Tavis Smiley (left) and Cornel West (center) visit the DC Central Kitchen on August 10, 2011. (Flickr/DC Central Kitchen)

Next Thursday, at George Washington University in the nation’s capital—just four days before President Obama’s inauguration—broadcaster Tavis Smiley will bring together a bipartisan panel and an array of poverty experts in a nationally televised event, “Vision for A New America: A Future Without Poverty.”

Expect a heated debate, as a panel that includes Newt Gingrich, Cornel West, and Michael Moore discusses Smiley’s call for a national plan to cut poverty in half in ten years and to eradicate it in twenty-five.

It’s part of Smiley’s latest effort to bring attention to the more than 46 million Americans living below living the poverty line, on less than $18,000 annually for a family of three. Smiley is also calling on the President to deliver a major public policy address on poverty—which includes telling the American people what they can do to help—and to convene a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty.

“This is all about raising the profile of poverty in America,” Smiley told me. “It’s about gaining traction.”

While the aforementioned headliners will help fill the auditorium next week—along with Jeffrey Sachs, Jonathan Kozol, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge, and National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann DeMoro—there are a couple of less widely-known panelists that I am definitely looking forward to hearing from as well.

If you read this blog, you know Dr. Mariana Chilton, director for the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, founder of Witnesses to Hunger, and associate professor of Drexel University School of Public Health.

Chilton is one of the brightest, most creative people I’ve come across in an antipoverty field that is full of great thinkers and activists. Also, more than anyone I know, she touts the fact that the “real experts” on poverty are the people who are actually living in poverty—and Witnesses to Hunger is a testament to that belief. You can bet if Gingrich starts pushing stereotypes about poverty and hunger, Chilton will counter with facts, science, and the collaborative work she does with low-income citizens every day.

John Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, will be there too. He’s the co-author of America’s Poor and the Great Recession, which will be released later this month. Graham served in the Office of Management and Budget under the Bush administration, and Smiley said his new book—for which Smiley wrote the foreword—“lays out specific policy proposals [to fight poverty] that Graham believes both the left and right can agree on.”

Perhaps the key moment in the symposium for me, however, will be when Smiley speaks directly with low-income people in the audience.

Smiley will ask them to talk about “what they’ve gone through in this country and this economy”; a program that they are involved with and why it works; and what the country can learn from their experiences. As I’ve said before—and I know Smiley agrees—the people who know poverty firsthand are the ones we need to listen to if we want to know what they are experiencing, shatter the myths and stereotypes, and learn more about the most effective pathways out of poverty.

Smiley hopes viewers and audience members will be motivated to sign his petition calling for the White House conference, and that the panel is a preview of “what that conference might look like—when you get folks in the room who don’t agree.”

While he’s under no illusion that a presidential address and a conference will suddenly translate into a national commitment to the eradication of poverty, he does believe that it would spark further conversation, debate, and movement on the issue, and I think he’s right about that. An example of how this kind of approach can lead to sustained action: in his 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Clinton’s staff then convened a non-partisan meeting to mobilize a wide range of sectors and set a bold goal to reduce the US teen pregnancy rate by one-third in ten years. Sixteen years later, through diverse efforts, the nation has exceeded that goal and teen pregnancy is at an all-time low.

Smiley has an ambitious timeline for the conference and policy speech he envisions—he wants it to happen prior to the debt ceiling debate.

“This is a way to make sure we don’t have another debate that’s exclusive for Washington insiders like we did with the cliff debate in January,” said Smiley. “It’s a way to expand the conversation, to bring in our fellow citizens.”

I will definitely be in the audience next Thursday night and I hope you will be there, too. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch live on C-SPAN or online here.

Kudos to Mr. Smiley for his continued focus—through books, TV, radio, and tours—on people who are usually demonized or completely ignored in our politics and media.

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Clips and Other Resources

A greener Chicago would be a safer Chicago,” Steve Bogira

Prosperity Threatened: Perspectives on Childhood Poverty in California,” Center for the Next Generation

The Global Domestic Workforce Is Enormous—and Very Vulnerable,” Bryce Covert

…Michigan’s Dual Agenda Slams Low-Income Women,” Bryce Covert

Fiscal Cliff Deal was a Raw Deal for Low-Income, Working-Class People,” Shawn Fremstad

Next Round on the Deficit: Big Dangers Ahead for the Economy, the Budget and Low-Income People,” Bob Greenstein

The Politics of Poverty Research and Pro-Poor Policy Making,” Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

Urban-Rural Trends in SNAP Participation: What's Going On?” Gregory Mills

What a Real 'War on Poverty' Looks Like,” (VIDEO) Melissa Harris-Perry

The Hoax of Entitlement Reform,” Robert Reich

Unmasking the Meritocracy Myth,” Paul Thomas

…Conditional Sigh of Relief After Governor Brown Announces Medi-Cal Expansion Options, No More Cuts to Safety Net,” Western Center on Law & Poverty


100 Days for America’s Workers,” National Employment Law Project. The report offers a short list of policies achievable in the first 100 days of President Obama’s second term—including calling for specific investments in good jobs—that will help get the economy back on track and give it a sustained boost.

How Much Protection Does a College Degree Afford?” Pew Economic Mobility Project. This report demonstrates that a four-year college degree helped shield recent graduates from a range of poor outcomes during the Great Recession, including unemployment, low-skill jobs, and lesser wages.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, approximately 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.

People experiencing homelessness on any given night, US: 643,067.

People in families experiencing homelessness on any given night, US: 238,110.

Percentage of homeless population who are veterans: 12 percent, or 67,000 people.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Fridays, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. Today in Poverty posts earlier in the week. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.