years, poverty was cut significantly. But it requires a plan, and not bouncing from pillar to post.

NUVO: With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day nearing, can you talk about how King's work inspired The Rich and the Rest of Us? One thinks particularly of the Poor People's Campaign he launched toward the end of his life.

Smiley: As you know, this year, the President will be inaugurated on the King holiday. So it's going to be fascinating to watch the President wrestling with issues like the economy with the backdrop of more people falling into poverty than the past 50 years, as he stands up on King's holiday to give his acceptance speech. King will loom large, extremely large, on the 21st when this African-American president is installed - and the African-American part is important not only because it's historic, but more broadly because it's really in part asking: What country are we going to be? What kind of people are we going to be? And Dr. King called us to a deeper commitment; he asked us to make a deeper commitment to the least among us. And there's no doubt in my mind that were Dr. King here on Inauguration Day, wherever he appeared he would have talked about the need to make poverty a priority in this country. Dr. West and I believe - we agree on this - that Dr. King is the greatest American this country has ever produced. So our work on the Poverty Tour, on the radio show, all the work we do together is a tribute to King, and it's our effort to do our small part to make the world safe for his legacy; that's what our work is about individually, and it's certainly about our work collectively.

NUVO: Another quote from your book with Dr. West: "There can be no genuine compassion without a resurrection of an explosively radical movement of righteous indignation directed at eradicating poverty." How do you envision that movement taking shape? What will be the spark for that explosion? Was it Occupy?

Smiley: Yeah, I think Occupy was a spark. It showed people that they can raise their voice, and that when they do raise their voices, people do pay attention; Washington and the White House pay attention. I think that the next spark will likely be... As I said earlier, people keep falling into poverty. One out of two of us is either in poverty or near poverty, and the key phrase is "or near," meaning that you're just a paycheck or two away from being in poverty. That's about 150 million people, according to the Census Bureau; half the country! If those numbers continue to persist, and this fiscal cliff deal ends up not really having any teeth in it once we get to the March debt ceiling debate and they basically defang the Fiscal Cliff deal made in January - then a lot of people are going to be hurting, and the President will have left done a lot of people. And if this President - and I pray that he doesn't - but if he does agree to deal, come March, that ends up pushing more people into poverty, that's going to be another spark.

I should mention, and I want to be very clear about this: The foundation for the work that Dr. West and I have been doing was a white paper that I commissioned SPEA to do for us. I didn't want to go out on this tour without a white paper that really laid out what the problem is. So I contacted John Graham, the Dean at SPEA, and asked him is there was a way that he could do a white paper that could give me the factual foundation I needed. And Dean Graham has a new book coming out in a matter of days now called America's Poor and the Great Recession, and I was honored to have been asked to write the foreword for that book.

So it's for me a way of coming home. I grew up in poverty in Indiana; I went to college in Bloomington in poverty; I have nine brothers and sisters, and I struggled to pay for their schooling once I got out of school. I'm anxious to come back to Indiana to talk about an issue, but also to celebrate what I think will be a seminal piece of work by John Graham. What makes this book different from some of the other books written about poverty is that he lays out some specific examples in the book that he believes both the left and the right can agree on; he worked in the Bush White House, after all.

NUVO: And you offered some solutions in your book with Dr. West, in a sense. Can you talk about your concept of "fundamental fairness"?

Smiley: What's great about the book that we did is that it puts together a framework of what needs to be considered, the ten points that we lay out in our Poverty Manifesto, ten things that can be done to reduce poverty. We lay out a broad framework - Dr. West and I are not experts - saying this is what needs to be dealt with. What Dr. Graham has done is to take that framework and fill it in with more detail, laying out specific solutions. The combination of the two books tells the story.

NUVO: You and Dr. West are approaching things from the grassroots side and Dr. Graham is working the policy side. Can those two sides really work in concert, the people and the bureaucracy and political leadership?

Smiley: I think it takes grassroots to push the White House. One of the things Doc and I are doing on this tour is asking Americans to go to our website, thefutureofpoverty.com, to sign a letter to the President, asking him to give a major policy address on poverty and to convene a White House Conference on Poverty. So that is how we're engaging fellow citizens to use their voices. The White House, so often, moves when they get pushed; you've got to push them or got to pull them.

From The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (2012, Smiley Books)

"Poverty matters to us because it mattered to Dr. King. Our work and witness are inspired by his words, 'I choose to identify with the underprivileged, I choose to identify with the poor, I choose to give my life for the hungry, I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity.' For us, ending poverty is squarely rooted in the legacy of a King who fought against poverty until his dying day on April 4, 1968. Lest we forget that, Dr. King's final trip, his final mission, was to go stand beside the poor sanitation workers in Memphis who were fighting for better wages, bargaining rights, and safer working conditions. Dr. King's last battles involved the eradication of poverty."

"Social justice is woven into the history of social work, health care, human rights education, the Global Justice Movement, and numerous grassroots organizations, including the Green Party.

'A love that liberates' is more than a touchy-feely aspiration. It is the premise of Liberation Theology - a 'bottom-up' movement based on Jesus' example to fight for the poor against unjust economic, political, or social conditions. This international and interdenominational movement uses social justice as its guide to provide hope and alleviate the poor's suffering and struggle.

Corporate capitalism tends to clash with this kind of social justice. It reduces human life to market calculation and co-modification. To be fully human, we cannot allow men, women, and children to live in poverty amid unprecedented prosperity.

This manifesto is founded on the fundamental conviction that there must be a renaissance of compassion in America: There can be no genuine compassion without a resurrection of an explosively radical movement of righteous indignation directed at eradicating poverty."

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