By Kori Tuitt
Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West spoke about American poverty while promoting their book “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto,” on Thursday at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts.
Smiley, a talk show host on the Public Broadcasting Service with more than 20 years of experience in broadcast, and West, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, co-authored this book to make Americans aware of this overlooked and misconstrued issue.
The Staller Center’s main stage theatre was gorged with people, excitedly applauding as each speaker addressed them.
“Poverty is the moral and the spiritual issue of our time,” said Smiley. “Poverty threatens the very existence of our democracy.”
One out of two Americans are either in poverty or near poverty, meaning low income, and two thirds of Americans know someone who has been unemployed for at least six months, according to Smiley. The question of how this could happen to a nation that was once the richest and most powerful, was reiterated throughout the talk.
“We tend to think of poverty as something that is color-coded,” Smiley said.
Smiley explained poverty is no longer “color-coded,” but spans across a myriad of people. The former middle class is now, as he said, “the new poor.” Poverty does not discriminate—anyone in America is susceptible to it.
About four years ago, during the last presidential campaign, the issue of poverty was not discussed once in those three presidential debates. Four years later, nearly half of the American population is in poverty. Smiley explained that poverty is a touchy subject because people are embarrassed—but this is because of the stigma we have attached to it.
The animated West urged the audience not to become “well-adjusted to injustice.” The nation has spent tons of money on drones, but cannot expense to address poverty. One of the first places to suffer from budget cuts are educational institutions, but presidential candidates spend thousands of dollars on campaigning.
“Twenty two percent of our children are living in poverty, the richest nation in the history of the world,” West said. “That’s a moral abomination.”
Breaking the cycle of poverty requires youth to be able to access education, while not limiting themselves to the confines of the institution, according to West. He emphasized the need to focus on things “multi-textual” instead of “multi-cultural.” Smiley added the creative and vigilant are the ones who can make it out of poverty.
Smiley encouraged the audience to “be the kind of person of character who understands that we have to care about the least among us.”