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Tavis Smiley & Cornel West on “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto”

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The latest census data shows nearly one in two Americans, or 150 million people, have fallen into poverty — or could be classified as low income. We’re joined by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, who continue their efforts to spark a national dialogue on the poverty crisis with the new book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” Smiley, an award-winning TV and radio broadcaster, says President Obama has failed to properly tackle poverty. “There seems to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the poor just don’t matter. President Obama is a part of that,” Smiley says. “I take nothing away from his push on healthcare, but jobs for every American should have been primary issue, number one.” West, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, says that after the historic U.S. struggles against monarchy, slavery and institutionalized racism, “the issue today is oligarchy. Poverty is the new slavery. Oligarchs are the new kings. They’re the new heads of this structure of domination.” Click here to see part two of this interview. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to an issue seldom talked about on the presidential campaign trail by President Obama or any of his Republican rivals. The issue is poverty. A recent article in the Chicago Reader described poverty as “the forgotten issue in the presidential campaign.” Census data shows nearly one in two Americans, or 150 million people, have fallen into poverty or could be classified as low-income. Thirty-eight percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children live in poverty. In February, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney openly declared he is, quote, “not concerned about the very poor.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by two guests, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, who are attempting to start a national dialogue on poverty. Last year they took part in a 10-state poverty tour, and they’ve just published a book on the issue called The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.

Cornel West is a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, author of many books. Tavis Smiley is an award-winning TV and radio broadcaster. He hosts the PBS TV show Tavis Smiley and two radio shows, The Tavis Smiley Show and Smiley & West, which he hosts with Cornel West.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

CORNEL WEST: Thank you. A blessing to be here.

TAVIS SMILEY: Delighted to be here. Thank you both for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you are on a whirlwind tour. The title, Tavis, The Rich and the Rest of Us.

TAVIS SMILEY: That’s what America looks like right about now. There is this gap between the haves and the have-nots, a growing gap, in fact. When 1 percent of the people control 42 percent—own and control 42 percent of the wealth, that’s a problem. When one out of two Americans is either in or near poverty—you take the perennially poor or the persistent poor, on top of them the new poor—we argue in this book the new poor are the former middle class—and the near poor, folk who are a paycheck away, that’s 150 million Americans wrestling with poverty. Mitt Romney, who Juan referenced earlier, wants to call this the “politics of envy.” But we think it’s about fundamental fairness, and that’s what we’re trying to talk about in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that’s an astounding figure. I just want to stop and not let it go by.

TAVIS SMILEY: I say the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: One in two Americans?

TAVIS SMILEY: Exactly. One out of two of us, 150 million people, is either in or near poverty. So, you’ve got half of your democracy fighting to get out or to stay out of poverty. And what we argue in this book is that poverty threatens our democracy and that poverty is a matter of national security, that poverty is no longer color-coded. Americans of all races, all colors, all creeds. As you mentioned, Amy, on our poverty tour last summer, 11 states, 18 cities, we saw all kinds of Americans wrestling with this issue. And finally, we saw on this tour poverty that was so extreme, Juan, that it’s clear to us that a slight uptick in our economy, the kind of which we’re experiencing now, a slight uptick, is not going to do much of anything to really alleviate or to address the kind of poverty that we saw. This poverty is not a character flaw anymore. It’s a societal crisis.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Cornel West, it was half a century ago that President—another president, Lyndon Johnson, declared a war on poverty. And you, in the book, talk about how that war has progressed, supposedly, or has not progressed.

CORNEL WEST: Well, we know, as a result of the social movements, led by Martin Luther King Jr., but connected Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan and others, that we went from nearly 24 percent of Americans living in poverty to 11 percent—Michael Harrington, Frances Fox Piven, others playing a crucial role. Social movements make a difference. But also, greed at the top has social consequences. This is issues of economic injustice, issues of class inequality, 1 percent of the population having 42 percent of the wealth. 2010, the top 1 percent got 93 percent of the income. And we’re not talking about wealth at this point. Income. Now that’s morally obscene. You have 22 percent of our children of all colors, each one precious, living in poverty. That’s an ethical abomination.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we’re not just going to talk about presidential politics; we also want to talk about Occupy. But on the campaign trail, I want to ask about presidential front-runner Mitt Romney. In February—well, at least front-runner for the Republicans. In February, he told CNN’s Soleded O’Brien he’s not concerned with the poorest Americans.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: You just said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.


MITT ROMNEY: The challenge right now—we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and—and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. My campaign—I mean, you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: All right, there you have it. That was Mitt Romney. Tavis Smiley?

TAVIS SMILEY: It was—I recall seeing that when it aired. It was so hard to just intake that comment, because it shows a certain callousness, a cavalier attitude toward the poor. And we argue in this book that the poor in this country are not a priority, in part because of that kind of arrogance and the criminalization and the demonization of the poor. To just say that “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” just uttering that phrase, “I am not concerned about the very poor,” ought to arrest every single one of us, number one.

Number two, he says, “if there is a social safety net.” Well, first of all, there ought to be. There ought to be no question of “if there is.” We ought to have a social safety net for those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in poverty. Nobody in this country wants to be poor. And for so many millions of Americans who now find themselves poor, it was not their choice. They didn’t choose to ship their job abroad. They didn’t choose to have their 401(k) raped and pillaged by their employers. They didn’t choose to have a catastrophic illness which bankrupt them. So, Americans are not poor, again, because of character flaws, so many of them.

And thirdly and finally, when Mitt Romney suggested he’s concerned about the middle-income America, well, as we said a moment ago, the new poor are the former middle class. So when, in presidential politics, Amy, when Romney and Obama, presumably, will be on the campaign trail this summer talking about the economy and wanting to speak specifically to the angst of the middle class, they have to recalibrate that conversation, because if the new poor, again, are the former middle class, then who are you talking to? We cannot abide another campaign for the White House where the issue of poverty is not addressed, Juan. Very quickly, in the last race for the White House, between Obama and McCain, three presidential debates—we point this out in the text—three presidential debates, the word “poor” or “poverty” does not come up one time. Obama doesn’t utter it. McCain doesn’t reference it. The moderators don’t even ask about it. Fast-forward four years, half of us are in or near poverty. Our democracy is threatened as a result. We can’t have another campaign this year where poverty doesn’t get on the agenda.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But interestingly, in the book you mention this Matt Taibbi article where he was—where he was attending a Tea Party gathering and where they were attacking government subsidies, and he noted how many of them had Medicare wheelchairs and how many of the Tea Party people were actually dependent on government but not even recognizing it.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right. I mean, that’s what you get in right-wing populism, that on the one hand you have a certain suspicion of elites, but on the other hand, when those elites are still providing programs that support you, you embrace them. But I think there’s a sense in which the words of all of these politicians, of both parties, are superstructural and epiphenomenal. What I mean by that is, we’ve got to keep track of their policies, their deeds, their actions. There’s a sense in which he didn’t need to say that. All you need to do is look at his policies, and you see they have very little concern about poor people, you see. When Barack Obama engages in populist rhetoric — “I love poor people” — where is your policies? “I love investment bankers,” we see your policies. So it’s a real question here of looking at the base, the real, on-the-ground policies, deeds and actions.

And that’s true with not just poor people here; look at the innocent civilians, with the drones dropping bombs now, expanded, don’t have to identify, CIA calling for that today. Very clear. “We fight for freedom. We’re concerned about innocent people.” No, you’re killing innocent people in the name of fighting terrorism. That’s a moral issue for somebody like me.

TAVIS SMILEY: If I can add a—

CORNEL WEST: That’s a—

TAVIS SMILEY: If I can add—I’m sorry, if I can add right quick to that, when Doc says that both parties, quite frankly, have been bankrupt in this conversation, starting, first of all, with the language. Our language, our glossary of terminology around this conversation, is so bankrupt. What does it mean to be “working poor”? If you work, you ought not to be poor. Minimum wage? No, how about a living wage? What is a “jobless recovery”? It ain’t a recovery if it’s jobless to the average American.

But to Doc’s point about the fact that, beyond the language, both parties have been ideologically lacking in terms of imagination and vision and creativity for putting poor people back to work, just yesterday, the House Republicans in the Agriculture Committee voted, as you know, to tighten restrictions even further on food stamps. Now we already know that there’s a dramatic increase in—Mr. Gingrich’s nasty, vitriolic comment notwithstanding, calling the President the “food stamp president,” we know that more Americans are applying for food stamps than ever before. Feeding America, who we work with, will tell you that more Americans are trying to find food. There is clearly a food insecurity problem, Juan, in this country. And at that very moment, here we now get this austerity conversation underway in Washington, and they start tightening the belt—not on defense, but on food stamps. There’s a problem with that.

AMY GOODMAN: O’Reilly on Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly—and I know you’ve been on his show—slammed President Obama’s policies on poverty.

BILL O’REILLY: In a free society, people have a right to be a moron, and no government can stop irresponsible parenting. So, what is the solution? President Obama believes that the federal government should give money to the poor, hand it right to them, in a variety of ways. Problem with that is that many of the poor will use the money irresponsibly. The high rate of alcohol and drug addiction and other social problems assure a massive amount of waste in the entitlement arena. Americans are the most generous people on earth, but the truth is that income redistribution doesn’t work. For what this Feds spend now on entitlements, every single poor person in America could be handed almost $21,000 a year.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill O’Reilly, Fox News. Professor Cornel West?

CORNEL WEST: Well, we’ve got a section in this book where we talk about the myths and lies told about poor people in poverty. One is that poor people have character flaws and make bad decisions. I know a lot of oligarchs and plutocrats who have character flaws, make bad decisions, and still get bailed out, still have access to healthcare, still have socialism for them, as it were. So, Brother O’Reilly, he just falls right into the right-wing trap in that regard. And he talks about income redistribution. What we’ve seen is the most massive income distribution from poor and working people to the well-to-do. So he’s not against income distribution. It’s just when it’s top-down he’s against it. When it’s bottom-up, he’s all for it, in essence. In fact, he sees it as a natural process of the free market and so forth. So we have to shatter the myths that he’s putting forward. And Brother Tavis and I have been blessed to go at that dear brother directly, face to face and soul to soul.

TAVIS SMILEY: On that very issue, as a matter of fact, and he keeps raising that issue about substance abuse. That’s an insult to everyday Americans who have been laid off, been downsized, have lost their homes, have lost their savings, are now just trying to hold on to their dignity. We believe, as Dr. King did, that there is dignity in labor, that there is dignity in working. These are Americans now just trying to hold onto their dignity. With all due respect to Mr. O’Reilly, for him to suggest once again, as he’s been doing consistently, that these are persons who are engaged in substance abuse, I mean, it’s just insulting. Most Americans who are poor right now are not poor because they’re drug users, because they’re alcoholics. They are poor because they don’t have jobs, because of these greedy corporations in the country who are making more money at home, sending more jobs abroad.

I was so heartened to see this pushback the other day here in New York by these shareholders about these—about this CEO, CEO pay.

AMY GOODMAN: Citigroup.

TAVIS SMILEY: I think, to your point, Amy—yeah, Citigroup. To your point, Amy, I think that the Occupy movement is resonating. And this is another example. And I’m glad that the New York Times, at least in their coverage, highlighted and shouted out, as it were, Occupy for their message starting to take hold now, where shareholders and pension plans and other entities invested in these companies are saying, “Hey, enough is enough.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the complicity, though, as you alluded to earlier, of so many of the commercial media reporters, in terms of not focusing or not raising the issue of the poverty divide in the country in these debates or in investigative articles that look at the various aspects of it, how does—Occupy Wall Street, you feel, has had a major impact on at least awakening the press, it seems to me, in terms of some of these issues?

TAVIS SMILEY: I think so. I mean, there’s no doubt about the fact—and Doc and I discuss this all the time—that we are seeing at least more conversation about poverty than we have in a long time. But one of the reasons for that—we talk about in this book—one of the reasons for that, Juan, though, is because poverty, again, is no longer black and brown. There are so many of our fellow citizens who happen not to be black and brown who now find themselves poor, and so these voices are being raised. To your point about Occupy, you know, while it is a multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic entity, the overwhelming number of persons who started this and who sustain this happen to be young white Americans. And so, now that we see, again, that poverty is engulfing millions of us, all of us, from California to the Carolinas—again, we saw this on our poverty tour—because so many Americans of all races are being impacted by this, now we see the media starting to take this conversation more seriously.

The ultimate question is, can we move from conversation to action? And that’s why, in this book, we talk about a portrait of poverty, how we got here. We talk about the poverty of opportunity, but then, beyond that, a poverty of affirmation, a poverty of compassion, a poverty of truth, a poverty of vision, a poverty of imagination. We shatter these lies told about poverty and the poor. Then we close this book with the real manifesto, which is these 12 points that we think—12 issues that must be addressed immediately and seriously, if we’re going to reduce and eradicate poverty in this country.

CORNEL WEST: I mean, to put it in the history of America, that we began after we mistreated our precious indigenous brothers and sisters, subordinated them, genocidal attack. But we had to deal with monarchy, British imperialism. Overthrew the monarchy. Next came slavery. Had to break the back of slavery. Jim Crow and James Crow, slavery by another name. Had to break the back of slavery. The issue today is oligarchy. Poverty is the new slavery. Oligarchs are the new kings. They’re the new heads of this structure of domination. And we’ve got to coalesce in our critique of oligarchs and oligarchy and plutocracy, without hating oligarchs and plutocrats.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So what happened to the “audacity of hope”?

CORNEL WEST: Of Barack Obama?


CORNEL WEST: Well, it’s a wonderful language. He got it from Jeremiah Wright, our dear brother Jeremiah Wright. Jeremiah Wright comes out of a black prophetic tradition that talks about hope, not cheap American optimism. So he borrows the language of Martin King, he borrows the language of Jeremiah Wright and a whole host of others, Fannie Lou Hamer and others—blood, sweat and tears, critiques of oligarchy and critiques of patriarchy and critiques of anti-Semitism, anti-Arab, anti-terror, anti-Latino racism and so forth. So we get these mainstream politicians, these neoliberals, who preserve oligarchic rule, use the language of progressives, and think that somehow they will not be disclosed for what they are: neoliberals still tied to the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama, Tavis Smiley, and where he has gone in this administration, and your criticism of him as he runs for re-election?

TAVIS SMILEY: Well, the argument we advance in the book is not that he has done nothing. We don’t advance an argument that he has had a sort of antipathy toward the poor. We simply argue that he hasn’t done enough. And we suggested earlier in this conversation that there seems to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the poor just don’t matter. President Obama is a part of that. We argue in the book, and I think many Americans agree, that the first priority should have been jobs, jobs, jobs. I take nothing away from his push on healthcare, but jobs for every American should have been the primary issue, number one, particularly and especially if the Supreme Court ends up gutting this law by declaring unconstitutional the mandate. The mandate goes, the whole thing collapses, basically, and then we’re back to square one again. So all that time, all that energy and all that effort ends up being for naught. And Americans still, now, don’t have jobs and don’t have access to healthcare in the short run or the long run. And we know that healthcare bankrupts so many Americans trying to just stay alive. They end up with these catastrophic illnesses that end up costing them their homes, their savings and everything else. So we know the role that healthcare plays in this process. The bottom line is that he hasn’t done enough on the issue of poverty.

Of that list of 12 things that we say has to be done to reduce and eradicate poverty, one of those things, Amy, one of the 12, is the calling of a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. This is not rocket science. In the vernacular of our conversation today, this really is low-hanging fruit. To your point, Juan, the last time we had a real conversation about poverty from the White House down was during the Johnson years. And there have been Republicans and Democrats, of course, who have occupied the Oval Office since then, but no real commitment to the poor. So what we’re calling for is the next president of these United States to do the same thing that Barack Obama did when he got elected the first time, Amy, when he, first and foremost, signed Lilly Ledbetter, as he should have, to protect women in the workplace. The next president, as his first official act, ought to be the signing of an executive order establishing and calling for a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. Bring all the experts together, and let us create a national plan that all of us are going to engage to reduce and eradicate poverty in this country over a time certain period, 10, 15, 25 years.

Now, here’s the bottom line. These plans already exist. Jeffrey Sachs here at Columbia in New York has one. Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund, has one. Catholic Charities has one. Jim Wallis’s Sojourners has one. There are all kinds of institutions and think tanks who have created these plans to reduce poverty in this country, but nobody at the White House level, nobody at the federal government level, has said, “Let’s all get in a room and create a national plan that we’re going to rally around to reduce poverty in this country.” They’ve done it in other countries. Chile comes to mind. Between '87 and 2009, they went from about 48 percent poverty to 11 percent poverty. And Doc makes the point, and we do in the book, that after the Johnson war on poverty, we reduced poverty in this country. Again, this is not a skill problem; it's a will problem. We need a national plan to get serious about this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. Cornel West, Occupy—I saw you down at Occupy Wall Street, and you traveled around the country. The significance of this movement?

CORNEL WEST: Oh, it’s the historic movement, democratic awakening taking place among everyday people straightening their backs up. And it’s a beautiful thing to witness. And it is coming back stronger than ever. And I’m blessed to be there. I’ve got my cemetery clothes on and my jail clothes on and my street clothes on. Even as we write our books, and even as we listen to Richard Wolff talk about Democracy at Work, new important book, Paul Krugman, [End] This Depression Now, new important book, connection of mind, body and soul.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to do part two, and we’re going to post it on our website at democracynow.org. Check it out. The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West.

I’ll be speaking with Grace Lee Boggs at Cooper Union Friday night and GreenFest Sunday.

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Cornel West on Charles Rangel, Bush & Kanye West, and Why Obama Admin “Seems to Have Very Little Concern for Poor People”

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