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PBS' `Tavis Smiley' tackles US poverty this week

By Lynn Elber
AP Television Writer / October 11, 2011

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LOS ANGELES—Tavis Smiley had to look no further than his own circle of family and friends to see the painful effects of the ragged U.S. economy to know he needed to act.

The radio and TV host is doing what he can for those close to him in need of money or work, he said. For the broader problem, Smiley is using his PBS series this week to put what he calls a "human face" on the nation's poverty statistics.

Each nightly episode of "Tavis Smiley" is featuring clips from an 11-state, 18-city tour Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornel West took in August to detail the economy's effect on individuals and families. There are follow-up discussions with anti-poverty advocates and other guests, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

His intent, Smiley said, is to "get this issue higher up on the American agenda."

"We have to get serious about eradicating poverty in the long run while we create jobs in the short run," he said.

While millions of Americans are suffering financially, Smiley said he also felt compelled to address the particularly harsh blow the economy has dealt black Americans.

According to a recent Census Bureau report, the overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent last year, from 14.3 percent the year before, as a record 46.2 million Americans were counted among the impoverished.

Poverty increased among all ethnic groups, except Asians, with blacks the hardest hit by a poverty rate of 27.4 percent and with 26.6 percent of Hispanics in poverty. In comparison, the poverty rate for white Americans was 9.9 percent.

What Smiley and West found on their tour was both heart-breaking and inspiring, they said. It was also an introduction to poverty's changing face.

"The new poor in this country is the former middle class," Smiley said.

West recalled one Illinois husband and wife who fell from earning $100,000 a year to $15,000. The couple experienced a shift in perspective that the professor hopes will resonate with viewers.

"Once they had blamed the poor for their plight. Now they can see being poor is a different kind of reality," he said.

A national poverty summit that brings together economic, social and cultural leaders is needed, Smiley said. He also called for continued government action in the face of sharp political division.

His journey across America uncovered "rays of hope in programs that are working on the ground, right now. The federal government has to find the will to continue to fund those programs in honor of a better tomorrow," he said.