Talk show host Tavis Smiley, right, led a panel discussion about the issue of poverty on Thursday, Jan. 17 at George Washington University’s Lizner Auditorium. Activist and academic Cornel West, left, was also on the panel and spoke about the philosophical problems that contribute to America’s widening inequality gap. (Earl Gibson III/Getty)

WASHINGTON — Talk show host Tavis Smiley assembled a panel of public officials and scholars at George Washington University’s Lizner Auditorium on Thursday evening for a discussion titled, “Vision For A New America: Future Without Poverty.” The panelists included Mariana Chilton of Drexel University,  Rose Ann DeMoro of the California Nurses Association, Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio’s 11th District, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, John D. Graham of Indiana University, public education writer Jonathan Kozol, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and Cornel West of Princeton University.


Smiley led the discussion by pointing out that even the panelists weren’t sure what President Barack Obama would do in his second term in regards to the issue of poverty. Smiley posed the same question to the audience throughout the night: Can America make poverty a priority during Obama’s second term?


The panelists and the audience seemed eager to hear the thoughts of Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate. As one of the more conservative members on the panel, Gingrich  admitted that he has a “fundamental  disagreement with most of this panel on a couple of things.”


Gingrich views much of the government’s monetary attempts to alleviate poverty in the last 50 years as a failure. He drew attention to ineffective uses of funding, citing the $69 trillion spent on poverty-related issues since Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.


But the former Speaker also said he sees many opportunities to use funding more effectively in the future by rethinking the prison system and getting people the education they need to attain productive jobs.


On the other hand, West’s criticism targeted the philosophical problems which lead to the widening inequality gap in America.


“I agree with Brother Gingrich that we do need a fundamental change,” said West in regards to poverty in America. “We have a culture that is shot through with corrupt self-interests.”


Whether discussing philosophy or finances, the panelists always came back to the crucial changes needed to approach poverty in a bipartisan way. The panel endorsed focusing on jobs, education and health for children and young adults received universal support from the panelists, as did the idea of a bipartisan discussion of poverty.


To close the discussion and bring the conversation back to “real” people. Smiley put the spotlight on three guests who know the hardships of poverty all too well. One of these guests was Tammy Santiago, a 21-year-old student at Northeastern University in Boston. 


Santiago said she came to the panel to “fight not only for single mothers, but also single fathers.” As a mother of a young boy, Santiago said she juggles paying her school fees and caring for her son. Recently, her financial burden grew heavier when her food stamps were cut, leaving her with only $85 a month to feed her son.


When asked how she balanced being a mother and a college student, she explained, “It’s not easy. I actually had to put school on hold at one point because I had to work more to pay my bills and didn’t have the time to do the studying I needed to.”


She said she’s not certain what power young adults like herself have to engage politicians in a discussion about poverty.


“I feel like they always tell me I’m too young. But I am 21 now, and if I don’t speak up, who else will?”


A stream of people approached Santiago after the panel, all inspired by her story. Santiago said she is studying political science because she aspires to receive the level of influence that the people on the panel have to change people’s lives and impact the discussion about poverty.


Two attendees, Andrea Blackstone and Joan Vayo, said they enjoyed the panel’s dialogue and planned to write a letter encouraging Obama to focus on the issue of poverty during his second term. 


Blackstone, a journalist for the new e-zine Grove Street, said she hopes the president will focus on the issue of jobs during his new term. Vayo, an usher for the event and a former elementary school educator, hopes that the government will put the most focus on quality public education as the ticket out of poverty.


With so many Americans unified through the inauguration ceremony, the historic moment provides a fitting starting point for bringing together the diverse perspectives on how to address poverty.  The coming days and weeks will tell whether poverty will remain a mere conversation or an issue at the forefront of a new national agenda.