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Discussion Focuses on Women, the New Face of Poverty

AFT president Randi Weingarten joined a diverse panel of accomplished women on March 19 for a panel discussion on women, children and poverty in America, hosted by Tavis Smiley.

The wide-ranging discussion, broadcast live on C-SPAN, covered everything from education and the banking system to healthcare and immigration. Smiley organized the event to bring much-needed attention to poor women, whom he calls the new face of poverty of America. Women make up more than half of all Americans who are poor, and black and Latina women are more likely to be poor than white women. In 2009 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a million children fell into extreme poverty. "There is something wrong with a nation that allows its women and children to be the persons who are falling fastest," Smiley says.

In her remarks, Weingarten thanked Smiley for highlighting an issue that doesn't attract enough attention in our society, especially at a time when austerity seems to be the guiding principle of government spending at all levels. The biggest achievement gaps in our schools, she noted, are between rich and poor children, not between white and nonwhite students. And with growing poverty in the wake of the recession, those gaps are likely to grow.

"It's morally reprehensible that the debate around this issue offers a false choice," she said. If a teacher talks about poverty among her students, critics will says it's just an excuse for poor achievement. "We're not using poverty as an excuse," Weingarten said. "We want to mitigate it and address it, not excuse it."

One of the most effective interventions, Weingarten explained, is high-quality early childhood education. Not only can it help substantially reduce much of the income-related achievement gap, but it's also a wise use of public funds—returning $7 in benefits to individuals and society for every $1 invested.

Weingarten also talked about the challenges of rural poverty, which receives even less attention than urban poverty. She touted the AFT's Reconnecting McDowell initiative in West Virginia, which has brought the union together with dozens of other organizations, to tackle the problems of one of the poorest counties in the country. The multifaceted approach deals with education, transportation, housing, jobs, technology, social services and more.

Other speakers at the event included Adelante Movement founder Nely Galán, Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux, personal finance expert Suze Orman, U.S. Secretary of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, former Oglala Sioux tribal president Cecelia Fire Thunder, former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sheryl WuDunn.

A complete video of the panel discussion, "Made Visible: Women, Children and Poverty in America," is available online. It also will be rebroadcast on Smiley's PBS show March 28-30. Check your local listings. [Dan Gursky]

March 19, 2012