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.