Washington – It’s taken a plunging stock market, the deficit debate, foreclosure signs on neighborhood houses and the threat of a double-dip recession to force Americans to say it out loud: Poverty.
Some worry that the conversation about the “P” word is more about the “nouveau poor” than about the 37.3 million people who were living in poverty before the recession. Others say it is the crumbling middle class, changing demographics and raised consciousness of people living closer to the edge that have sparked the conversation.
Talk about poverty is moving beyond the choir of social service organizations, churches and unions, and grabbing the attention of journalists – and even talk show hosts – who are using their platforms to give voice and visibility to the poor.
As the 2012 election comes into focus, it’s urgent, they say, that public and political discussions about the economy move well beyond job creation and into a critical debate about raising the standard of living for all Americans including the poorest of the poor.
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“Somebody has to tell the truth about poverty in America,” said public television and radio host Tavis Smiley who earlier this month hit the road with Princeton University professor Cornel West on The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience. They recorded the stories of struggling families and at the same time, prodded President Obama and other politicians to start talking about the poor.
The truth is, nearly 46 million people are on food stamps, a program Republicans in Congress are threatening to cut.
Nearly 14 million are unemployed, and millions more are under-employed.
Foreclosures were filed against 2.9 million homeowners in 2010. That number is expected to be even bigger for 2011.Nearly 48 million Americans live in poverty – almost 10 million more than before the recession hit.
Black and Hispanic families are suffering most, with Hispanics losing 66 percent of their wealth by 2009 and black families losing 53% according to the Pew Research Center.
On their poverty tour, Smiley and West talked with Native American families already living in such deep poverty that they are unaffected by the recession.
They talked to middle-class families who have lost their homes to foreclosure, warehouse workers struggling to survive on minimum wage, and hundreds of people unemployed for months or years.
“We have seen countless people on this tour who were the middle class and are now the poor,” Smiley said.
Smiley and West plan to broadcast some of the stories they heard as part of their weekly public radio program Smiley & West.
Throughout the nation, Main Street Americans are ready to talk about poverty, frustrated by the political gridlock of elected leaders in Washington, D.C. According to a recent CNN poll 63 percent of Americans agree that corporations and the richest people in the country should pay more taxes rather than cut safety-net programs to the poorest.
So, many are watching closely as the “super committee” of 12 legislators – divided equally among Democrats and Republicans and the House and Senate – starts working out a plan to cut $1.5 trillion spending, Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who voted against the debt ceiling legislation, said he is appalled at the Republicans’ willingness to take the country over the edge – and the Democrats’ willingness to cave in.
“People across the country are extremely dismayed that all of the burden for deficit reduction will fall on the backs of the poor,” Sanders said in a recent conference call with Campaign for America’s Future.
Child care, health care, Social Security, nutrition programs for children and seniors, affordable housing, food stamps and education are all on the chopping block, he said.
Sanders’ frank discussion about federal cuts in spending and families living in poverty is an exception. During the recent Iowa debate among Republican presidential contenders, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the only candidate to mention poverty – and then it was to advocate cutting the safety net.
“Unemployment benefits, I think they’ve gone on a long, long, long time. We have to find ways to reduce our spending on a lot of the anti-poverty programs and unemployment programs,” said Romney.
Fed up with people, like Romney, more progressives are seeking and joining movements like Coffee Party USA, a counter movement to the Tea Party.
C. Douglas Smith, president of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and founder of the Belief in America movement, a Coffee Party pilot project, said it is the disconnect between government leaders who are willing to bow to corporations, banks and Wall Street, and the families losing jobs, homes and health care coverage that is motivating people to add their voices to those who have always worked on behalf of the poor.
“The environment in Washington is creating apathy and turning everyone off, but when people hear from their neighbors that there is a movement to bring jobs back to America, to end hunger, they want to be part of something positive,” said Smith.
Marcy Bowers, director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in Washington state, said she, too, is starting to see more mention of poverty in the media.
“I feel like, finally, there is a conversation about families who are struggling to be able to put food on the table,” she said. “I think it is easier to talk to the media about poverty when we talk about the middle class.
“There is a big difference between the middle class and the people who have always lived in poverty,” Bowers said.
Conversations focusing on the “new poor” overshadow the deep impact three years of state budget cuts have had on already struggling families who rely on assistance for health care and housing.
Those families don’t know how they will have food and shelter if there are more cuts at the federal level.
“More families are saying ‘Enough!’ and coming forward to speak up,” said Bowers.
While fear is prompting poor families to tell their stories, politicians still can’t bring themselves to utter the word.
Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the poverty initiative for the National Council on Churches, said, “No one in Congress is talking about poverty. They are only talking about cutting programs.”
Livingston was among the faith leaders arrested inside the Capitol during the debt ceiling negotiations. They were praying that funding for the nation’s most vulnerable people would be preserved.
“Our faith compels us to want to protect the least among us. We need help from the government; the job is too big to be done by faith communities alone,” he said.
Livingston said he sees grassroots momentum building.
“I would link it solidly to middle-class people who are threatened,” he said. “There is more unrest, and they are more vocal in expressing their anger at policies that are not protecting the poor – or the soon-to-be poor.”
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