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Smiley Works to Put, Keep Poverty on Nation's Radar

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By Barrington M. Salmon, Staff Writer
Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –

Four years ago, Tavis Smiley said he watched with amazement as Republican and Democratic candidates crisscrossed the country in search of the presidential nomination and not once did he hear anyone talk about poverty.

Now, in the midst of another election year, Smiley vows that this time will be different.

“Poverty threatens to tear this country apart,” he said during opening remarks at a symposium on poverty held at The George Washington University in January. “Unapologetically and with humility, I say we need to confront this problem; we need to gain some traction. I want not to just reduce poverty but I want to be bold and eradicate it.”

Taking Up the Battle Against Poverty

Smiley assembled a distinguished panel of guests who he described as “experts and long-distance runners dedicated to eradicating poverty.” Seated on stage with him included Princeton University professor and author Cornel West; personal finance expert Suze Orman; Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Michael Moore; Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America; community economic specialist Roger Clay; urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter, and Vicki B. Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America.

Smiley and his guests spent almost three hours in front of a packed house of more than 1,500 people at GW’s Lisner Auditorium in Northwest. The panel engaged in an energetic and vigorous conversation about the pervasive spread of poverty and how best to reduce and eradicate it, around the theme of “Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity.” The consensus was that nothing less than a radical and systemic change of the current political and economic paradigm is needed to bring America back from the abyss.

“We have to change this system which is unjust, unfair and undemocratic,” said Moore. ” … Here’s a poverty project people of all stripes can get behind: Jobs. We need a Roosevelt-style jobs program now!”

” … We need a renaissance of compassion,” West agreed. “A revolution against the oligarchs must be across the board … it will take a fundamental system change. How it comes about, nobody knows.”

An Economic Wasteland

Smiley referred to a white paper commissioned by him and produced by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The report found that many Americans are poor and at-risk of becoming poor because of the recession, and they continue to struggle during the recovery.

According to the report, titled “At-Risk: America’s Poor During and After the Great Recession,” 46.2 million people – 15 percent of the U.S. population – live below the poverty line, with poverty highest among Hispanics and African Americans, children, and households headed by women. It has increased most significantly among working-age adults, especially people between the ages of 18 and 34. The recession’s impact on the poor would be worse if not for the 2009 stimulus package of which $250 billion targeted and protected low-income Americans.

“With the perennially poor, near poor and new poor that is about 150 million people,” said Smiley as he asked each panelist how the situation got so bad.

“It’s been an idea for a long time that the poor are some kind of special group, some special demographic, they’re over there somewhere,” said Ehrenreich. “Now we have to face the fact that we’re not talking about someone else. You’re talking about almost half of America, the people who are struggling from the senior citizens who can’t make it on Social Security, its young people who can’t pay their student loans and low-wage workers at Walmart. It’s a massive phenomenon.”

” … The theory coming not just from the right but from some Democrats is that there’s something wrong with your character, that you’ve got bad habits, you have a bad lifestyle, we’ve made the wrong choices but I’d like to present an alternative theory which is that poverty is not a character flaw, poverty is a shortage of money and the biggest reason for that shortage of money is that most working people are not paid enough for their work – and we don’t have work.”

Ehrenreich suggested unions are an instrument for upward mobility. But recently there have been sustained attacks on labor and collective bargaining.

“People got ahead by sticking together,” she said. “(Unions) have been significantly weakened but the lesson is people standing in solidarity can take on that 1 percent.”

Half a Nation Left Behind

West, who traveled with Smiley on an 18-city, 11-state Poverty Tour last summer, said the poor are trapped in an odious, man-made system.

“Each person has a dignity that has to be affirmed,” he said. “What we saw was a system in place that has been driven by corporate greed from the top with oligarchs ruling and politicians rotating, with money coming from the big banks, big corporations pushing working people to the margins and rendering poor people superfluous …”

” … How could it be that the top 400 individuals have wealth the equivalent of their 150 million fellow citizens? There’s something sick about that. Then how could it be that poverty hasn’t become the biggest moral and spiritual issue of our time? Because our leaders lack courage and independence. They’re too tied to big money!”

And while the prison-industrial complex expands, West said with $300 billion allocated to build jails and prisons within the criminal justice system, and then politicians claim that there is not enough money when it comes to “money for schools, money for housing, and money for jobs with a living wage.”

“It’s a warped system. We’re here because Martin Luther King Jr. said America is a sick society, but it doesn’t always have to be sick if Americans rise up the way the Occupy Movement has been talking about, and talk about these issues seriously,” West said. Clay agreed with West that poverty is color-coded saying that other segments of American society are just now encountering what blacks have lived with for a while.

“Black folks have been hurting for a long, long time now but no one paid attention to it because we look at the unemployment rate for everybody and not for the various populations,” said Clay. ” … I think it’s just a good example of what happens when looking at a lot of problems hitting minorities. If it doesn’t hit the white community, it doesn’t happen. But you have white folks who have fallen out of the middle class, or are in danger of it, and now it’s a problem.”

Devastated Middle Class

One audience member said she sees what Clay and others talked about being played out around her every day.

“Everybody I know is affected. People with Ph.Ds are out of work and regardless of people’s level of training, many are out of work,” said Nana Malaya Oparabea, a history, culture and art teacher at Tree of Life Public Charter School in Northeast. “My sister is a graphic designer who used to make $60,000 to $70,000 a year. She hasn’t seen that in five years. No job she’s had matches that salary. She has cleaned people’s offices, worked at a law office, distributed books.”

“Other highly-skilled people have lost their jobs, too. But people are being creative, tutoring here, teaching there. Everyone is pretty much in the same situation.”

What she sought to take from the discussion was concrete ways to effect change, Oparabea said.

“To know that the official unemployment rate for black people hadn’t changed in 40 years was mind-blowing,” she said. “I’m looking for points about what people can do. Discussions are one thing, actions are another …”

Moore electrified the crowd with his honesty, his analogies and pointed criticisms of the predatory capitalism that has stalked this country, and the level of frustration Americans feel.

“Some people have called this class envy. (Mitt) Romney used that phrase. This is a war perpetrated by the rich on everybody else,” he said. “Their boot has been on our necks … they conned and scammed poor people.”

“They took jobs overseas, took homes … Tavis kept asking when is the revolution going to start? When they take away people’s things: their homes, vacations and the ability to send their children to college. Now there’s hell to pay.”

Orman was as blunt in her assessment of the economic mess in which Americans find themselves.

“Years ago, I kept saying to everybody, ‘People be careful.’ You heard me say the rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer and that the middle class would no longer exist,” she asserted. “People who called into The Suze Orman Show, which started 11 years ago, used to be middle class. I’m here to tell you, they are all now in poverty. The face of poverty has changed; the face of poverty is the person sitting next to you. It is every single color and what keeps us in poverty is that there’s a highway into poverty and there’s no longer even a sidewalk out.”

“To get out of poverty you have to have a source of income, you have to have the ability to generate money so that you are not poor. It is not brain science, but you can’t make money if there isn’t a job for you to have … everything is set up that once you are poor, they have you exactly where they want you.”

Orman said she doesn’t give the Wall Street crowd as much credit as Moore and other people do.

“I don’t think they’re smart enough to know what they did,” she explained. “They go after money and we don’t know what to do because we’re not educated in money. They told us to sign here and told us we could have the American Dream. We believed them because you want more for yourself and why would they lie to you? But they did everybody.”

“There is only one person who can get you out and that’s you. You’ve got to take your own power, giving power to your voice, and stop sitting down not saying anything and just settling for less. If you act like you’re less, you’ll be less.”

Veterinarian Jane Laura Doyle drove from West Virginia to sit in the audience.

“I’m fired up. It was excellent. It was wonderful to see that group of people put their heads together,” she said. “The message Smiley gave us is the best present we could get.”

With regards to her business, Doyle said she’s “just trying to get by.”

“West Virginia was already kind of down when we got hit (with the economic downturn). Why can’t we have the Civilian Conservation Corps?” she asked.

“There are all kinds of things we can do,” interjected Larry Yates, who described himself as “an activist by nature” and who attended the symposium with Doyle. “What Moore said about being out here by ourselves is true. Activists can’t do this until regular people come in or they’ll be no hope. Nothing replaces people.”

Sharpton, Congressional Black Caucus Join Forces on Voter Suppression

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By Lauren Victoria Burke, Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –

In an effort to spur activism and create a political tipping point on the issue, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are joining forces with National Action Network President Rev. Al Sharpton, against voter suppression. Rev. Sharpton will lead a march from Selma, Ala. tracing the historic steps of Dr. Martin Luther King. He will be joined by several members of the CBC.

The march will begin on Sunday, March 4 in Selma, Ala. and end on March 9 in Montgomery. One goal is to recreate three historic voting rights marches held in 1965. As a result of those efforts, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.

“We will stay in the same encampments that Dr. King and the marchers stayed at in 1965,” Sharpton said. Alabama’s immigration laws will also be a focus of the effort.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in this country but we are going backwards when people — based on what they look like — become suspects,” Sharpton said referring to Alabama’s immigration laws.

“In this day and age, when states like my own are now promulgating voter ID laws that actually suppress and discourage folks from voting, something needs to be done,” said Freshman CBC Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.).

Sharpton said the march is a kickoff to turn the political table against present voter ID laws in 34 states with a “national mobilization” effort. The National Urban League, the NAACP, LaRaza and NOW will also be part of Sharpton’s march.

Sharpton views the march and rally effort as a chance to resist laws already passed and galvanize critical mass against them rather than simply accept what is now law. “We don’t want to accommodate that until we have to get there,” Sharpton said answering a reporter’s question on whether his efforts would help voters navigate existing laws.

“We don’t want to give anyone the notion that we are trying to accommodate this lie,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) also told reporters. “The bar should be very high to disenfranchise someone,” she added.

Texas, Kansas, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Michigan all have voter ID laws.

In addition to the Sharpton march, the Congressional Black Caucus is planning a voter protection tour that would include voter registration and education while providing voter IDs.

The first individual efforts by a CBC member will be a voter symposium hosted by Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). Clay will be joined by Rev. Al Sharpton for an event on March 16 in his St. Louis district on voter suppression. There will also be voter registration and education at the event. The Missouri legislature is considering a new voter ID law that could pass in time for the November elections.

Sharpton, who hosts Politics Nation on MSNBC and the nationally syndicated radio program Keepin’ It Real, will broadcast from Alabama the week of the march. He and many members of Congress believe the voter suppression effort is an attempt to systematically roll back the gains of the Civil Rights movement.

“The drama of going back to Selma and staying every night where they stayed in 1965 creates a irrevocable picture to America that they are uprooting and undermining what was achieved in the Civil Rights movement,” Sharpton said.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), speaking on the tie between the march and the larger Civil Rights movement, recounted a story of how her father taught her how to deal with the Ku Klux Klan.

“We cannot go back. Too many people fought and died like my daddy so that I could vote. So that I could exercise the right to vote and I refuse — I refuse to go back,” Wilson stated. “I will march with Rev. Sharpton, I will march with anyone who is trying to stop the clock from going back,” she declared.

Wilson also said she served in the Florida legislature for 12 years and no voter ID laws passed.

“All of a sudden after the 2008 election, these [voter ID laws] miraculously appear. Why? Because we have a Black President in the White House. It’s to stop all of the people of color from standing in line and from coming out to vote,” Wilson added, putting a strong tone of urgency on the issue.

In November 2011, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Charlie Gonzalez made a similar point.

“We are revisiting that horrible period in the history of this country,” Gonzalez said, referring to new strict voter ID laws in Texas. “What this law will do is disenfranchise a certain segment of our community in Texas. Need I tell you what that segment may be… it’s gonna be minorities, of course,” he said.

A reporter from the Birmingham News asked Sharpton if the President or any Obama Administration officials would attend his march. “We have not asked the Administration to march. We are doing this as civil rights groups and today announcing Congressional support,” he answered.

“A lot of these laws are being proposed by Republicans across this country,” Sharpton said. “Isn’t it interesting that they did not ask for voter ID for any caucuses and primaries,” he said.

The wrong candidate, Mitt Romney, was declared the “winner” of the Iowa Caucuses only to have Rick Santorum be declared the winner three weeks later.

“One of the things this march will do is put a lot of visibility and pressure on everyone to do whatever they can do… we intend to meet with and have asked to meet with the Attorney General and the President on this issue, he added.

Also attending the press conference with Sharpton were Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx.), Hansen Clarke (D-Mi.), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Karen Bass (D-Cal.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Il.).

Lauren Victoria Burke is Politic365 Chief Congressional Correspondent, publishes the blog Crewof42 on the Congressional Black Caucus.

African-American Museum Groundbreaking Held on the National Mall

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By Dorothy Rowley, Staff Writer
Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –

President Barack Obama was among a slate of dignitaries who helped celebrate Wednesday’s groundbreaking for the nation’s only museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture.

The $500 million construction project, which Congress will provide half of the costs, will be erected near the Washington Monument. Upon its completion in 2015, it will showcase stories told by families and individuals, some rarely shared. Among the exhibits will be a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and galleries showcasing military and sports history.

“This day has been a long time coming,” said President Obama. “The idea for a museum dedicated to African Americans was first put forward by black veterans of the Civil War. And years later, the call was picked up by members of the civil rights generation – by men and women who knew how to fight for what was right and strive for what is just,” he said. “This is their day. This is your day. It’s an honor to be here to see the fruit of your labor.”

Obama added, “At moments like this I think about my daughters. When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl or Nat Turner’s Bible … I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life; I want them to see how ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things.”

While the idea of the museum was first floated some 100 years ago by black Civil War veterans, it wasn’t until an act of Congress, signed in 2003 by President George W. Bush, paved the way for the museum to become a reality.

Since then, museum staff has been fastidiously planning exhibits and scouring historical artifacts from across the country in preparation for the historical edifice that will highlight history, culture and community. The seven-level building will boast more than 323,000 square feet.

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) said, however, the whole story of the past 400 years begs to be told and it should be recalled without anger or apologies. Former first lady Laura Bush said it was particularly fitting that land for the museum was earmarked for the Mall.

“This museum will pay tribute to the many lives known and unknown that have immeasurably enhanced our nation,” said Bush. “The National Museum of African American History and Culture began as a nonpartisan effort through legislation sponsored by representatives John Lewis and J. C. Watts and Sen. Sam Brownback . . . and my husband, President George Bush, was proud to sign it into law.”

In crediting slave labor with the construction of both the White House and U.S. Capitol, Bush added that President Abraham Lincoln “was horrified by the sight of the slave pens,” that could be seen from the Capitol. She also said she was glad the museum will “stand next to the monument to our first president, George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will.”

The 90-minute ceremony, marking the start of a public fundraising campaign to construct the museum, was hosted by Phylicia Rashad. The acclaimed actress of “The Cosby Show”, who said in an earlier interview that African-American history is interconnected with many other groups.

“What makes America really great and unique is that there are different peoples living here who come together as one people,” she said, adding that she hopes to be surprised by what the new museum can offer.

“I would like to see some stories I’ve never imagined. I’d like to see some stories that aren’t so well talked about, but that have documentation to back them up.”

Several other celebrities have also thrown their support behind the project which so far has raised $100 million. They include Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey whose foundation has provided $1 million.

Shevry Lassiter contributed to this article.

More Children Living in High-Poverty Communities Than 10 Years Ago

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By Maria Morales, Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper –

BALTIMORE — Nearly 8 million of America’s children live in high-poverty areas, about 1.6 million more since 2000, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Baltimore-based organization does research and funding to programs nationally that focus on disadvantaged children and families.

About 7.9 million, or 11 percent, of the nation’s children are growing up in areas where at least 30 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level of $22,000 per year for a family of four, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which covers 2006 through 2010.

African American, American Indian and Latino children are six to nine times more likely to live in high-poverty communities than their white counterparts.

Washington, D.C. ranks 10th out of the top 10 U.S. cities, with 32 percent of its children living in impoverished neighborhoods, a decrease since 2000. Baltimore falls toward the middle of the top 50 cities, listed at 22nd place, with 25 percent of its children living in poor neighborhoods.

The state of Maryland has one of the lowest numbers of poor children in the country, with just three percent of its children reportedly living in high-poverty areas.

According to the ACS, almost all states saw the number of children in high-poverty neighborhoods climb.

In 2000, 6.3 million kids, or 9 percent, were living in areas of concentrated poverty.

Such communities often lack access to resources that are critical to healthy growth and development, including quality education, medical care and safe outdoor spaces, said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the Casey Foundation.

“Kids in these high-poverty areas are at risk for health and developmental challenges in almost every aspect of their lives, to their chances for economic success as adults,” Speer said.

“Transforming disadvantaged communities into better places to raise children is vital to ensuring the next generation and their families realize their potential.”

Not all children living in these high-poverty neighborhoods are poor themselves, Speer clarified. “Nearly half of the kids living in these neighborhoods are in families above the poverty line, although they may be just above the line.”

But the outcomes for children in those communities are relatively the same, despite income, Speer said. The study found children of all income levels that lived in poor communities had higher stress levels, more social and emotional problems, struggle in school or drop out, especially children of color. “Kids living in a poor neighborhood are more affected,” she said. “It really is double jeopardy.”

Speer said that children in low-income families that live in higher income neighborhoods have a greater chance of success.

“When a low-income child goes to school in a higher income area, they do better for the most part,” she said.

The survey also showed that three out of four children in these neighborhoods have at least one parent in the home who works. “Most people think incorrectly that these are families where no one is working,” Speer said. “But what we found is that the adults in the home may be working and need a better job, or are actively looking. These communities need to create economic opportunities that parents and children can take advantage of, from schools to jobs.”

Why is Obama Closing Minority Business Development Offices?

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By William Reed, NNPA Columnist –

Black Americans continue to stand by President Barack Obama, despite how he and his minions treat us. Nine of every 10 African-American voters have “got the president’s back” but there is still discussion as to whether President Obama has got the backs of Black Americans in return. At this stage of the Obama presidency it is quite obvious how the people running things at the White House view Blacks’ economic betterment.

Representatives of the Obama administration recently told members of Congress that they plan to close all five of the Minority Business Development Agency’s (MBDA) regional offices. Unless something happens, MBDA offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and New York will close by September 30 and the San Francisco office in March of 2013.

Black Americans would be wise to pay attention to these matters and how they are resolved. House Small Business Committee member Rep. Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.) said that the regional closings “might be the beginning of the demise of the agency.” Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said the Obama administration’s actions “sends the wrong message to entrepreneurs and businesses in our community at this time when we need to have an expansion.”

Rush is right. Black Americans should find it unbelievable that the Obama administration would allow programs that are vital to the creation of jobs and infrastructures for minorities to fall or fail. Proponents of minority business development need to step to the fore and demand that instead of downsizing the MBDA, Obama and his people need to be increasing its reign and clout. The political climate among African Americans should be to not let the only federal agency created specifically to foster the establishment and growth of minority-owned businesses to be put on the path toward death and dismantlement.

Blacks need for President Obama do more on this current presidential watch to ensure that all U.S. businesses have a proportionate share of the jobs and opportunities created by federal government. Obama heads the world’s largest purchaser of goods and services. The federal government spend more than $500 billion a year in contracts and has facilities in all 50 states that include 2,500 offices that have “authority to buy.” But, Black-owned businesses have historically been marginalized in federal contracting. Under the nation’s first Black president Black-owned businesses have done no better than they did than they did before, having received a paltry 3.5 percent of federal contracts funded between February 2009 and November 2010 compared to the 81.3 percent White-owned business enjoyed during that period.

President Richard Nixon started the Office of Minority Enterprise in 1969 with a mandate to increase Blacks’ percentage of federal business. That percentage of federal contracts peaked at six percent during the Reagan Administration. During Fiscal Year 2010 there were 64,880 Black-owned firms in the federal procurement database, but just 3,990 of those firms received contract activities. What would be wrong with President Obama showing that he’s on our side? The federal government has an ongoing need for an array of goods and services. Millions of federal government contracts are awarded each year, but minority entrepreneurs continue to be stymied in getting public sector contracting opportunities. To remedy this situation, Obama administration officials need to put more impetus on the MBDA to focus on federal procurement and procedures that will offer Minority Business Enterprises fair and proportional opportunities. Instead of disbanding MBDA, Blacks should petition the president to have the agency do more to help entrepreneurs navigate the federal bureaucracy’s purchasing venues.

Black voters need to take a long hard look to gauge the value officials in the Obama Administration place on Blacks and their businesses. Let’s lift our voices to say: “Instead of disbanding it let’s give the MBDA a broader portfolio” to provide more opportunities for minority businesses; to have ongoing dialogue around issues like how to access to contracts; to offer mentor-protégé opportunities with major corporations and help Black and minority firms compete for large contracts.

William Reed is head of the Business Exchange Network and available for speaking/seminar projects via the BaileyGroup.org

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