Tavis Smiley, Cornel West: Poverty Not A Black Or Brown Issue But An American Catastrophe

In this Sunday, April 22, 2012, photo provided by CBS News Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, right, co-authors of "The Rich and t
In this Sunday, April 22, 2012, photo provided by CBS News Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, right, co-authors of "The Rich and the Rest of Us" speak on CBS's "Face the Nation" in Washington. (AP Photo/CBS News, Mary F. Calvert)

More than one-fourth of African Americans are living in poverty today. As devastating as that figure is, particularly for the 42 million Americans who identified as black in 2010, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor emeritus Cornel West say there's an even grimmer statistic.

"One out of two Americans, that's 150 million people ... is either in or near poverty," Smiley told The Huffington Post. That figure is the crux of a book, "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto," that Smiley co-authored with West earlier this year and a four-city "Poverty 2.0 Tour" on which the duo is set to embark next week.

Though both men have gained fame championing the civil rights of African Americans, they say the issue of poverty is one that transcends race.

"You have three classes of poor people: the perennially poor, folks who've been stuck in poverty; you have the near poor, folks who are just a paycheck or two away, low-income; and the new poor, the former middle class," Smiley explained. "So many middle-class Americans of all races, all colors and all creeds have fallen into poverty because of corporate greed and because of political indifference."

"When one out of two Americans is either in or near poverty, that is to say, a paycheck or two away ... that ain't a black issue, that ain't a brown issue, that is an American catastrophe that will be cemented if we don't do anything about it," he added.

For four years, Smiley and many others looked to the Obama administration to do something.

"The Democratic Party platform four years ago, on which Mr. Obama ran, called for the eradication of poverty. Those are their words," Smiley recalled. "The problem is, we haven't heard much from this president or this administration about how we're going to do just that."

West and Smiley have a few suggestions of their own -- a 10-part manifesto to be exact, which they've outlined in their book and which they say must begin with the Lyndon Johnson-esque vision to put poverty at the top of the White House agenda and to work to cut the poverty rate in half (or more) within the next 10 to 15 years.

"When you make poverty a major priority, the way we’ve done with war, with prisons, it means there’s massive public and private investment in jobs with a living wage, quality education, quality housing and health care," West said. "And that is not just a matter of public policy, it’s the vision that informs our public policy."

Ditching the safety-net system and adopting more of a trampoline approach is how Smiley sees a recovery plan playing out.

"I just got through interviewing [former Secretary of Labor] Robert Reich ... and [he] used a wonderful phrase that I like. He says it’s not even so much these days about a social safety net. The safety net, as we argue in the book, has all kinds of holes in it. Reich argues that we don't so much need a safety net now, we need a trampoline. When people fall [into] poverty, they need to hit a trampoline and find a way to bounce back up into the middle class," Smiley said.

For now, he and West are taking a grassroots approach in an effort to ensure the poor don't get left behind on Election Day.

"What it means to be a citizen and vote for a president is to ensure that that president is going to make eradicating poverty a priority," West said. "[We need to be] telling both candidates that we want them to have a plan to eradicate poverty as part and parcel of our support for them."

That's the message they're trying to relay to both policymakers and the many impoverished Americans they have met and expect to meet on the third leg of their national tour, which will hit four battleground states -- Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida -- where many voters are still on the fence and where candidates will be working hard to win them over.

"Doc and I are going to be very aggressive at every stop on this tour, demanding that people write, email, Twitter ... let these moderators hear from you with a question that you want them to ask about poverty," Smiley said.

He noted that the words "poor" and "poverty" weren't mentioned even once in the three Obama-McCain presidential debates.

West points to competing priorities within both political parties as the reason why such a critical issue has gone largely unaddressed.

"Liberals have been obsessed with the middle class and conservatives have been obsessed with Wall Street," he said. "What we need, actually, is an acknowledgment of the centrality of poor and working people when it comes to our public policy, which generates the kind of accountability of Wall Street and allows for poor and working people to be able to live lives of decency and prosperity."

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America on Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.



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