A Highway Into Poverty, But Barely a Sidewalk Out

Walk down the hallway of your school. Statistically, one out of every five students you walk by is living in poverty. And if you think you're exempt from this exercise, think again.

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing that in
K2014 there were 46.7 million people in poverty, including 15.5 million children. The report cites many times that the data is not a "significantly significant" change in the number of rates of people in poverty in 2013. Not significantly significant.

Children of color, who will be more than half of children in America in 2020, continue to be face poverty at disproportionate rates: 37 percent of Black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children, compared to 12 percent of White non-Hispanic children.

They are significant.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Tavis Smiley. He is an author, publisher and host of the late-night PBS television talk show, Tavis Smiley, and the public radio program, The Tavis Smiley Show. But equally as important, through the Tavis Smiley Foundation, a social justice advocate and leading anti-poverty activist who believes that youth voices matter.

"In America these days, there's a highway into poverty, but barely a sidewalk out," says Smiley.

Indeed, as we toil away at our schoolwork while our parents, teachers and society dangle the American Dream carrot in front of us as incentive, the reality is that for the majority of those living in poverty, it is difficult to rise up from the bottom rung of the economic ladder. According to The Pew Charitable Trust Economic Mobility Project, 70 percent of those who are born in the bottom fifth never have an opportunity to climb to even the middle of the economic ladder.

"The top 400 wealthiest Americans have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million fellow citizens" says Smiley with a heaviness of tone that conveys the reality that for far too many the American Dream is not deferred, but lost.

When asked why his foundation's initiative is called Ending Poverty Now: America's Silent Spaces, Smiley said that "The suffering of everyday people is being rendered invisible. The worst thing that you can do, when you're talking about the humanity and dignity of people, is to render their suffering invisible. Poverty exists, in part because we refuse to see it. We need to shine a light on the problem and give voice to those who don't have a voice if we are ever going to take this issue of poverty seriously."

We can remain silent no more, and if America is truly going to end poverty, then three things must happen: 1) we must understand and address how poverty directly affects other things like education and crime; 2) we must stop demonizing and blaming those living in poverty; and 3) youth must raise their voices and take action around inequality. In other words, we must stop walking by.

Smiley, known for encouraging his guests to "unpack" things to dive deeper into topics, sat down with me for an interview to unpack the issue of poverty while he was in Chicago for an Ending Poverty America's Silent Spaces event:

UJ: Chicago's Father Michael Phleger recently said in an interview that "... homicides are up, the shootings are up, and while the murder rate is going up, we're getting quieter." It's that silence you talk about. Is it apathy or fear? Has the expectation of violence, poverty and educational disparity become the norm?

TS: Sadly, yes, I think this is becoming the new normal in America. This is sad, because there's no reason, no excuse, for this kind of endemic poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. Imagine that, we are blessed to live in the richest nation in the history of the world and so for us to be wrestling with this kind of extreme poverty is just absolutely unacceptable.

The top 400 wealthiest Americans have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million fellow citizens. This time of income inequality cannot continue to exist in a country that hails itself as a democracy. That's not a democracy. It's an oligarchy, it's a plutocracy, but it's not a democracy when you have that kind of inequity in income. It's an issue of poverty, income equality, and it is an issue of economic immobility. You can't talk about poverty without talking about economic immobility, because what we really want is to live in a country where we have economic mobility, where you can climb the ladder and achieve that American dream once you pull yourself out of poverty.

For too many folks, it's that highway in, barely a sidewalk out. When you get it in, you can't get out of it. And if you do get out of it, you still don't have the capacity to springboard your way into the upper echelon of society. That's economic mobility - or economic immobility for most Americans.

UJ: For a city like Chicago, how is poverty exacerbated?

On top of poverty, then you have the crime that has run amuck in Chicago. I live in Los Angeles, but Chicago is my favorite American city and it pains me deeply to know that crime has run amuck in the way that it is. But, it is important to make note of the fact that there is a direct link between poverty and crime. When poverty is up, crime will be up. When poverty is down, crime comes down. The data on this is incontrovertible. There is a direct link between poverty and crime. Part of what Chicago is dealing with is this perennial problem of never dealing with the underclass and rendering black and brown suffering in the city invisible.

One of the reasons we are on this tour is to talk about poverty in all of its iterations and all the tentacles that spring off of poverty. You can't talk about poverty without the link to crime and you can't talk about the link to crime without talking about miseducation.

You can't have a city that closes schools in certain communities -- the Mayor [Emanuel] finds money for his pet projects -- for other schools and other sports facilities. They find the money they want to find money for, but they close down schools in certain neighborhoods. Dysfunction exists when politicians and other leaders aren't being held accountable. Part of the dysfunction that exists in Chicago is because the leaders aren't being held accountable as they should be. The fact that Rahm Emanuel barely won that last mayoral election shows that people are upset. They want a more progressive agenda. And the fact that Barack Obama so wholeheartedly endorsed Rahm Emanuel in a city where black suffering is off the charts is a damning indictment, I think, on the President's endorsement of Rahm Emanuel.

UJ: What can youth, particularly those poised to vote for the first time in the next presidential election, do to help lead the conversation and strengthen momentum for educational equality?

TS: I don't like to ever tell young people -- or not so young -- exactly what they ought to be doing, but you have to assign yourself to a task. You have to decide that you are going to do something to make your community a better place when you leave it than when you found it. I encourage young people to ask themselves this question: What is it that you see every day, that exists in your world, that you walk past every day every day, have turned a blind eye to, or noticed and troubles you? There has to be something in your circle that is wrong that needs to be righted. There have to be some potholes that you are trying to traverse everyday in your own world.

What are the things that you see that you know are inequities or indifferences that people are ignoring?

I believe that as screwed up as the world is, young people still have a fundamental sense of what is right and what is wrong. If we ever lose the fundamental sense of what's right and what's wrong, then God help us all. For all the scapegoating and complaining that we adults do about young people, I still believe that young people like you have a good sense of what's right and wrong in our society.

Assign yourself the task of taking something on. None of us can do everything, but there's no excuse for any of us not to do something.

UJ: You've done a lot elevate dialogue about poverty in America. Do you think it's now a sustained national priority? If not, why not and what needs to be done to get policy makers and industry leaders to listen and act?

TS: I don't know how sustained it is but I'm happy that it is becoming more of an issue on the road the White House. Hillary Clinton is talking about it, in part because Bernie Sanders as a nominee was the first to talk about it, so he gets the most credit for talking about poverty and income inequality. I love Hillary, but I said many, many months ago that I wanted somebody to get in the Democratic primary to push her to be more progressive, and Bernie Sanders has done that.

Even Republicans now are talking about income inequality. You can't run for president in this cycle and think you can ignore that issue. Now what the solutions are is another question. What Jeb Bush or Donald Trump has to say about income inequality and poverty is another question. But everybody recognizes that it is an issue. Everybody knows that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Everybody knows that the divide in this country is growing. Everybody knows that this gap between the have-gots and have-nots cannot continue to widen as it has been.

You'd have to be stuck on stupid to run for president and not realize that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. The question is how do we force candidates, as the race gets more intense and we get to those two finalists, how we force this issue on the agenda and make sure that it becomes a top priority in the next presidential administration.

One of the things that I'm trying to do is push for a national debate on the issue of poverty and income inequality. We've never had a presidential debate that focuses exclusively poverty and income inequality. Every four years, we have three presidential debates and they cover a wide range of topics, but never in my lifetime has there ever been a presidential debate that focused exclusively on poverty. We've had debates about foreign policy exclusively, and debates about other issues exclusively, but never a debate about poverty and income inequality. The Commission on Presidential Debates sanctions these three final debates. They ought to ensure that one of those three debates focuses on this issue.

Can you imagine what happens when the two contenders to be the next president of the United States are forced for 90 minutes to focus and talk exclusively about poverty and income inequality with all the attended media focused on that? I can't think of a better idea to focus the entire attention of the nation, the entire journalistic arena to at one time with a laser be uniformly addressing this one issue. I think that would raise the issue much higher on the American agenda and I'm hoping that can happen this time around.

So, readers, what will you assign yourself in the fight against poverty? Each of us has an opportunity to help bring change. Here are two things you can join me in doing right now to help in the fight against poverty in America:

Start the Great Debate

Tweet and share on your social media platforms:

Young people WILL turn out to vote in 2016. 1in 4 US kids are in poverty. Commission on Presidential Debates, we need a #povertydebate2016!

Reach One Teach One!
Tag a friend on and challenge them to look up and share via their social platforms one fact about poverty in America. Include #reachoneteachone so that we can all retweet each other and keep it going. Here's mine from @UCJadeBlog:

.@JaxandRoosMom did u know nearly 2 in 5 US kids spend at least 1yr in poverty? Your turn: find/share/tag #poverty fact. #reachoneteachone