Merlene Davis: Smiley's tour draws attention to poverty

Tavis Smiley
Tavis Smiley

Author, TV and radio show host Tavis Smiley wasn't very impressed with either party during the recent Republican and Democratic political conventions because neither party dealt seriously with poverty, a cause he is passionate about.

"The Republicans are referencing to poverty now, which is a step forward in the sense that no on is denying that poverty exists," he said in a recent phone interview. "The Romney/Ryan plan is the exact wrong thing to do in terms of alleviating or eradicating poverty. But they are talking about it."

The Democrats mentioned poverty, too, but they did not propose a plan that will "cut poverty in half in 10 years or eradicate it in 25 years," Smiley said.

In 2008, "Obama ran on a platform saying he wanted to eradicate poverty and saying he wanted to raise minimum wage up to $9.50 an hour, but we haven't heard anything about those policies today."

Not enough is directed to the poor, a group of people who are truly hurting and often blamed for their status, Smiley said.

"This is not a skill problem. This is a will problem. We do not have the will to eradicate poverty."

It didn't require any effort from me to pull that passion out of Smiley. For several years, Smiley has tried to ignite a national dialog on poverty. Recently, Smiley and Cornel West, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, have traveled the country on their "Poverty Tour 2.0" to talk about the poor and to promote their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.

If recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau is any indication, there is a lot to talk about. In 2011, the median household income in the U.S. declined but the poverty rate remained mostly unchanged from 2010, at 15 percent. The federal government defines poverty as annual income of $23,021 for a family of four.

Though the poverty rate was unchanged in 2011, that rate steadily increased each of the previous three years.

Smiley will be in Lexington on Sept. 28 as the keynote speaker for The 2012 Poverty Forum, a dinner to benefit the Community Action Council's efforts to help the poor in the Bluegrass.

"I think Tavis will get people to understand that there are a whole bunch of folks whose lives are a real, serious struggle," said Jack Burch, CAC executive director. "What I hope he does is put a face back on the problem."

Fayette County's rate of poverty is at 20.4 percent, Burch said, although he thinks that number is a little inflated. His organization has seen a drop in the number of people seeking services from 36,000 in 2011 to 32,000 at the end of August this year.

That number is still high, he said, "but I'm delighted to see the trend. There are still people living right on the edge where the least little thing can put them back over the line."

More than 46 million Americans lived in poverty last year, a scary amount.

"Poverty has become the new American norm," Smiley said. "You can't sustain a democracy when the top 400 richest individuals control more wealth than the bottom 150 million. We need the president to stand up and say what Michelle Obama said to the military families the other night: 'We got your back.'"

Smiley's passion to fight poverty was forged in his youth, growing up in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom trailer with nine brothers and sisters, mother, stepfather and grandmother. He grew up attending a small church "that taught me about loving all humanity."

"I know what it means to be poor," he said. "I try to be the voice that these people don't have."

Smiley believes some families could have avoided falling below the poverty level had Obama fought more aggressively for a minimum wage increase, for a bigger stimulus package and for directing that stimulus funding to heavily populated cities rather than to states.

"Has he done some good stuff? Absolutely," Smiley said of Obama. "Did he have a lot on his plate? Did they leave him a mess? Yes.

"Did it get worse when he got there? Yes. Have the Republicans been obstructionists? Yes. Is he better than Romney? Yes, no doubt about that.

"That doesn't mean those of us who are truly progressive, who are about poor people, who love all of humanity, it doesn't mean we can abrogate our duty to push the president," Smiley said.

Of the four upcoming political debates, the vice presidential debate in Danville on Oct. 11 will be the most interesting, he said. "Congratulations on that." Our task, he said, is to push the moderators to raise the issue of poverty so that the candidates can make their positions known.

After all, if we can improve the lives of the poor, the quality of life for our entire community will be enhanced.