Melissa Harris-Perry | June 02, 2012
HARRIS-PERRY: A newly released UNICEF report shows that among 35 developed countries, the United States has the second highest rate of children living in poverty , at 23.1 percent. Falling short only to Romania at 25.5 percent. Does that surprise you? Well, one former " New York Times " journalist isn't stunned, and in fact, he recently accused both parties of being silent on this issue and predicted that Americans wouldn't hear about it at all in the presidential race, but guess what? That call to action received a response from the White House . At the table is Bob Herbert , distinguished senior fellow at Demos and author of the article that got the administration's attention. Bob , thanks for being here.
BOB HERBERT, DEMOS: Good to see you.
HARRIS-PERRY: So we've been talking about rich white men sort of for the whole hour, and I thought let's talk about poor children instead. Clearly, you really care about impoverished children, but felt in this piece not only like you wanted to draw attention to the issue, but that you wanted to level a critique against both parties. Tell me about why that decision?
HERBERT: Well, very quickly, I had met with a group of school kids from the Bronx , 13 and 14 years old, and talked to them for about an hour, an hour and a half, and by the end they are telling me their stories ...
HERBERT: ... four or five of these kids are weeping, they are just crying, because they are such sad tales. And so I was writing about them, but I also said, you know, we don't hear about this in the presidential campaign. Neither -- neither Obama , nor Romney have made poverty or what's happening to kids in the inner city or for that matter in rural areas, they haven't put that front and center in the campaigns. And ...
HARRIS-PERRY: But then -- Valerie Jarrett said, sure we have, right? And I mean, I thought this was really stunning, actually. So you write this piece, and then Jarrett from the White House comes out and says, Bob , you are just wrong, we do, right. And in fact, you know, you are -- it is understandable that you'd be frustrated, but the notion that the American dream is closed off to far too many citizens, and here are the things we've done, and she talks about ...
HARRIS-PERRY: SNAP, which is basically food stamps, so what did you think about that response?
HERBERT: I think it had a sense of boilerplate about it, you know. It's ticked off all of the accomplishments, and Obama has had a number of accomplishments, but this was not an attack on Obama . What I had said in the piece is essentially that, you know, we've become a plutocracy. Our policies are geared towards the wealthy individuals in this society, and then in that atmosphere, without leadership from our high ranking public officials, these poor kids don't really stand a chance. So their upward mobility is cut off. And, you know, if you don't have upward mobility , and if you don't have shared income, and shared wealth in this country, shared in an equitable way, it means that the American dream is essentially gone.
HARRIS-PERRY: Well, let me ask you a little bit about the kids' piece, because, you know, obviously one of the shocking aspects of our poverty rate here is the percentage of children that are in poverty ...
HARRIS-PERRY: ... but I also worry when we kind of break off the poor kids from poor adults, because kids are deserving and so we somehow want to contribute to them, but the fact that you have got to raise the whole family, right, you can't do just one part.
HERBERT: Not only that. That's exactly right. But also people don't understand how widespread this is. There is 50 million officially poor people in this country, but if you then add in the people who are just a notch or two above the poverty level , you get to 105 million people, and that's nearly one-third of the entire American population. These are folks that very little attention is paid to.
HARRIS-PERRY: And yet, if you were to say, for example, if you said, you know, that these folks -- our candidates are not even saying the word poor. It seems to be part of the reason that candidates don't use the language of poverty on both sides, is because Americans rarely will self- identify as poor even when they are, right? The folks believe themselves to be middle-class even when they are many tens of thousands of dollars outside of the middle class . Do you think that sometimes, those kind of the policy work is going on, but you don't get the discourse, because we don't hear it in that way as Americans ?
HERBERT: I think that is true. That is very true, and what is also true is the politicians will tell you, well, poor people for the most part don't vote. I think more poor people vote than a lot of people think, but that is not the point. The president, the people in Congress and the people on the Supreme Court , they represent all Americans , you know. So I do think it is true, people sort of shy away from the poor. I think they are in denial about the extent of poverty , and they fear that they are going to be linked up with this in some kind of way. But when you have poverty to this extent, and it is expanding in this country, it hurts the entire society. It hurts the middle class , and ultimately, because you don't have the buying power in the society as a whole ...
HERBERT: ... ultimately it hurts the very wealthy as well.
HARRIS-PERRY: So the one thing that gave me a lot of anxiety as I was reading the piece is that some of -- some of what you were talking about here, as you were talking about the stories of the young people were telling, are things that, yes, impact poor kids, but you also talked about for example about sexual assault and about other sorts of things that don't exclusively happen in poor communities. I am thinking of, you know, all the young women on college campuses ...
HARRIS-PERRY: ... who have endured sexual assault. I just want to be sure that if we are going to -- and I hope that we do and think we should, refocus our attention and energy on thinking about addressing the American dream through addressing poverty , that we don't also go to a place when we assume that poverty equals all these social ills.
HERBERT: No, absolutely not. And also in the piece I did not suggest that. And it is also wrong to convey the impression that because people are poor, that everyone who is poor is putting up with all of the terrible things ...
HERBERT: ... that these young people that I was talking to are putting up with, and that is not the case at all. The poverty in and of itself is a problem. The fact that you don't have enough money to build a future, to put together the kind of family, you know, to realize the American dream . That in and of itself is a problem.
HARRIS-PERRY: Bob , I so appreciate you, first of all that you wrote it, that you actually got a response, and look, now we can actually talk about poverty . So I'm greatly appreciative to you for setting the agenda for it.
HERBERT: Thanks so much, Melissa .
HARRIS-PERRY: Thanks. Coming up, history is about to be made this month by the Supreme Court , and we want to arm you with a few facts before the court announces its decision on health care reform . Our cliff notes on so-called Obamacare , affordable care, and death panels up next.