Cornel West and Tavis Smiley: Poverty in America threatens democracy

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley

(CBS News) PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley said on "Face the Nation" Sunday that poverty in America "threatens our very democracy," and that it threatens our national security.

Smiley and Princeton Professor Cornel West, co-authors of the new book The Rich and the Rest of Us (Smiley Books), talked to host Bob Schieffer about how half of Americans - 150 million people - are poor, which they defined as living one or two paychecks away from poverty.

"There seems to be a bipartisan consensus in this town - and you know how hard that is to do - but a bipartisan consensus that the poor just don't matter, that poverty is just not an important issue," Smiley said. "We cannot abide another campaign for the White House where the issue of poverty isn't raised higher on the American agenda."

West said the face of poverty is changing. "We've got a significant number of white brothers and sisters," he said, including those who were formerly middle class. "The public face now [is] white, more and more white middle class."

Smiley said poverty is not color-coded: "This is not a black problem or a brown problem," he said. "This is a societal crisis right now."

West said the political system is to blame: "We've got a political system that's broke and, you know, both parties tied to big money, and so the problem is we make our choices relative to those two parties, or we offer third party possibilities. . . . But most importantly we need a massive job program. We need an investment in education, quality jobs and housing. Do away with discourse about austerity, [and] focus on massive investment, research and development, infrastructure, and job creation."

"We've got to do something about this imbalance between public and private. Housing, schools and prisons now under private control basically. We are a better nation, we can do better, starting with a White House conference on the eradication of poverty in this country."

To watch the entire interview click on the video player above.

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