Tavis Smiley and Cornel West Discuss Poverty in North Philadelphia
Both say "poverty is threatening our democracy"
Tavis Smiley and Cornel West spoke at a packed church in North Philadelphia on Friday, on the penultimate stop of their "Poverty Tour 2.0: A Call to Conscience."
The goal of the tour is to raise awareness about the plight of the poor in the country, and to get government officials, specifically President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, to address the issue. Neither candidate spent much time speaking about poverty at their respective conventions, despite the dismal recently released poverty figures.
“Neither one of them have said enough about poverty,” said Smiley. “There are four debates ahead of us, and these debate moderators need to put the issue of poverty front and center. In 2008 there were three debates between McCain and Obama. The word poor or poverty did not come up one time in three debates.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 percent of Americans, or 46.2 million, are living in poverty. Just over 27 percent of black Americans, or 10.9 million, live in poverty.
Smiley and West’s Philadelphia stop, the third on their tour of four key election battleground states, was held at North Philadelphia’s Tenth Memorial Baptist Church and featured a number of speakers, including Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, and Jordan Harris, who is running for state representative for Philadelphia’s 186th district.
Harris says that many politicians don’t know how to properly address the issue of poverty because they are so far removed from the issue. Harris also says that many children are being born into poverty that stretches many generations back, so they grow up believing poverty is part of their identity.
“We believe this is who we are, this is the circumstance, this is the hand that was dealt to me,” said Harris.
While Smiley and West believe that the government needs to take swift action to address poverty, Smiley said that people who manage to escape poverty don't do enough to others.
“The reason why poverty runs amuck in urban areas is that those of us who make it abandon those urban areas,” he said.
West said that as a society, we have become so consumed with money that we do not fight for justice in the same way that civil rights leaders did in the 1960s:
“In the rule of money, without integrity you don’t learn to fight for justice, you’re just out for self,” he said.
Even people who have jobs are often just one catastrophe away from poverty.
Fran Harmoni, who spoke at the Poverty Tour event, has been living in her car since July 6, 2012. She became sick several years ago, had to take six months off from work, and was unable to pay her mortgage. Though Harmoni says she tried to make partial payments, the bank refused to accept her money, saying they wanted the payment in full. They ultimately repossessed her house.
“It was humiliating, embarrassing, but there was nothing I could do but stand there and be devastated and humiliated,” says Harmoni, of the day movers boxed up her belongings and removed them from the house she has lived in for 20 years.
Harmoni has been representing herself in court, studying up at the law library as she tries to fight to keep her house. She broke down in tears as she said that her neighbor recently complained that she makes too much noise opening and shutting her car door. The car is parked in their shared driveway.
“Homeless people are like the scourge of society,” says Harmoni. “They smell, they wear extra clothing in the summer time, their hair is matted, so the whole idea of a homeless person around you might make you feel bad.”
While African Americans are disproportionately affected by poverty, West and Smiley said that their tour is not about race, it is about poverty that affects all Americans.
West and Smiley have also been criticized by black leaders for being too hard on President Obama, and using their poverty tour to essentially campaign against him.
On his syndicated radio show, actor Steve Harvey spoke out against West and Smiley’s 2011 Poverty Tour, saying: “You don't have any real basis behind your dislike for [President Obama]...you keep masking it saying it’s not about hate. Then what is it about? Poverty existed before January 20, 2008. Where was your damn bus then?"
In response to critics, Smiley made it clear that the Poverty Tour, which concludes on Saturday in Florida, is simply about addressing poverty, and that he and West believe that President Obama is a much better candidate than Mitt Romney. Still, they say, the president needs to do more.
“Poverty is so bad in our country that it is threatening our democracy,” said Smiley. “It’s a matter of national security,”