The stock market is floundering, the unemployment rate hovers at 9 percent and the Congressional “super-committee” working on the budget deficit seems poised to make massive cuts to public services. America’s severe economic woes were the backdrop to talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton Professor Cornel West’s Poverty Tour, which began on August 6 in Wisconsin and wound its way through nine states before culminating in Memphis on August 12.
Smiley, who conceived of the idea, sees the tour as a way to humanize the subject of poverty and insert it into the national discussion over deficit reduction.
“The media has been too complicit [in skirting the issue of poverty]. When it comes to politics, the media has covered the horse race and declaring winners and losers rather than using the power that we have to focus a spotlight on the poor,” says Smiley.
The Poverty Tour aims to dramatize the magnitude of poverty’s impact on America by taking stock of various social programs that have been successful in preventing people from succumbing to poverty as well as calling attention to the numbers of people who have been less successful in coping with the effects of the recession.
The tour, despite its lofty goals, has been dogged by a raging debate, largely in the black community, over scathing criticisms Smiley and West have levied against President Barack Obama in the past. In addition to derision by bloggers and media figures, the tour encountered backlash amongst some of the very groups of people it purported to champion. Crowds in Detroit disrupted the tour’s town hall meeting with a pro-Obama protest, while many other citizens denounced the tour via Twitter. Smiley pointed out the irony of his position, stating that death threats made by Tea Party members angry about his continued support of Obama have forced him to travel with a bodyguard. A lengthy discussion about racial factors at play in Barack Obama’s run for re-election preceded Smiley’s unveiling of the Poverty Tour on Piers Morgan Tonight.
“There I was to announce a tour about an issue that I think he [Obama] hasn’t done enough on, but I had to start by defending him,” Smiley explained. West stated his feelings in stronger terms: “Anybody or anything that stands in the way of the empowerment of poor and working people, be it mayor, governor, gangster on the corner, president in the White House, oligarch on Wall Street, if he’s standing as an impediment, he’s going to get criticized. It’s just that we’re not reluctant to criticize the powers that be. We criticized congress, we criticized the meanspirited Republican party, we criticized the spineless Democratic party, we criticized black leadership, the community, and so on.”
Both Smiley and West take issue with Obama’s focus on bank bailouts and deficit reduction while putting job creation on the back burner and glossing over the plight of the poor, a demographic Smiley contends is growing rapidly as the middle class joins its ranks.
“The last time any politician who had access to the national media raised the issue of poverty was John Edwards. And when his campaign ended, so did that conversation. It was a very short-lived conversation,” says Smiley.
Some of the communities visited during the tour include the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian reservation in Northern Wisconsin, a tent city for the homeless in Ann Arbor known as “Camp Take Notice” and a group of military veterans, many of them desperate for employment, in Akron, Ohio. The tour also held town hall meetings in Chicago, Detroit and Memphis.
“If kicking up a debate about poverty was one of the aims and ends of this tour, then we can go home now,” Smiley told The Nation as the tour bus rolled through Georgia towards Birmingham, Alabama. “That has already happened. All of these national TV shows, all of these national radio shows, the Internet buzzing and all of these people talking about poverty—that was one of the reasons for this tour.”
So far Nightline, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC as well as numerous local news outlets have covered various aspects of the tour.
Earlier that morning in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the tour breakfasted with Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and three young Latino worker activists from the area. The group discussed ways to mobilize voters and encourage more people to run for office who would take a strong stance on the issues of poor and working people. Smiley and West then visited the Truly Living Well urban garden, which offers paid internships that enable unemployed people to learn agricultural skills, earn a stipend and grow their own food.
In Birmingham, they met with members of the Dannon Project, which Kerri and Jeh Jeh Pruitt founded in 1999 as a way to reduce the recidivism rate of ex-convicts who had committed nonviolent offenses. One of the graduates of her program, Philip Gurlley, whose immediate family all died while he was serving his sentence, listed the assets he was given by the penal system once he was released: a polo shirt, a pair of slacks and ten dollars. Things like obtaining personal documentation, securing a means of transportation and abiding by halfway house rules make it logistically difficult to pursue jobs, he reports, and then there is the social stigma to overcome. “Parole might’ve granted you your freedom, but society, they don’t necessarily agree with it all the time,” observed Dannon graduate Anthony Adams, who had spent a total of twenty-eight years in prison. Only eighteen out of approximately 900 graduates have returned to prison since the project began.
Smiley plans to use this tour as the basis for a series of segments on America’s poor to air on his PBS talk show.
West hinted that the tour might serve as the first step towards direct action such as erecting tent cities in Washington and Wall Street. In press conferences and interviews, West repeatedly invokes the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s assassination in April 1968 prevented him from initiating his Poor People’s Campaign, which he considered to be the second phase of the civil rights movement.
The tour was sponsored by the Smiley Group, the National Education Association, the AARP Foundation, Feeding America and a number of private donors.