“We have to have an economy – a real economy. What do we have now? We want our jobs back. We want our pensions. We want our healthcare. We want to raise standards for everyone in America. We want a civil society…. Where’s our country?”
These questions, posed by National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro set the stage last night as TV and radio host Tavis Smiley convened a group of eight individuals for a landmark national broadcast promoting his goal of a “Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty,” .
Panelists included included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, Professor Cornel West of Columbia’s Union Theological Seminary, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia’s Earth Institute, public education advocate Jonathan Kozol, Professor Marianne Chilton of Drexel University, and NNU's DeMoro.
The Inauguration this year coincides with the national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. who Smiley termed “the greatest American we have ever produced.” The broadcast from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., shown live on C-Span will be re-broadcast in half-hour segments on Smiley’s PBS program over four evenings, January 22-25.Smiley is calling on President Obama to convene forthwith a White House Conference to Eradicate Poverty. He is asking people to sign on to this letter to the President.
‘Poverty a crime against humanity in the world’s richest country’
“It is a crime against humanity that the richest country in the world has such poverty,” said West. He praised King for his “decency and dignity” and questioned whether his memory was “appropriate for presidential pageantry.”
West was referring to the planned use of King’s personal bible in the presidential swearing in ceremony on Monday. “What would Dr. King say about the poverty here now while not one Wall Street executive has gone to jail?” asked West.
“I represent registered nurses in the unions across this country,” said DeMoro. “They are of the finest tradition of Martin Luther King. They are about humanity. They don’t make distinctions among patients. They don’t care if you are rich or if you are poor or if you are black or white or if you’re a man or a woman. You’re their patient.”
Nurses, said DeMoro, “protect you. They fight for you. And what they are finding because of the profits in the healthcare industry and the most inept system in the industrial world – the American medical system – is that patients are being pushed out. The children are coming in with malnutrition. Sometimes the only lunches they get is when they go into the emergency room. The shame that basically our decisions makers and Wall Street have brought to our country is presented to nurses on every shift and every hour in the hospitals in this country.”
Nurses, DeMoro added, “don’t stop fighting with their hospitals to care of their patients because they see people who haven’t had cancer screenings, people who basically can’t afford their medications, as the drug companies make $60 billion in profits as well as hospitals where $52 billion in profits. That’s billions and trillions of dollars sitting in the reserves of the wealthy and our children starving and people are presenting with almost near death.”
“But what the nurses have done," she added, is say, ‘I’ll fight for them in my hospital but I’m also going to fight for them in the streets.’
The single payer solution
One solution for both the healthcare crisis and poverty, DeMoro said, is a single-payer healthcare system. “ It would cover everyone. The insurance companies would be gone. We could have cost, quality and access and the ability to be a civil society. If we had a single payer healthcare system, we could generate almost three million jobs, which would actually serve to stimulate the rest of the economy so you’re building and actually taking care of the people of America.”
Sachs shared an estimate that it costs the U.S. $750 billion to sustain a for-profit healthcare system. “The rich have gotten their way. The corporations have gotten their way. We have the least social mobility in any industrial country,” he said.
Income inequality and poverty have come to define the American landscape in thick strokes. In the last generation, since 1989, Smiley told listeners, 49 of 50 states have experienced stepped-up income inequality and 43 states have seen poverty rates go up. The number of Americans in official poverty is now approaching 50 million, Smiley has reported, and nearly half the U.S. population is living at or near poverty, he has said.“We are incapacitating ourselves,” said Sachs, who heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He called for investment in infrastructure and decried a political system in which “we have two parties of the rich.”
“The White House,” said West, “is addicted to power. Where is the love and justice? We live by the rule of money. Everything is up for sale. Big money versus quality of morality.”
It is a world, Kozol reminded, “straight out of Charles Dickens.” He added hat “charity is not a substitute for justice.” Kozol thanked both teachers and nurses, reminding that both workforces are comprised of women and he acknowledged their extraordinary dedication.The Robin Hood campaign to tax Wall Street
DeMoro highlighted a major campaign promoted by NNU for a Robin Hood tax, now supported by more than 125 organizations – labor, religious, consumer, health advocates and others, embodied in The Inclusive Prosperity Act, sponsored by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).
It says to Wall Street, “you’re going to pay your fair share in this country.”
Sachs is among many public figures speaking out in support of the Robin Hood Tax, whose annual revenue would address the nation’s impoverishment with good jobs and decent retirement, quality education and healthcare and more.
“Influential Americans are buying into the Robin Hood Tax,” said Smiley.
“It’s simply a tax on Wall Street,” explained DeMoro, just “50 cents in the case of stock on a $100 trade. We all pay sales tax on everything we buy. This is saying to Wall Street that you have gotten such a pass.”
Gingrich, citing the “big boys” of Wall Street – the Federal Reserve, the big banks and those behind Dodd Frank – for escaping scrutiny and raiding the Treasury. He said, “There has been no serious investigation about what happened to the money.”
“It’s good to hear Newt talk about breaking up the banks,” DeMoro noted.
Kozol described how poverty deprives American children of their full potential and called for full support of public education. “The only tried and proven exit from destitution of their parents is terrific, expensive public education,” said Kozol.
To him, class size matters—the “most significant factor in the pedagogic world.” Yet public school class sizes are soaring, to 40 high schoolers per room in L.A., according to Kozol. “It is a crime against the innocent,” he declared.
Prof. Chilton, an expert on early childhood conditions, said that one in four children under six years old is suffering from food insecurity in the U.S. today, with serious healthcare consequences—“a major crisis.” She argued for support in the form of food stamps and the Women Infant and Children program (WIC). “They work and make us a better country,” concluded Chilton.
How do you make poverty a priority?” Smiley asked Rep. Fudge. She
concurred that “none of us has done enough to address poverty.”
“Silence is betrayal," said Fudge. "I am on the Agriculture Committee that oversees food stamps. We cut food stamps by $16.5 billion over the next decade. Some of my ‘colleagues’ were not satisfied. They wanted to cut more!!”
‘If everyone was unionized, we’d have Wall Street on the run. Labor unions play a particularly critical role in society, said DeMoro. “The American labor movement is behind Social Security, one of the greatest programs that keeps us out of poverty. The President cannot cut care to the most vulnerable people in our society. Medicare, it’s such a critical program—also pushed by the American labor movement.
“The other thing the American labor movement does is raises all boats. It set living wages for people, benefits, pensions. If everyone in this country was unionized, we would have Wall Street on the run.,” she said.
“There is a concerted effort as part of the neo-liberal agenda to vilify teachers, vilify anything public,” said DeMoro. “The greatest institutions we’ve ever had have been public institutions. The corporations have been in control and this country is a disaster.”
She critiqued those who have placed bipartisanship above principle. “We compromise on the things that are fundamentals. We can compromise on tactics but people will have to draw a line in the sand. Learn that from the labor movement and the building trades … . get the cement, fill in that line and we say this is a line that you do not cross.”
DeMoro endorsed Fudge’s statement “that you’ve got to push. We’ve got to push. We’ve got to create a movement in this country. Occupy was a moment. Occupy needs to start up and keep going and needs to bring millions and millions of people with it. We are organizing a movement. It’s in the streets. It’s in Congress and it’s across the world and we’re not going to stop.”
“People have to engage,” DeMoro concluded. “We can’t entrust our democracy to a bunch of people in Washington, D.C., who are getting paid by some very expensive lobbyist on the side. We have to take control of our democracy, to participate in democracy. Don’t discount America. Take control.”