According to a special report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty. The number of those living in poverty in America has grown by 2.6 million in just the last 12 months, and that is the largest increase that we have ever seen since the U.S. government began calculating poverty figures back in 1959. And, yet, when we watch these political debates, you rarely hear anyone talk about doing something about it.
Dr. Cornel West is sounding the alarm, and he’s here to talk about it.
MR. MARTIN: Now, it’s very interesting when we talk about this whole issue of poverty or the poor. I remember last year when the President gave his State of the Union address, I made mention that he did not mention the poor – the actual word. What was interesting, though, a lot of Black folks on my Facebook page, on my Twitter page were angry. They were angry, saying, “How dare you say that! The President – he mentioned other things.” “[There’s a] lot on his plate.”
And I said, “Wait a minute. How is it that you get mad by me simply making the statement that he didn’t say it, and he should have said it?”
You face, and have faced, significant criticisms, along with Tavis Smiley, folks –
DR. WEST: Yes, yes.
MR. MARTIN: — tearing you apart, ripping you to shreds on social media, saying, “They’re knuckleheads,” “Shut up.” And so what do you make of folks angry with you, angry with Tavis by talking about poverty, talking about the poor, being critical of the President and others? Is it a question of people wanting to ignore the issue, or trying to be more protective of the President?
DR. WEST: Yeah, I – I think in so many ways, it has to do with protection of the President. I can understand that. I want to protect him, too. I pray every day for the safety of his precious family.
At the same time, I look on these walls, and who do I see? Harriet Tubman; Frederick Douglass; Angela Davis; Malcolm X; Martin Luther King, Jr. What does that mean? They have a fundamental commitment to truth. The condition of truth: to allow suffering to speak. So, you begin with the poor. They could be Jim Crow[ed] and enslaved. Now, they’re either in the ’hood, tied to the new Jim Crow – which is the prison-industrial complex – and we must speak to their plight and their situation. So, when Bro. Tavis came up with the idea of the poverty tour last summer – “Let’s hit 18 cities, 11 states, seven days,” and we gon’- — we – we’re gonna do what? Allow their voices to be heard. Start on the reservation. Indigenous brothers and sisters need to be heard. Went to the ’hood. Went to the brown barrios. Went to the vanilla poor sections with the White brothers and sisters – right across the board.
And now, what do we get? [The] Occupy movement another month later, concerned about what? Corporate greed; wealth inequality; too many precious, priceless poor people of all colors catching hell, while the 1 percent own 41 percent of the wealth. The top 400 individuals in America have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. Now, see, there’s something sick about that, my brother.
MR. MARTIN: What do you see as the end result of the conversations? Are you seeing movement? Are you seeing –
DR. WEST: Oh, absolutely.
MR. MARTIN: — action? Are you seeing political action, but also grassroots action to confront this issue of the poor in this country? A- – and let me be clear to our audience. When I say “the poor,” I’m not talking about Black people. There are poor White people in America.
DR. WEST: We’re not talking only about poor Black people.
MR. MARTIN: Right.
DR. WEST: It’s all of them together.
MR. MARTIN: Right. It’s – [crosstalk]- —
DR. WEST: Absolutely.
MR. MARTIN: — there are poor folks –
DR. WEST: Absolutely.
MR. MARTIN: — across the board, from Native American, Asian, White, Black, Hispanic – you name it.
DR. WEST: Absolutely. Well, Bro. Tavis and I just finished a book called The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, and it’s about the perennial poor. Some folk ’ve been poor for a long time. Some folk ’ve been dealing with depression before the recession hit. Then you’ve got the near-poor, one out of two Americans either in poverty or near poverty. When you bring in that near poverty, it expands. And then, of course, you[’ve] got the new poor. Middle-class folk – we met many middle-class folk of all colors used to be making $125,000 now broke as the Ten Commandments, financially. They’re making $10,000 a year, living in their cars.
MR. MARTIN: I’m glad you brought that up, because during the conversation you guys had this week at George Washington University –
DR. WEST: Yeah[?], had[?] a wonderful –
MR. MARTIN: — Suze Or- —
DR. WEST: — dialo- — thanks to Michael Moore. [Crosstalk] –
MR. MARTIN: — Suze Ormond said –
DR. WEST: — yeah.
MR. MARTIN: — that everyone has a responsibility to do what they can to keep themselves out of poverty.
Now, to that particular point you just made – and, again, it’s not condemning anyone, but don’t we also have a problem that people don’t understand what it means to live within their means? And so when you begin trying to live above your means, all of a sudden, one, small blip; all of a sudden, you go from that $100,000 job to poverty. And so how do we also get people to understand that you can move yourself out of poverty, but it also means changing also how we live and –
DR. WEST: [Crosstalk.]
MR. MARTIN: — and our outlook and how we spend and how we save?
DR. WEST: Well[?], that – that’s part of it, ’cause anytime you talk about poverty, you are talking about personal responsibility and lifestyle; but you’re also talking about structures and institutions.
MR. MARTIN: Right.
DR. WEST: Now, if, for example – part of our problem is we’ve got a political system so broken, that you[’ve] got a Republican Party that is mean-spirited towards the poor, that’s mediocre in its candidates, and that’s tied to big money. You[’ve] got a Democratic Party that is centrist. We don’t have a party that speaks directly to the needs of poor people. The – the R- — Re- — Democratic Party’s tied to big money, too. They’re better than the Republicans – [unintelligible] – with[?] Bro. Barack Obama is so much better than the Republicans. We all know that, but who did he just choose for his chief of staff? Right out of Citibank, right out of Citigroup. ’S part of not just [the] 1 percent. Look at the kinds of activities they have done vis-à-vis poor people.
The problem is poor people, who are precious and priceless, do not have lobbyists in Washington; and so even among our congressmen, we’ve got Maxine Waters. You[’ve] got Steve Cohen, Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison — a few. For the most part, most of those congressmen and women – they[’re] so tied to the big money, too, they’re not concerned about poor folk.
What would Bro. Martin say? Focus on the preciousness of poor people, even when you’re unpopular.
So, when Bro. Tavis and I get trashed, you know what I tell him? I say, “Brother, we gon’ love Black folk, we gon’ love folk no matter what; but we gon’ tell ‘em the truth no matter what, because in the end, our commitment is to the truth and to
MR. MARTIN: All right. Well, we certainly appreciate it, Doc. Keep tellin’ the truth –
DR. WEST: It’s always a blessing –
MR. MARTIN: — and – [crosstalk] –
DR. WEST: — [crosstalk] –
MR. MARTIN: — always welcome on the show.
DR. WEST: I tell ’em you[’re] sharp as you can be.
MR. MARTIN: Well, we try.
DR. WEST: [Crosstalk] – a little bit.
MR. MARTIN: It’s an[?] Alpha man[?]. How[’re] we doin’?
DR. WEST: Oh, but you – [crosstalk] –
MR. MARTIN: [Laughs.]
DR. WEST: — but you’re sharp in mind, too, there, brutha.
MR. MARTIN: I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
DR. WEST: Indeed.