Poverty used to resemble a decades-old stereotype, thrust into public consciousness alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Tavis Smiley said. Today, one is more likely to find the face of poverty staring back in a mirror.
Smiley, a philanthropist and host of the “Tavis Smiley Show” on PBS, will give a lecture titled “Re-examining Assumptions about Poverty in America” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. He will attempt to demystify what modern-day poverty looks like in the U.S., as well as propose possible solutions.
Week Two’s lecture theme is “With Economic Justice for All.” For Smiley, that means “a conversation about how we can be more vigilant and more diligent about an agenda to eradicate or alleviate poverty in our nation.”
The burgeoning growth of poverty in the U.S. poses a threat to democracy, Smiley said. It is a matter of national security, and it is the country’s job to engage in a kind of capitalism that works for all, not just for the lucky and wealthy.
“At some point, we have got to get a handle on how we’re going to live in a nation that works for all of our citizens,” he said.
Smiley will reference his recent book about poverty — The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, co-authored by Cornel West — but he will not structure his lecture around the book.
Smiley has traveled the country on several poverty tours — he is one one right now, titled “Ending Poverty: America’s Silent Spaces” — and he has had the chance to see face-to-face what poverty really looks like in the U.S. He said it is a much different image than the visual one conjures when thinking of the “War on Poverty” of 50 years ago. A different kind of “poverty prototype” exists today, Smiley said — it is not just black or brown people, the very young or very old, or people in urban environments. Rather, because one out of two Americans is living in poverty or near poverty, they resemble everyday citizens instead of stereotypes.
“That statistic alone lets you know it’s not just black or brown people,” Smiley said.
Smiley hopes to dispel misconceptions of poor people as lazy drug addicts who don’t want to work or who are trying to game the system, and instead present an accurate portrayal of people in poverty. He hopes to, in part, further this mission with a free app to unite the U.S. in the fight against poverty.
Although poverty has been given a lot of lip service recently — President Barack Obama called income inequality the great issue of our time — Smiley said not enough policy has been geared toward the eradication of poverty, and it has not been made a priority. Like Sister Simone Campbell, however, Smiley said he does not agree with Rep. Paul Ryan’s solutions for poverty, but is glad to see he is engaging the conversation.
“I think it can be done,” he said. “I pray that it will be done. But it might not come from policymakers; it might come from people on the ground.”