Last Thursday, I went to the Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity event presented by Tavis Smiley at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium.
Before the event, I found a public parking garage that charged about half the fee of the GW lot. Unfortunately, it was a cash only lot and I was about fifty cents short. Thankfully, the parking attendant said he would make up the difference.
As I approached GW, there was a line stretching around the block with almost 30 minutes before the start time. Some of my ticket-less friends had stayed away fearing they would be turned away as an usher walked up and down the queue stating that only pre-registered ticket holders would be allowed in. I didn’t make it in until nearly 40 minutes later and by then they were no longer checking tickets.
What followed was an inspiring two and half hours of some of the best American progressive social, political, economic commentary. The audience was refreshingly engaged and frequently erupted into shouts of support and loud applause.
Tavis Smiley moderated the discussion and began with the devastating statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau that when the perennially poor, new poor, and near poor categories are combined together that nearly 1 in 2 Americans or about 150 million people are living in or around the poverty line. Many of the people in the new poor category were until recently among the middle class. Vicki Escarra, the President and CEO of Feeding America, highlighted the reality of food insecurity and that 50 million Americans are hungry each day, many of them not knowing where their next meal will come from.
Barbara Ehrenreich hammered away on the point that for too long poverty has been seen as a character flaw by both those on the right and some on the left. Rather than as a result of low wages, the inability to find work, and the system increasingly being stacked against people trying to get out of poverty.
Dr. Cornell West lamented that while nearly 56% of children live in or near poverty, the poor have been pushed to the margins of society and their plight and concerns are largely invisible on the national stage. West chastised our political leaders beholden to corporate interests and greed to actually lead on the issue of poverty, which he labeled the major moral and spiritual of our time. According to West, poverty is as much an issue of national security as are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Michael Moore observed that America has always had a poor working class going back to the legacy of slavery. Certainly, America would not be as rich and prosperous today had it not benefitted from hundreds of years of slavery. Moore continued that financial institutions miscalculated in going after the white middle class through the mortgage crisis. Now, that poverty has an increasingly white face added to that of people of color, we see more grassroots anger and movements like Occupy Wall Street beginning to take shape.
Suze Orman remarked that “there is now a highway into poverty and no longer even a sidewalk out” and that many of the people that call into her show are the former middle class who are now the face of the new poor. They are of all backgrounds and colors and Orman reminded the audience could very well be the person sitting next to you.
Majora Carter emphasized the importance of environmental equality and restructuring to provide a tools for economic development. Environmental inequality means that some communities bear the burdens of living in close proximity to factories, waste treatment facilities, and fossil fuel production while not receiving the benefits of parks and other community enhancements. According to Carter, research has demonstrated a link between proximity to fossil fuel emissions and learning disabilities, which in turn might lead an individual to drop out of school. And since those without even a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated, this in turn destabilizes both families and communities leading to a vicious cycle.
But things are not all doom and gloom, it seems likely that President Obama will be re-elected this year. Suze Orman has launched a debit card in hopes of getting debit card purchases to count toward a consumer’s credit score. Majora Carter sees hope despite conflicting emotions about ideas for urban renewal and gentrification. Others see continuing hope in the large numbers of everyday people coming together to mobilize for change through unions and the occupy movements.
Orman challenged the audience to ask themselves what they will do to keep themselves out of poverty. What are you doing to keep yourself out of poverty and to alleviate poverty from our society?