Tavis Smiley/Cornel West launch Poverty 2.0

Cornel West speaks to a church during the 2011 Smiley/West poverty tour.

Tavis Smiley speaks during the 2011 Smiley/West poverty tour.

Television and radio host Tavis Smiley and noted author, philosopher and university professor Cornel West are launching their latest “poverty tour” today. This time, they will focus on election battleground states. 

The duo have worked as a team spotlighting social issues since West was a regular commentator of Smiley’s NPR radio show nearly 10 years ago.   

The tour will take them to Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida from September 12-15.  The two said they want to make sure that poverty is included in this year’s election agenda.

“We simply want to accent the humanity and decency of poor people of all colors,” said West. "We’re trying to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And what that means is to make not just poverty as an abstraction, but poor people’s lives more of the center of our public policy.”

 

The difference between talking about jobs and dealing with  poverty.

West said the conversation about jobs should not be separate from the issue of eradicating poverty. The two go hand-in-hand.  And any discussion about jobs must include the idea of a living wage, because a lot of the jobs people talk about now are low-wage jobs.

West called the rise of the working poor in America “morally obscene.” He said it does not make sense for the richest 400 people in America to have wealth equivalent to the poorest 150 million.

“How long can our precious experiment in democracy survive given that level of wealth inequality,” he said. “It’s not a matter of trashing the rich. It’s a matter of hating injustice.”

The tour comes just a week after a weaker than expected jobs report for the month of August and on the same day as the release of a new poverty study by the U.S. Census Bureau. In an interview with 'The Root' earlier this week, Tavis Smiley said he and West expected the census data to show what the rest of America already knows.

 “Taken together, what we expect to see is that it will be pretty clear that poverty is the new American norm,” said Smiley. “One out of every two Americans is either in or near poverty. By near poverty, I mean low income. In the richest nation in the world, poverty ought to be abnormal, not the new normal. That's what we're up against.”

-The Root, “The Election-Season Poverty Tour”, By Jenée Desmond-Harris.

 

Poverty and the 2012 Election

West and Smiley have been just as vocal in their criticism of how both parties are handling issues of poverty. West said that the GOP is tied to the wealthy sectors of society and claims that they don’t have a fundamental commitment to public interest.

“Usually when they talk equality of opportunity it has to do with operations in the private sector and that’s fine,” he said. “But in a democracy, you have to talk about public interest and common good. In order to do that, everybody’s got to share in the prosperity and the sacrifice.”

West said that Wall Street “has a hold” on both parties. He said although President Obama is better than Mitt Romney on addressing issues of poverty, that’s not saying much.

“He’s got so far to go because the bar is set so low,” said West. “Yes, Barack Obama is somebody who leans in our direction, but I’ve been scathing of my critique of Barack Obama in terms of his Wall Street government. The very statute of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his oval office is staring at him and saying, ‘You have failed poor people, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. But you’re still better than Mitt Romney.’"

The tour will consist of several town hall meetings and speaking engagements. The overall goal is to get the next president of the United States to convene a major conference on the eradication of poverty with bipartisan political participation. Smiley and West first pushed for this conference in their book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto,” released earlier this year.

Smiley told ‘The Root’ that poverty should be on the front burner of the political campaign agenda this election season.

 “We believe that just like President Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Act his official first act -- which we celebrate, of course -- the next president ought to make his official first act the establishment of this conference on the eradication of poverty.”    

       -The Root, “The Election-Season Poverty Tour”, By Jenée Desmond-Harris.

 Click here to listen to the Marketplace Morning Report’s interview with Cornel West.

About the author

John Ketchum is an assistant producer for Marketplace’s wealth & poverty desk.

Cornel West speaks to a church during the 2011 Smiley/West poverty tour.

Tavis Smiley speaks during the 2011 Smiley/West poverty tour.

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