Poverty Is The Dirty Word No One Wants To Utter In Polite Company

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Nothing says self-examination by media and pundits better than watching a Sunday show and seeing the host quickly cut off a discussion about poverty. Because shhhhhhh. We don't talk about poverty in public. We don't want anyone to think there's poverty in the United States. That's for other countries. Like the starving children in Africa your mother tells you about when you don't want to eat your peas. Shhhhh.

Yes, there are starving children in Africa. I am not trying to belittle that reality. But there is another reality right here at home: Poverty is a real problem.

Worse, the deepest poverty is in what I will call the "austerity states": Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Poverty in those states is skyrocketing, with a very, very small state-provided social safety net. They've seen some of the hardest economic times in a terrible economy, and the people most deeply affected are those without enough education to get away from the industries which for so long have held them hostage: Coal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky; agriculture in Mississippi; agriculture and manufacturing in South Carolina. South Carolina is, of course, a right to work state, so even when the employment rate goes up, wages aren't necessarily sufficient for people to lift themselves out of their economic hole. Like Arkansas, home to Wal-Mart headquarters and one of the most wealthy families in the nation.

Yet. Watch George Stephanopoulis deflect all discussion of it away by cutting Katrina VandenHeuvel off and redirecting the discussion back to immigration reform and the Hispanic vote. I actually give Greta Van Susteren some props for bringing it up, even though she intended for it to be a slam on current policies, and bigger kudos to Katrina VandenHeuvel for starting to hammer on it a bit before GSteph interrupted her. Why did he?

Because talk of poverty is unseemly? Because if we don't talk about it, poverty will suddenly disappear into the broader-brush portrait of an invincible nation? Because, like magic, it will simply be disappeared by immigration reform and symbolic gestures by our Congress while states gut their safety nets while millions of people cling to the shreds by their fingernails?

It's time to talk about poverty and to be straight about it. Poverty isn't sensitive to race. White, black and brown people live in poverty. Good, hardworking people. It's not shameful to be impoverished, but it is shameful to ignore them or give once a year to charity and feel like the duty has been filled.

Some very good people are pushing ahead to address poverty in the context of education, for example, like the AFT and their efforts in West Virginia and Ohio. Recognizing that education doesn't happen in a vacuum, the AFT has tackled these areas as projects for robust public-private partnerships in order to improve the economic status of the entire area. They see this as what must happen in order for children to succeed educationally, and build on that success to innovate and create new ways to improve their own communities.

I would like for all of the oligarchs who spent over a billion dollars of their own money trying to elect Mitt Romney to imagine what they could have done with that money to improve the lots of people who not only lack resources, but opportunities. I would like for them to visit McDowell County and Cincinnati to see what solution-driven investments in poverty and education look like and conversely, what toll poverty takes on the souls of people struggling for survival. Success isn't even in their vocabulary.

Last week George Lucas announced he was giving most of his $4 billion fortune to innovate and improve public education. I applaud Mr. Lucas, but guardedly, because I fear he will take the same tack the Gates Foundation is using with their "education reform" efforts. Educators are already calling upon him to take an entirely different approach, and there is reason for some cautious optimism, based on his statement:

Filmmaker George Lucas plans to use the $4 billion he will get for selling Lucasfilm to Walt Disney Co. to help education.

Lucas, of San Anselmo, observed that a good storyteller is ultimately a teacher — "using the arts as a means of making education emotionally meaningful" — but that the educational system often fails to make use of the tools at its disposal.

"When I was in high school, I felt like I was in a vacuum, biding time. I was curious, but bored. It was not an atmosphere conducive to learning," he recalled.

"It's scary to think of our education system as little better than an assembly line with producing diplomas as its only goal. Once I had the means to effect change in this arena, it became my passion to do so — to promote active, lifelong learning. I believe in the artisan school of learning, through apprenticeships and Aristotelian questions and discussion."

In this light, he created his educational charities, Edutopia and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which boost educational innovations, cooperative and project learning, mentorship, parental involvement and technological advances.

All of these are great, but if there's no parallel effort to address the issue of poverty in learning environments I fear limited success no matter how creative or robust the learning tools might be.

Until the elephant in the room called poverty is named and tamed, I don't see how we can realistically talk about progress in other areas, and that goes for our Sunday pontificators and their enabling hosts, too.

Transcript follows below the fold.

VAN SUSTEREN: Because, you know, the president had a tough argument to brag on the economy. He had a real tough argument this time. I mean, it has not been vibrant, robust, or anything else, and that was what -- that was what Governor Romney ran on.

Obviously, Romney said the voters were not particularly impressed...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Although one of the things that might have been happening at the end, you have some September forward consumer confidence going up, home sales going up, you had good jobs numbers basically for the last six months. He had a little bit of a wind at his back on the economy.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you've also go -- let's not forget the inner-city, which everyone seems to ignore, let's say the inner city in very tough times for a lot of people. If you look at the numbers that just came out last week on Food Stamps, Food Stamps, the last number, the most recent number is August, went up about 421,000 people in the month of August for Food Stamps.

VANDEN HEUVEL: But Greta, the president did not lose the inner city.

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: No, no, but I'm saying that, the economy in those areas, we have -- everyone has completely ignored it.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And in is second term, I think there will be a commitment out of this White House to pay attention to those issues. But you know it didn't help that the Republican Party traveled the country calling the president a Food Stamp president. I mean, he has done more in his -- in the recovery program, there was more anti-poverty funding than there had been since President Johnson's...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Before we get to the second term, I want to pick up on something -- hold on a second. I want to pick up on something that Congressman Schock was just talking about, immigration, because you've heard that Paul Gigot, from a chorus of Republicans since the election. House Speaker John Boehner, Sean Hannity saying he's evolved on the issue of immigration.

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