Talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West brought their “Poverty Tour 2.0” to Northern Virginia on Thursday, serving up a panel of liberal activists and political figures who mixed sober economic analysis with fiery rhetoric.
Hosting a live radio show at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Smiley and West said they hoped to jump-start a national conversation about poverty and political action in four battleground states before November’s election.
The hosts conducted a similar tour last year that stimulated debate over whether President Obama’s policies had helped African Americans. On Thursday, the hosts of Public Radio International’s show “Smiley & West” used their setting in one of the nation’s wealthiest metropolitan areas to remind listeners that poverty is everywhere.
Speaking not far from the upscale homes and shops of Old Town, Alexandria Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman said about 60 percent of the school district’s children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a widely used measure of poverty.
The chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Sharon S. Bulova (D), talked about programs to alleviate homelessness in one of Virginia’s wealthiest jurisdictions. Although Fairfax has 10 Fortune 500 companies, at least 1,500 people live in homeless shelters, their cars, with relatives or in the woods, she said. And she said that nearly half of those people are not idle.
“You’ve got some folks who will actually come out of the woods and report to a job somewhere,” Bulova said.
Ralph Nader, the pioneering consumer advocate and former presidential candidate, delivered some of the most pointed remarks of the three-hour program, calling on several hundred young people to lift their heads from their smartphones and become more politically active. He said young people today are unmatched in their indignation over perceived insults that touch on gender, race or ethnic background. But they remain apathetic, he said, about the “devastation” in inner cities and rural areas caused by economic inequality.
“The problem today is that when it comes to injustice, young people, they don’t have fire in the belly,” Nader said.
Other guests included Peter Edelman, a Georgetown law professor and antipoverty activist; Dolores Huerta, a founder of the United Farm Workers union; and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio).
Although Obama’s record on poverty was scrutinized during the earlier tour, the gathering Thursday had the feel of a Democratic shadow campaign event in a public school. West and a few guests leveled their fiercest criticisms at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the Republican Party.
Several speakers warned that poverty would persist in the United States as spending on wars diverts money from education, as corporations grow more powerful and labor unions die, and as income inequality increases. Others said the bleak economic picture was structural and could take years to fix as the nation struggles to compete in a global economy by reducing workers’ wages.
Jeff Faux, author of “The Servant Economy: Where America’s Elite Is Sending the Middle Class,” told the audience that family income has remained stagnant, except for a few upward blips powered by easy access to credit and by households in which two adults work. Now income is declining, he said, and gains in educational achievement are unlikely to reverse the trend because there are fewer good-paying jobs. From 2001 to 2008, starting salary dropped 8 percent, on average, for male college graduates and 5 percent for female college graduates, Faux said.
“Go into an Apple store, and there you’ll see the future,” Faux said. “It’s not in the computers. It’s in smart, college-educated people working as retail clerks to sell Chinese goods.”