Economic Woes Changing Face Of Poverty

Among the nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty, 16 million are children. That's according to the Census Bureau. Broadcaster Tavis Smiley says statistics like these led him to journey on an 18-city 'poverty tour,' which he just finished. Tomorrow, he's launching a week-long series on his radio and TV programs about the tour. He tells Michel Martin about it. They also hear from Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, who joined Smiley for part of the poverty tour.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment we will remember two important Americans who died yesterday. Civil rights leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was hailed by none other than the late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., for his immense personal courage in the fight to end segregation and we'll hear more about how Steve Jobs the co-founder of Apple computers revolutionized the way technology touches our lives.

We'll have those conversations in just a few minutes, but first we want to talk about the changing face of the poor in this country. The economic downturn has pushed millions of Americans into poverty, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 50 million Americans are now living in poverty. Among them are sixteen million children which amounts to roughly one in five American kids.

Numbers like these led talk show host Tavis Smiley to embark on an 18-city poverty tour with his friend and colleague Cornel West who's a professor at Princeton University. Tomorrow Smiley will kick off a week long special on his radio and television programs titled, "The Poverty Tour; A Call to Conscience." And Tavis Smiley joins us now to tell us more about it. Also joining us is Vicki Escarra. She is the CEO and president of Feeding America. That's one of the largest anti-hunger organizations in the country. She's also a featured guest of "The Tavis Smiley Show" during the week long special. I welcome you both to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

VICKI ESCARRA: Thanks for having us.

TAVIS SMILEY: Thanks, Michel, for having us, yeah.

MARTIN: Tavis, I just want to start with the title of the special, "A Call to Conscience." Is it your view that the American conscience is not touched by poverty right now and why do you think that?

SMILEY: I think the American conscience to your question is being pricked more and more every day. The problem is, inside of Washington, has the collective conscience of our leaders in the White House and in Congress have been touched by this particular issue? I don't know how one could be anesthetized to these kinds of numbers given the growth that we see in these numbers every time these studies come out.

So, I think the American people understand it. Why, because they're wrestling with it every day. I say all the time that the new poor are the former middle class, and so Americans by and large get this. I just don't think our leaders yet have had their consciences pricked enough to do something about eradicating poverty in America.

MARTIN: And Vicki, I understand that your organization provides service directly. You run a number of food banks but you also lobby which means that you are in touch with leaders...

ESCARRA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...local leaders, state and federal leaders, so I'd like to ask you this the same question. Do you have a sense that poverty is something that the leaders of the country are actually engaged with, thinking about, talking about?

ESCARRA: So, I think it depends upon who you speak to. I think that some leaders are very involved and some are very disconnected. We've spent the last six months lobbying the Hill and we're there this afternoon. Some of the newer members of Congress don't know how serious the issue is and so getting the awareness around poverty and food and security and hunger in front of them is critically important, especially right now with big bills being passed in the next couple of months that really affect poverty and hunger.

MARTIN: Well, so, why do you think awareness was in part one of the things that you're trying to do with this special, Tavis? So, let me play a short clip from a woman that you met in Columbus, Mississippi. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE POVERTY TOUR")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I've been unemployed for three years. I have - three years. I have a marketing degree. My husband is disabled. I mean, he retired after 25 years but he has severe degenerative disc. We went from $60,000 a year to less than $15,000 overnight. We are fighting foreclosure. It's hard, you feel worthless. I'm 54 years old which is a very big negative.

MARTIN: Tavis, to that end, it speaks to the point that you were making earlier which is that there are people who are the new poor, you know, and there's no argument here on a culture of poverty or skill set. The issue is employment so, that's the - but that's an issue you wanted to raise here which is that there were I think there might be leaders in both political parties who would argue that the issue before us is not poverty, it's employment.

SMILEY: Well, there's a direct link between the two but if you don't get serious about eradicating poverty long term then the jobs crisis ebbs and flows. Sometimes you have surplus, sometimes you have deficit, so that's the part of running a nation. But when a nation who wants to be judged by whether or not it takes care of its children and its elders, whether or not employment is a priority gets serious about a jobs bill, that's important but poverty long term has systemic reasons - you understand, Michel.

So, I think the issues are connected but they are two very different issues number one. Number two, that woman you heard, since this is radio, to the point that you made earlier, poverty is touching people of all races and creeds and colors and that happened to be a white woman in Columbus, Mississippi, sitting in a roomful of people black and white who are all enduring the same kind of pain. So, this is an American problem that must be addressed and the president quickly here has now put a jobs bill forth.

He's traveling the country supporting that jobs bill. Some think it's too little too late. My only point is simply this, that the speech is good. The jobs bill is a starting point. It's not to the size or scale of the problem, the bill is not, but the real question is do you compromise? Do you capitulate? Do you cave later on when the conversations really start, or do you have courage, conviction and commitment to stand behind the bill and sell it?

The president is doing the right thing finally now. I just hope he stays stalwart about this effort.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about poverty in America with talk show host Tavis Smiley. He's kicking off a weeklong series dedicated to this topic. Also with us, Vicki Escarra. She's the president and CEO of Feeding America and she's one of the featured guests on the program.

Tavis, tell us a little bit more if you would about what kinds of voices we'll hear on the special.

SMILEY: Starting on the radio program, a roundtable of experts including Dennis Van Roekel, head of the NEA, Patrick McCarthy from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We have a leader from the AARP, and of course Vicki who's with us now is going to be a part of this conversation on radio. One of her roundtable conversations, touching kids and seniors and everybody else in this country impacted by poverty. And then next week on the television show starting Monday, October 14th, I'm really excited about five nights.

I think this is unprecedented perhaps in television: five nights. A TV show focuses all of it's energy and effort on nothing but poverty, so we're going to be showing clips of what we saw and what we felt, what we heard, what we witnessed. Video clips on our TV show every night opening up these conversations. And then we'll be joined by great experts starting of course, with Dr. West who took the tour with me.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners. Jeffrey Sachs out with his new text. Vicki of course and the Obama administration to give us their point of view on what they're doing on poverty has offered us Kathleen Sebelius, of course, the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department.

MARTIN: Vicki what kinds of conversations do you hope will be sparked by this special? By people who watch this or are thinking - perhaps have not been thinking about this for whatever reason the question of poverty hasn't been on their radar, what kinds of conversations are you hoping will be sparked by this, and frankly, what kinds of - as we mentioned you do lobby. What kinds of policy initiatives are you hoping will come out of it?

ESCARRA: So, Michel we're hoping that this conversation the continuation of it will really mobilize the public to care about their neighbors. We all know someone who is living in poverty or food insecure. With these numbers, out of 307 million Americans, 44 million to 50 million people struggling with these issues, everybody knows someone. We are urging our president, we're urging members of Congress to draw a circle of protection around these programs that really impact lower income to middle income families.

These programs have never been cut in the history of our Constitution. This would be the first time that we seriously would cut programs that affect the least of us. And we believe that our values as a nation will be judged on how we treat people that have less than we. And so, that is what we're trying to do is mobilize the public to understand what's happening and to advocate and get involved.

MARTIN: Vicki, I want to ask you a question because you're in Washington, DC. You're visiting, you know, us here and as we mentioned you've been visiting members of Congress. There are those who argue that the Census Bureau's numbers on it's face are misleading. For example, there's a leading think tank here, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, that says that these numbers consistently overstate the number of people in this country who are, in fact, poor. That people who are defined as poor in this country have more to eat, have more technology, have more access to education and all these other indicators than most poor people around the world. In fact, that people who are considered poor in this country would be considered, you know, quite well off anywhere else.

And I'd just like to ask you to speak to that.

ESCARRA: Sure. So if you look at the poverty threshold today and you look at a family of four, they're earning, on average, $21,000 a year. I'd like to see anyone make a living and raise a family on that amount of money in most any city. And we believe that the Census Bureau figures are grossly understated.

MARTIN: Understated?

ESCARRA: Understated. Sure.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) poverty?

ESCARRA: Yeah. They're understated. Back to the unemployment issue, we've seen a doubling of people that are coming to our network for food - a doubling - in the last three years. We are just bulging at the seams in trying to help our neighbors, if you will.

And to the earlier points, the unemployment rates are persistently higher for African-Americans and Latinos. We all know that unemployment's at nine percent. Underemployment's at over 15 percent. For Latinos, it's 11 percent. For African-Americans, it's 17 percent.

So back to, you know, the effect and the impact on kids: one in five children are living in food insecure homes in America and among people of color, it's one in three. I was reading this afternoon - and this is a statistic that just blows my mind - among African-American children, 90 percent will, at some point in their life before they're 20, be enrolled in SNAP and we're...

MARTIN: Which is what?

ESCARRA: SNAP is a government program that provides food assistance to people that live below the poverty level and it, on average, is about $300 a month for a family of four. So you can see these are people that are not in today's world with food prices being what they are. If we're looking at cutting below $300 a month for a family that's earning $21,000, I mean, we're talking about cuts that are severely affecting people that need help.

MARTIN: Well, so finally, Vicki, before we let you go - and Tavis, you're going to stay with us for a few minutes - I wanted to ask the question that I asked Tavis earlier, which is the argument that some policymakers would make, that the issue here is not poverty, per se. It's unemployment. That unemployment is really where people need to place their focus. And I'd like to ask if you think that's true or do you want to hear our political leadership use the word poverty more often in crafting their policies? Or is the real issue that not enough people have jobs that pay enough?

ESCARRA: So I think the real issue is both. I think that the real issue right now and the dramatic impact that we've seen in our network has to do with unemployment. The other issue is that people are not making a living wage and they cannot earn enough money to take care of their families in 2011.

MARTIN: Vickie Escarra is the CEO and president of Feeding America. She is one of the people featured in "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience," part of a roundtable discussion on "The Tavis Smiley Show."

Vicki, thank you so much for joining us.

ESCARRA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Coming up, we're going to continue our conversation with Tavis Smiley as we turn to remember one of the leading figures in the drive to secure equal rights and dignity for all Americans. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Tavis had the opportunity to interview Reverend Shuttlesworth in 2003. We'll ask him about that conversation and more just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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