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Tavis Smiley and Cornel West: The Rich and the Rest of Us -- a Poverty Manifesto

Poverty is no longer black and brown - it is multicultural and multiracial - and is engulfing millions of us.

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TAVIS SMILEY: I say the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: One in two Americans?

TAVIS SMILEY: Exactly. One out of two of us, 150 million people, is either in or near poverty. So, you’ve got half of your democracy fighting to get out or to stay out of poverty. And what we argue in this book is that poverty threatens our democracy and that poverty is a matter of national security, that poverty is no longer color-coded. Americans of all races, all colors, all creeds. As you mentioned, Amy, on our poverty tour last summer, 11 states, 18 cities, we saw all kinds of Americans wrestling with this issue. And finally, we saw on this tour poverty that was so extreme, Juan, that it’s clear to us that a slight uptick in our economy, the kind of which we’re experiencing now, a slight uptick, is not going to do much of anything to really alleviate or to address the kind of poverty that we saw. This poverty is not a character flaw anymore. It’s a societal crisis.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Cornel West, it was half a century ago that President—another president, Lyndon Johnson, declared a war on poverty. And you, in the book, talk about how that war has progressed, supposedly, or has not progressed.

CORNEL WEST: Well, we know, as a result of the social movements, led by Martin Luther King Jr., but connected Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan and others, that we went from nearly 24 percent of Americans living in poverty to 11 percent—Michael Harrington, Frances Fox Piven, others playing a crucial role. Social movements make a difference. But also, greed at the top has social consequences. This is issues of economic injustice, issues of class inequality, 1 percent of the population having 42 percent of the wealth. 2010, the top 1 percent got 93 percent of the income. And we’re not talking about wealth at this point. Income. Now that’s morally obscene. You have 22 percent of our children of all colors, each one precious, living in poverty. That’s an ethical abomination.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we’re not just going to talk about presidential politics; we also want to talk about Occupy. But on the campaign trail, I want to ask about presidential front-runner Mitt Romney. In February—well, at least front-runner for the Republicans. In February, he told CNN’s Soleded O’Brien he’s not concerned with the poorest Americans.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: You just said, "I’m not concerned about the very poor," because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Got it. OK.

MITT ROMNEY: The challenge right now—we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and—and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. My campaign—I mean, you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.