Growth of Poverty in U.S.:
A Matter of National Security
Princeton University professor Cornel West, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore and financial expert Suze Orman, among others, participated in a panel discussion moderated by PBS host Tavis Smiley about poverty in America.
Remaking America, from Poverty to Prosperity, is Smiley’s initiative at bringing together a high-profile group of public figures to discuss the growing impoverishment happening in the U.S., along with possible solutions to tackle the problem.
The panel also included Urban Revitalization’s Majora Carter, Feeding America President Vicki Escarra, Insight Center for Community Economic Development President Roger Clay, and author Barbara Ehrenreich.
Smiley and West co-host a nationally syndicated radio program and have been touring the country, to assess the damaging impact of the U.S.’s failing economy on the poor. Their findings are gathered in “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience,” to be published later this month.
THE POOR AND THE NEW POOR
The tour and the panel discussion at the GWU coincide with a “white paper” study, requested by Smiley and produced by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.
“At Risk: America’s Poor During and After the Great Recession” identifies key risk factors facing a large percentage of the U.S. population, hit the hardest by the recession ignited in the 2007 financial collapse and consequent economic downturn.
Some of the staggering findings of the research paper include the fact that 46.2 million Americans have been living below the official poverty level in 2010, about 15.1 percent of the population.
Such increase in poverty was greatest among Hispanics and blacks, children and households headed by women, and among those in the working-age bracket, between 18 and 34.
At a glance, one of the most startling findings of the study is that many of those now considered poor were part of the middle-class in the U.S. just a few years ago.
THE DARK SIDE OF BUDGET CUTS
As a result, a new contingent of the population sought help from safety-net programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Unemployment Insurance, which have been put to the limit of their capacity.
Other programs, which depend on discretionary spending, however, were hit hard by cuts in the federal budget, and did not perform as effectively.
Further spending cuts, envisioned by the 2011 debt ceiling legislation and the failure of the congressional “super committee,” will certainly aggravate the problem.
Congress continues to be insensitive to such harsh reality and some politicians of both parties are even advocating further cuts in social and entitlement programs at state and federal levels, arguing that national defense deserves a higher priority.
AMERICA’S CONTRASTING PICTURE
Even though most of the participants are involved in more than one way in initiatives to eradicate poverty in the U.S., Remaking America may offer them a more visible platform to accomplish even more.
That is because of the public stature of West and Moore, who have been highly vocal against the increased role of corporations in setting recessionary policies that benefit their bottom line, and with the acquiescence of many politicians whom they support financially.
During the discussion, there was no shortage of praise for movements such as the Occupy Wall Street, which seeks accountability from the financial institutions that nearly bankrupted the U.S. economy, but so far have avoided any legal consequence or restrain on their practices from the part of governmental regulatory agencies.
In fact, after TARP, the government emergency financial package program several financial institutions were awarded in 2008, profits of Wall Street firms and personal fortunes of their chief executives have skyrocketed.
In the meantime, as the Indiana University findings show, an enormous percentage of middle class Americans fell into irreparable debt and now are part of what’s been called ‘the new poor.’
Thus, Orman, for example, insisted on Americans to take responsibility for their own personal finances and educate themselves, as a way to survive the increasing banking fees, food and education expenses, and the rising costs of living.
THE PANELISTS’ WISH LIST
Clay pointed out to the fact that, before the current crisis, African-Americans were already under duress and facing the prospect of poverty in higher numbers than the general population. As the effects of the recession become more visible, he hopes solutions will benefit all segments of the population.
Carter, who’s been developing sustainable initiatives for food production in The Bronx, sees the potential of the so-called green economy as a mechanism of social promotion for local communities.
But she also hopes that more and better environmental technologies, in water and waste management, for example, can benefit people in a more effective way.
Escarra’s work at food banks have been put to test in the past few years, as more and more families show up hungry at food distribution centers, and such increase results in redoubling efforts to be able to continue providing them with healthy meals.
Despite working tirelessly, managing resources to attend the poor, the heartbreaking daily reality of seeing entire families seeking help at the most basic levels never ceases to shock her and her team.
The prolific author of Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land and other books, Ehrenreich sees another element in this context of Americans’ impoverishment: the fact it has a lot to do with different values between the very rich and everybody else in this country.
HUMAN VALUES & NATIONAL SECURITY
In an almost ‘proud to be poor’ call to arms, Ehrenreich wants to make sure that certain basic values of human dignity and pursuit of personal growth, rather than another island in the Caribbean, don’t get overlooked in the process of rescuing the lower class from the brink of extreme poverty.
One of the rousing moments of the Remaking America conference came when Moore made an ‘appeal’ to President Barack Obama to reject all monies his campaign may receive from Wall Street firms, which is, of course, unlikely.
It did jolt the estimated 1,500 people in the audience, though. But it was West, however, with his elaborate metaphors and ability to evoke the cultural heritage of African Americans in this country at every intervention, who owned the night.
He earned repeated applause for his accurate observations on corporate greed, campaign finance, the lack of courage to lead a fight to end poverty by Congress and the president, and the experience touring the country and speaking to impoverished Americans.
To him, too, belongs the metaphorical but truthful warning, which headlines this post, that the threat of a growing, hungry and dispossessed segment of the population should be reason for a lot of concern in Washington.
WARNING TO HAWKS AND NEOCONS
Much more than a paranoid, and oftentimes, fabricated and manipulative fear of an external invasion of the U.S., the risk of domestic discontentment is what really threatens our way of life and our battered democracy.
As more and more people are denied access to even their most basic needs, and elected politicians and wealthy elites insist in ignoring their plight, West correctly pointed to what’s really the potential for destabilization of our system.
Apart from his flair for the bombastic and the theatricality of his interventions, the Princeton professor proved once more why he’s considered one of the leading voices in the movement to remake America.
His candor, passion, profound grasp of history and ability to think, and fast, on his feet, has been making him a voice to be reckoned with from the part of those who tend to dismiss his diatribe as exactly that.
The way he ‘rallies’ an audience shows that he, and the ideas he’s expressing, have deep resonance within the heart of this country. In fact, even if some say leaders are not that important or, at least, they’re not born but made, it’s hard to think about anyone else at this moment in time speaking with more authority than Dr. West.
Well done, Sir, and well done Tavis, guests and waking citizens across this great land. Welcome to the remaking of America.