Ending Poverty: Let's Talk

How is it, with one out of two fellow citizens living in or near poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world, we cannot engage a national conversation about alleviating endemic poverty in America?

Think of it this way. If one of every two Americans -- half the nation -- was living with HIV/AIDS, was unable to read or write, or was recently diagnosed with some form of cancer, would we deem it a national emergency worthy of immediate action? Of course we would. So why is poverty in America being rendered invisible even as millions of Americans are trapped in it?

I'll tell you why: because poor people often don't vote, don't have money to contribute to political campaigns, and don't have lobbyists lined up and down K Street in Washington to represent their best interests. That's why, pure and simple.

My friend Suze Orman says, "There's a highway into poverty, but not even a sidewalk out," and she's right.

The divide between the top income earners and those on the lower rungs of the earnings ladder is the greatest it has been in almost 100 years. Last year the top one percent earned nearly 20 percent of all household income. This level of income inequality is unsustainable. Put simply, it is a threat to our democracy long term.

Nonetheless, that divide appears on the verge of widening even further for the old and the young. The elderly are facing a growing crisis with pension funds. Many states have dangerously underfunded their pension funds and are negotiating desperately to decrease already settled benefits. And according to Standard & Poors, a $355 billion gap between S&P 500 companies' pension plan obligations and their pension plan assets was the largest ever last year. The impact on seniors could be devastating.

The outlook for our young people isn't much rosier. According to Demos.org, by the year 2022, the unemployment rate for workers under 25 will be double the national average. And if current trends continue, the unemployment rate for young minorities will be even greater.

There is an almost benign neglect of the growing poor population in America. What was once a war on poverty has become a war on the poor. The next four years will present America a timely and unique opportunity to refocus the nation's attention on the millions of fellow citizens who are treading feverishly trying to keep their heads above water.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 46 million Americans are under the poverty line. That's more than 15 percent of all Americans. It's the second year in a row that more than 15% of our citizenry is struggling in poverty, and increasingly, many of those affected by poverty are the so-called "working poor." (I hate that term "working poor" because in America if you work you ought not to be poor.) African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected but millions of white Americans are also struggling to survive. Poverty isn't color coded, poverty is color blind.

In 2014 we will mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty." The last president, Republican or Democrat, to make the eradication of poverty a priority. In 2018, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Poor People's Campaign." The insufferable conditions that Dr. King was challenging us to confront then are in some ways even worse today. These two historic efforts to alleviate poverty in America create a perfect backdrop and a propitious opportunity for us to recommit ourselves in this critical moment to protecting the dignity and ensuring the full humanity of poor people across the nation.

It's time to talk poverty.

Recently, my foundation was involved in a research project which found that when we talk poverty, people do listen. We have seen remarkable and measurable success with our outreach efforts. You have to talk poverty if you want the poor to lead lives of respect, dignity and opportunity. Even if that means having to make a nuisance of yourself.

So, how do we get traction on a national solutions-driven conversation that can help alleviate poverty in America over the next four years? It's actually not as complicated as you might think.

On this side of the most recent government shutdown, the political pundits and prognosticators have already starting handicapping the 2014 mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential campaign. Many of the most outspoken Washington players involved in the shutdown debacle are presumed to have been positioning themselves for the 2016 contest. Where they stood on the government shutdown of 2013 is surely going to be presidential debate fodder when the contest begins in earnest.

When the millions of fellow citizens who are living poverty start talking poverty, giving voice to their suffering and exercising their agency to be seen and heard not ignored and disregarded, then business as usual in Washington will no longer be an option.

President Johnson was right, "The war against poverty will not be won in Washington, it must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House."

Now is the time to talk poverty.

Last week, my foundation announced the launch of ENDING POVERTY: America's Silent Spaces, a $3 million, four-year national initiative to examine barriers and identify solutions to alleviate poverty in the United States. The initiative will help advance action against poverty by engaging and mobilizing individuals, communities, and organizations to identify innovative and community-based solutions that will inform a meaningful path out of poverty for fellow citizens. For more information and to find out how you can help end the cycle of poverty, visit http://www.tavistalks.com/endingpoverty