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Tavis Smiley Aims To Put Poverty On 2012 Election Agenda

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"Two decades ago we were celebrating what was the Year Of The Woman in '92, and now we're dealing with a war on women in 2012," Tavis Smiley said on a recent afternoon.

Smiley rattles off some numbers.

"Women are much more likely to be poor than men, and more than a million children have fallen into poverty, and more than 500,000 have fallen into extreme poverty” -- that is, living on less than $2 a day -- “since 2010.”

Recent census data shows that the number of children who live in extreme poverty has doubled from 1996 to 2011, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

To draw attention to this problem, Smiley is moderating a televised symposium Sunday called "Made Visible: Women, Children and Poverty In America" at New York University. Smiley said that he consciously assembled a panel that would feature women from diverse backgrounds since he felt that so much of the recent conversation around women’s issues in America -- he specifically referred to the recent fight in Congress over insuring female contraception -- included few women's voices.

"When it became an issue, all the talking heads who were talking about it were men," he said. "If you're talking about a panel on women in poverty, [then] who best to make the case? I recognize that what I can do is use the platform that I've been blessed to have."

The panelists will include Labor Secretary Hilda Solis; Randi Weingarten, the powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers; the television executive Nely Calan; Suze Orman, the personal finance expert; Faye Wattleton, the former head of Planned Parenthood; Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter; the health advocate Cecelia FireThunder; and the economist Julianne Malveaux. (You can register to attend the event, which is free and will air on C-SPAN, here.)

"These issues at first glance might seem disparate," Smiley said of the panel. "What does contraception have to do with poverty? What does a woman's right to choose have to do with poverty? What do [Rush] Limbaugh's comments [about Sandra Fluke] have to do with poverty? All these dots need to be connected."

Smiley said that he is pushing to make poverty part of the conversation during the election cycle, and he said the Obama administration, of which he's been a fierce critic, has pointedly avoided discussing it. "Last year, President Obama became the first president since 1948 to not mention 'poor' or 'poverty' in the State of the Union address."

Solis has said to push U.S. leaders on poverty, noting that cutting rates in poverty in half was almost achieved following President Lyndon Johnson's launch of the "War on Poverty" nearly half a century ago.

“You think big, and you challenge America’s leaders to do big things,” Solis said in October 2011. “Cutting the poverty rate in half in ten years is something that I too believe we can do.”

Smiley was asked whether the omission of poverty -- and the reluctance of elected officials and candidates in general to discuss poverty -- was because poor people don't vote in large enough numbers to make them a bloc worth courting.

"Politicians can speak to the concerns of the middle class, but they never speak to the ranks of the 'perpetually poor,'" he said in response. "That won't happen this year, because the new poor are the former middle class."

The numbers back him up. Last year, the Census reported that half of all Americans now qualify as low income.

Smiley's fierce criticism of Obama, particularly on issues surrounding poverty and black unemployment, have made him persona non grata in many black circles.

But Smiley said that his criticism of Obama from the left is part of the black prophetic tradition -- the practice of preachers and thinkers speaking truth to power and pushing for social justice.

"There's no Abraham Lincoln without Frederick Douglass, there's no F.D.R. without A. Philip Randolph, there's no L.B.J. without M.L.K.," Smiley said. "What makes him a better president is being pushed."

"I do not subscribe to the philosophy [that] a rising tide lifts all boats," Smiley said of President Obama's stated approach to dealing with staggering black unemployment. "On that, I don't think the president is misguided. I think he's wrong. The tide is up on Wall Street, but it's down on Harlem. People think a rising tide lifts, but it also drowns some people."

He said that he is agitating for the Obama administration to make serious inroads on poverty alleviation because the current White House will be the most amenable to the concerns of people of color. The Obama administration was not immediately available for comment on its record in dealing with poverty and black unemployment.

"This moment represents our last, best chance to turn this around," Smiley said.

"There is nobody on the right who presents a better alternative than Barack Obama," he said. "He's the best of the options we have. [But] historians are going to ask: how is it that a moment a black man was president, the bottom was falling out of black America?"

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