January 25, 2014
Guests: Harry Belafonte, Michelle Goldberg, Yolanda Pierce, Christina
Bellantoni, David Cay Johnston, Matt Miller, Joe Watkins, Adam Kushner,
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, MSNBC ANCHOR: This morning, my question. Is
Washington D.C. the (inaudible) America? Plus, singer, composer, actor and
activist Mr. Harry Belafonte joins "Nerdland."
And a marriage proposal American women would be better off without. But
first, it is the issue of our time and both sides are trying to define it.
Good morning. I`m Melissa Harris-Perry. If we were in early 20th century
America and I called you a bully, you`d thank me for the compliment because
in the vernacular of the day bully meant almost the opposite of what we
understand it to mean today. Bully was something top notch, first rate or
as we might say today, awesome. It`s why President Theodore Roosevelt
chose that additive when he coined the term bully pulpit to describe the
American presidency. And this Tuesday night, the presidential bully pulpit
will get its most awesome singular annual moment in the spotlight when
President Obama delivers the 2014 State of the Union address. By now we
know the routine for the president`s annual message with all the nation`s
news cameras trained on him, the president will assure us that the state of
the union is sound. There will be predictable applause lines eliciting a
series of standing ovations and there will be cut away shots of First Lady
Michelle Obama looking fierce and sitting next to special guests whose real
lives underscore the president`s policy messages, but for President Obama
this year this state of the union will be different because this speech
will be his biggest opportunity to drive the political dialogue in advance
of the last most important election of his time in the White House.
The state of the union is his most conspicuous chance to set the terms of
the 2014 midterms by laying out the central questions that voters will
expect candidates to answer before Election Day. And the word from the
White House is that he will be looking to shape both the election and his
second term legacy by focusing on one question in particular, how do we
solve economic inequality in America? And this isn`t the first time that
he`s used the bully pulpit to tee up the terms of this debate. It is no
coincidence that a little more than two years ago he first laid out his
vision by invoking the master of the bully pulpit himself. In 2011
President Obama traveled to Kansas to the place where President Teddy
Roosevelt delivered his famous "New Nationalism Speech" calling for the
government to put public welfare before private interests. And he said
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: There`s been a
raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity, restore
balance, restore fairness. This is not just another political debate, this
is the defining issue of our time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: And just in case there was any confusion about exactly what
the president meant by this, he made it plain when he spoke the word that
appeared six times throughout his speech.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Massive inequality.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: Two years later during his 2013 State of the Union President
Obama advanced the narrative when he added another word to clarify the
consequences of inequality.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: President Obama kept the issue of poverty squarely in the
center of his agenda when he made this commitment about addressing
inequality while standing six miles from the White House in one of
Washington D.C.`s poorest neighborhoods.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: It`s been the driving force between everything we`ve done these
past five years and over the course of the next year and for the rest of my
presidency that`s where you should expect my administration to focus all
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: Now, the president may have the most visible platform for
the push on inequality, but he isn`t the only one staking a claim on the
message because while our political parties can`t come to a consensus on
much, they do agree on this. According to a recent poll from "USA Today"
and Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of Democrats
and 67percent of independents think economic equality has been growing in
the United States over the past decade. And if the polls didn`t show it,
the simmering palpable discontent of Americans who are barely clinging onto
the low end of the economic ladder certainly do. Perhaps that is why
Republican leaders have been sounding very much like the president as they
ask some of the very same questions about inequality.
This is Florida Senator Marco Rubio speaking just two weeks ago on the 50th
anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson`s war on poverty.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R ) FLORIDA: Why are so many poor Americans trapped at
the bottom? Why are so many working harder than ever only to find their
dreams slipping further away? Why do so many suffer from this growing and
nagging sense of insecurity knowing that they`re one bad break away from
losing everything they worked so hard for?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: Just two days later Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan made
this pronouncement in an interview with NBC News`s Brian Williams.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PAUL RYAN, (R ) WISCONSIN: When we need to address that poverty trap,
we need to make sure that it always pays to work, that we have a policy of
upper mobility, of economic mobility so that we can get people back on that
escalator of life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: And this is how former chairman of the Republican National
Committee Ed Gillespie chose to launch his challenge for Virginia seat in
the U.S. Senate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ED GILLESPIE: If elected I`ll be a servant to the people of Virginia and a
leader for policies that grow the middle class and foster upward mobility
enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty, policies that will make
life better for working families and those who want to work, but can`t now
find a job.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: OK, but of course, once our leaders turn to solving the
problem of the poverty trap, those polices that Ed Gillespie is talking
about, that`s where the political consensus falls apart. But for the first
time in a long time inequality in America is at the center of a robust and
meaningful debate at the level of national politics and for voters who will
be holding our political leaders accountable for their actions on this
issue in November, well, that`s bully for us.
Joining me at the table today, host of public radio`s "Left, Right and
Center" and MSNBC contributor Matt Miller. "Roll Call" editor-in-chief
Christina Bellantoni. Political strategist and former aide to President
George H.W. Bush Joe Watkins and contributing editor for "Newsweek" David
Cay Johnston who`s also the author of "The Fine Print, How Big Companies
use plain English to rob you blind. "Thank you all for being here. Matt,
let me start with you.
So, everybody`s talking inequality now. If you had to characterize the key
difference between Democrats and Republicans on the definition of what
causes inequality before we even get to solutions, how would you define
MATT MILLER, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: I would guess on the -- if you asked on
the solutions, it would be rhetoric versus reality. But we`ll get to that
in a second. On the way they define the problem, I think that Democrats
think that this kind of extreme inequality is corrosive for our democracy
because it just fuels the ability for those at the top with extreme levels
of money to buy political influence, to rig the system even further against
those who are falling behind and I think that the Republicans as well as
obviously those, you know, if you`ve got one in five American kids living
in poverty far above what any other advanced society has, that`s just an
incredible problem for a kind of class system that gets entrenched in the
U.S. That the Republicans don`t see. I think the Republicans think it`s
about upward mobility, which, of course, Democrats also believe in. And I
think Republicans think they have a 47 percent Mitt Romney problem and they
want to show that they are compassionate conservatives who if they want
independent voters, if they want to avoid the stigma of being indifferent
to a lot of, a lot of folks, they want to have something to say, and I
guess we`ll talk about whether that`s really serious.
HARRIS PERRY: Matt, so, I like how you`ve laid this out. And Joe, I want
to come to you on this. Because this is the challenge. We had this
conversation in "Nerdland" this week as we were preparing for the show
trying to think about this questions of whether or not for Republicans this
is an issue that they identify as inherently problematic or politically
problematic. So, I want to read something quickly from "The New Yorker."
This is President Obama last summer. He received a letter from a single
mother struggling to support herself and her daughter on a minimal income.
She was drowning and wrote, "I need help. I can`t imagine being out in the
streets with my daughter. And if I don`t get some type of relief soon I`m
afraid that may happen." And then he copies it to his senior advisors and
Obama - President Obama writes at the bottom of the letter, "This is the
person we are working for." But my bet is, like if I just had to - you
know, if I gave it a most charitable reading, my bet is that if that letter
came across any Republican desk, they, too, would say this is the person
that we`re working for. They would just have a very different definition
of what would constitute working for that person.
JOE WATKINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I don`t know about that. I
think that every politician knows that voters matter. And clearly, if you
care about the future of the country and making this a better place for
everybody you`ve got to consider the people who are at the lowest rung,
people who are having the hardest time. And you can`t attack the issue
without attacking what`s at the core of it like education, for instance,
because education has always been the great equalizer in our society.
On the one hand, you want to help people who are having a hard time right
now, help them get back on their feet. But at the same time you want to
attack the long-term problem, which is opportunity of inequality and how do
you give people who have had the least amount of opportunity more
opportunity. How do you help them to have a better foot hold? My dad was
the child of immigrants and my mother was an immigrant -- is an immigrant
from the West India. And they came to this country because they wanted
opportunity. And my dad as a kid would always say to me, you know, I don`t
want anybody to give me anything. All I want is an equal chance to compete
and education is the great equalizer.
HARRIS PERRY: I truly appreciate that story. Like I legitimately
appreciate what it means, particularly the sort of immigrant narrative that
we have in American that is part of that kind of coming up. But I also
wonder, even as you say that, David, part of the definitional question that
seems to divide Democrats and Republicans is precisely on this. And the
idea, therefore, that those who still find themselves in poverty did not
work hard enough, did not accomplish enough, did not make the right
choices. Right? So, on the one hand I deeply appreciate the argument, but
then I also worry about how those individualized arguments then get laid on
top of structural inequalities in a way that make it tough to actually make
policy around it.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR, "THE FINE PRINT": Well, OK, let`s accept that
there are some people who made bad choices in life and there always will
be. That`s not what the issue is about.
HARRIS PERRY: And a lot of the people who make bad choices are rich.
JOHNSTON: Yes. Oh, absolutely.
HARRIS PERRY: Right.
JOHNSTON: But we don`t view them in the same way.
HARRIS PERRY: Yes.
JOHNSTON: What we are not recognize is that we have created this
inequality through government policy. We did this. It`s not a natural
phenomenon. We deindustrialized. We took jobs out of the places where
people lived who could walk to work or take a bus. We cut public transit.
We provided .
HARRIS PERRY: We cut our public school budgets? Right?
JOHNSTON: Yes. We provided massive subsidies to all sorts of
corporations. As you know, I`ve named corporations so I can show that all
their profits come from hidden subsidies. We stripped money out of
programs for children`s recreation in cities to subsidize the burglar alarm
industry to $2 billion a year, which is a key element in why violent gangs
arose particularly in Los Angeles. And so it`s government policy that
created this problem and the Republicans were right at the core of that in
HARRIS PERRY: Christina, I want to bring in, in part because the other
thing that Mr. Watkins said here was, voters matter. And I`m thinking OK,
so there`s a Cook Political Report showing that low income voters have a
big advantage for Democrats. Democrats are much more likely to get low
income voters. You can see that - from 2006 forward they`ve got a big
plus, but in 2010 when they lost big, right, they only had 11 plus, right,
as opposed to when they had 22, 28 when they had won big. So voters
matter, but these voters tend to go to Democrats, so am I really to believe
that Republicans are going to look at that and say, oh, we need to get poor
folks out to vote, you know, or are they really going to try to keep those
folks away? Because when they keep them away Democrats lose.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, ROLL CALL: Well, it`s interesting
because you hear the terms poverty but then you also hear this term
fairness, right? That`s what you hear coming from the president and
Democrats and this whole question of should the rich pay more, right? That
was the fight of a few years ago. Do we tax the rich more to give more to
everybody else? That`s not the argument we are having now. Now it`s about
strengthening that middle class. Giving everyone the chance to get to the
middle class. And how you get there, and so it`s less about attracting
these voters that might be considered of a lower income, it`s about helping
everyone to feel, you know what, I`m not reaching where I want to reach and
now I`m going to have those opportunities. And there might actually be
policy areas that overlap, but the question of, you know, raising the
minimum wage, that is not something Republicans want to do in Congress
right now, and so the Democrats are going to keep pushing on that because
unfortunately it`s not just about achieving this for the American people,
it`s also about attempting to win in the November elections.
HARRIS PERRY: So, stick with me. We`re going to get down to the weeds of
what exactly those policies are and if there is some consensus. I can`t
wait to hear about that. This issue of inequality is so prominent right
now. It took front and center stage yesterday at RNC`s winter meeting with
none other than the party`s chair Reince Priebus. And I want to show you
what he said next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REINCE PRIEBUS, RNC CHAIRMAN: When the federal government tries to
equalize outcomes, we`re all going end up equally worse off. But when we
make sure people have equal opportunities in education, in the job market
and health care, we`re all going to be better off. That`s the right
approach, and that`s what`s fair.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: That was Republican National Committee Chairman Reince
Priebus speaking yesterday about inequalities during the RNC winter
meetings. It looks like they got the memo, but it also - I mean this is
the language of fairness, and you were just talking about it. And here we
see Chairman Priebus doing it.
BELLANTONI: Yeah. And with Rubio and Paul Ryan, that`s fascinating too.
Right? When especially when they focus on things like student loans. You
know, where I first heard that message - that, you know, it`s hard to pay
off your student loans and it wasn`t so long I paid that off, Barack Obama
in 2006, 2007 when he was getting ready to run for president and Marco
Rubio mentioned it in his response to the State of the Union last year.
There is no accident - but because Americans can identify with that. And
so, that`s where Republicans are really looking at areas like, OK, what can
we do that`s something that won`t really harm anybody but that could
actually agree with the White House.
HARRIS PERRY: And speaking about harming anybody, there`s a particular
group that folks are trying not to harm, David. That is, you know, a
recent study showing the top .01percent of campaign donors actually -- so
that - one percent of the one percent contributed 40 percent of all
campaign funds. I mean, voters matter as Joe pointed out but, whoa, so,
too, do donors.
JOHNSTON: Yeah, the framing of this issue here is very, very important.
And first of all, we shouldn`t be talking about raising the minimum wage,
we should be talking about restoring the minimum wage to where it was back
in the 1960s when I was a minimum wage worker. And secondly, no one is
proposing that we equalize all incomes. This is a completely false name
and it needs to be aggressively addressed. The idea is to raise everybody
up. But what is the first thing Reince Priebus said, you know, equalizing
all incomes. And others have said this more strongly. And we need to
recognize that the policies we have have been dictated by this incredibly
narrow rich group whose incomes have exploded since the 1980s.
JOHNSTON: The top one percent of the top one percent.
MILLER: I don`t think you can be cynical enough about the Republican
approach to this or disappointed enough in the outer limits of the
Democratic approach. Because if you look at Rubio talking about this, if
you look at Paul Ryan, I do believe as you show, this is not about wooing
low income voters. Because they`ll never vote Republican. It`s about
signaling to independent voters in the major national elections that we
care. It worked for George W. Bush, it worked for David Cameron in England
who took a page from compassionate conservatism. So, that`s what this is
all about. You can tell because they don`t put any money into it. They
talked about the earned income tax credit - great program. Ronald Reagan
invented it, Milton Friedman idea. But no one talks about really expanding
it, because that would cost money, and Republicans have other priorities.
But on the Democratic side, even Obama, right? He came out for a $9 an
hour minimum wage. He`s been dragged to $10.10, because Tom Harkin and
others on the left were pushing it. Why can`t the president on Tuesday
night frame a conversation that 15 bucks an hour all in, with a blend of
minimum wage and earned income tax credit. Doesn`t have to all be on the
employer`s payroll, but all in 15 bucks an hour is the reward for work. He
won`t go there, and so the debate won`t be where it needs to be.
HARRIS PERRY: So interesting. Let`s listen for a moment to the president
in 2013 talking about that $9 an hour minimum wage proposal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Tonight let`s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth no one
who works full time should have to live in poverty and raise the federal
minimum wage to $9 an hour.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS PERRY: So, the first part of the sentence is not actually quite
related to the second part of the sentence, right? So, I love this
language - let`s declare, right, that no one in the wealthiest nation on
earth should have to work full time and live in poverty, but then the
policy proposal of $9 an hour of minimum wage actually would not solve the
problem of people living in poverty. And yet you keep feeling like the
president can`t go much beyond that. Because to say 15 would be like -- I
mean, I can`t even imagine what folks would say about the 15.
WATKINS: You have to also listen to what he said. He said anybody --
nobody who wants to work. I mean, you`ve got to look at I`ve talked about
this on CNBC about the labor force participation rate, which is not just
the number of unemployed people, but the number of people who are out
there, who are also looking for work. And that`s diminished. That`s
dropped. Let`s say something about what`s happening .
HARRIS PERRY: But people can work full time. I mean I think the -- like
the moral and ethical question is people not just who want to work, but who
are working full time and are still living in poverty. Like, to me, that`s
a deep ethical question within who we are as Americans.
WATKINS: Absolutely. We are judged by how we treat the people who are .
HARRIS PERRY: That`s your phone ringing on the table.
WATKINS: I cannot believe it.
HARRIS PERRY: That`s (INAUDIBLE) calling and saying we need $15 an hour
minimum wage. When we come back I`m going to get Joe Watkins to turn his
phone off. And when we come back and talk about why 2014 could bring the
biggest fight over Obamacare yet
HARRIS PERRY: This month`s issue of "The New Yorker" features an extensive
profile of President Obama written by David Remnick after a series of
interviews with the president in 2013. And in the article the president
muses on the complicated intersection between race and the federal
government`s role in respond of the nation`s most challenging political
questions saying, quote, there`s a historic connection between some of the
arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country
and sometimes it`s hard to disentangle those issues. You can be somebody
who for very legitimate reasons worries about the power of the federal
government, but what`s also true, obviously is that philosophy is wrapped
up in the history of state`s rights and the context of the civil rights
movement and the civil war and Calhoun. And there`s a pretty long history
there. Implicit in the president`s statement is that understanding to the
approach to national policy must include a recognition of the concerns of a
diverse American electorate. It`s the divide that separates our political
parties vastly diverging approaches to solving inequality. A point of
divergence is the extent to which those solutions recognize that so-called
diversity issues, questions concerning race and gender are also economic
issues. And so, you know, Matt, I wanted to - I just appreciate that my
president can do intersectional thought and discuss it. Like I haven`t had
a president who could do that previously and I thought that was great. But
there is something when the president .
MILLER: George Bush can paint though.
HARRIS PERRY: No, actually, I don`t think George Bush is a dumb guy at
all, but I do think that this particular ability to say small government
and race are connected and that as Republicans seek to talk about
inequality, that they will have difficulty in a party that is not
particularly diverse in either it`s elected leadership or in its
MILLER: I think you`re right. And I think the state`s rights thing that
Obama was eluding to in that Remnick piece is very important, because so
much of what the federal government has tried to do over its history,
whether it was trying to get aid to poor schools, whether it`s been trying
to enforce civil rights was because of a legacy of big chunks to the
country where people were totally disenfranchised. And the trusting - you
know, the idea of trusting the laboratories of the states to solve your
problems wasn`t going to work as a practical matter. I think that`s behind
all of these issues.
HARRIS PERRY: And nowhere is this more real than in the Obamacare fight?
Because, I mean the central question of sort of how well it is going to
work has to do with whether or not these governors are going to make
choices about how they implement it. And over and over again, we keep
seeing Republican governors being the ones unwilling to set up exchanges,
unwilling to do the Medicaid expansion. When we asked -- when American
voters were asked what their top priorities were in 2014, health care
remains the top priority for people and yet in this kind of state`s rights
discourse you can`t get the inequality solved at the gubernatorial level.
BELLANTONI: Well, and part of the central argument for Democrats in
passing this health care reform measure to begin with was we want people to
be able to have a fair shot. And if their health care costs go down then
maybe they can be making minimum wage and not be in poverty. And so, these
issues are all very linked. And in addition to what you were just saying,
these cities have become this laboratory, right? You`re seeing some really
strong urban growth in a lot of places where you`re seeing development and
all of those things. And cities having to make big choices. Do they
invest in their people? Do they take some of those surpluses and decide,
well, we`re going tol help somewhere else. And then to get at the racial
issue, the best piece that I`ve seen that`s illustrated this was by Eli
Saslow in "Washington Post" about a month ago, looking at what happened
with the food stamp debate. They cut food stamp benefits and he profiled
this family where a woman basically made the choice to have her son sign up
for benefits, too, rather than live with less, right? And it`s getting at
that exact Republican argument of we want people to not be in this cycle,
but yet the cut is forcing this woman to continue that cycle.
HARRIS PERRY: Keeping the cycle.
BELLANTONI: Completely illustrated the problem.
HARRIS PERRY: And Joe, I want to come back to you because this notion that
the policy itself, as David was pointing out, about policy that generates
poverty, but at the same time seems to go against this sort of basic
American precept that hard work in a meritocracy is meant to lead to
wealth, to, you know, success. When "USA Today" and Pew opinion asked
whether or not hard work leads to success you actually see a declining
proportion of the American electorate believing that hard work leads to
success over those years from about 1994 when we have a booming economy to
now. So that increasingly, in fact, people don`t buy that American
meritocracy dream in part because they`re working really, really hard and
not having enough.
WATKINS: Well, there`s no doubt that a lot of people are losing faith
because they are working hard and they`re seeing less opportunity based on
their hard work, but that`s the role of talented leadership, which is to
make America everything that it`s meant to be, to make it a place where
there`s truly equality of opportunity for all-Americans and from the
standpoint of governors and how they deal with national policy, it really
depends on the governor. You can`t really broad brush it and say all
Republican governors are one way. I think I look at a governor like Chris
HARRIS PERRY: But overwhelmingly Republican governors have not taken the
Medicaid expansion or set up the state health care exchanges.
WATKINS: Well, with regards to the Affordable Care Act, I think that the
intent of the act is good. I think that the president had the right idea
in terms of trying to make it affordable and more available to more
Americans. The sad part becomes for Americans everywhere especially for
some of the - for middle class Americans is that it hasn`t been cheaper and
it`s been harder to access. I mean, the rollout of it has not been what
everybody would want it to be and that`s part of the challenge that we face
going forward. And I think a lot of Americans still have a little bit of a
sour taste in their mouth. They don`t blame the president for what he
tried to do, but the rollout of it has not been what .
JOHNSTON: Well, (inaudible) question is Medicare drug plan where people
couldn`t get their medications. I mean all these big new computer systems
never work right. But let me make a suggestion. Here`s what Republicans
are always saying we want less government, we want to - we believe in small
business. OK, then support taking away from the responsibilities of
business owners health care. Get it off the backs of small business
owners. As the founder of a small business, why was it on my back? It`s
none of my business who my employees sleep with, what their religion is,
what kind of car they drive, but their health care is my business. That`s
nuts. And the Republicans want to while walk their talk, then take health
care away from connection to employment.
HARRIS PERRY: Yeah. Yeah. Stay right with us. I love that because this
goes right back to Christina`s point about the idea that if people have
health coverage, then, in fact, $9 an hour is still insufficient, but it
changes what poverty feels like as soon as we come back.
HARRIS PERRY: We`re back and continuing to talk about the question of
policy for addressing inequality. And David, I want you to sort of walk us
through that a little bit more because I think so much of what we`ve heard
in the rhetoric around the Affordable Care Act is it`s bad for small
businesses. So, then to hear you say, hey, you want to improve small
businesses, get health care off my plate. So, just walk us through that a
JOHNSTON: Well, small business owners pay a premium for the health care
that they buy. If you`re General Motors the cost of your health care is
what it would be if we had a national system. But if you are somebody who
has five employees, or 20, or even 100, you pay a higher price. And you
have to divert resources to this or you pay a broker, which costs you money
to do this, even if the price is hidden in higher health insurance
premiums. It also gets people to stay with you who probably should leave
because even with the -- with HIPAA, if you leave to a new job and then it
doesn`t work out, 63 days without work and the 64th day you weren`t
protected before. But now you - it`s still - now you`re going under the
health exchanges. If we just took this away from businesses, it would
improve the profits of small businesses. It would allow small business
owners who don`t have healthcare to say this is no longer an equal issue.
It would have freer movement of the labor market and make these businesses
MILLER: Plus, we are the only country where health care is attached to
employment. The only wealthy nation. And there is job lock .
JOHNSTON: How does Portugal afford universal good quality health care and
MILLER: One is, everybody can do it. The other is, we`re paying twice per
person for health care because of the medical industrial complex in the
U.S. which no one is taking on.
JOHNSTON: Excuse me?
MILLER: Except you.
WATKINS: We`ve got him right here.
JOHNSTON: No politicians.
HARRIS PERRY: So, here`s what I found interesting also in this "U.S.A.
Today" Pew poll that I wanted to go to you a bit on, Christine. And that
is, they were asked what the government can do and should do to address
poverty. And the first is that government should do -- 82percent saying
they should do a lot. Only 14 percent saying they shouldn`t do anything.
And also, when you ask what can they do, 77 percent saying, yeah, they can
do a lot or some. That`s to reduce poverty. Now, let`s go to the question
of inequality. And that same question asked about what can government do
about inequality. 69 percent said a lot or some and 67percent saying that
they can do a lot or some. Now, that`s sort of surprising to me, this idea
that government could affect poverty but that it can`t really do anything
about inequality. That is just is the way it is. And both of you kind of
bring up the international context. Remind us, no, government can in fact
BELLANTONI: Oh, it absolutely can. And those results are fascinating
because it`s all about how people view themselves as well. When you ask
people, you know, is your family getting ahead? Do you feel every year
that you`re increasing your status or your wealth? Most people say no.
Most people feel like it`s worse. And getting like at the college tuition
affordability issue, that`s going to be a big focus of the president`s
speech. He told - his staff told Democratic chiefs of staff in the Senate
yesterday this. That he`s going to talk about that. Because that`s part
of it, that equalizer of education. And so, they want to say, look, you
have more opportunity. Well, everyone can identify with that. And you
have that opportunity .
MILLER: Except here`s the problem. The president will talk about college
tuition. Of course it`s huge. When Barack Obama leaves office, student
debt and college tuitions will be higher than ever before so the Democrats
have the message right. They figured out how to win national elections
doing that, but they`re not proposing or winning broad support for policies
that would actually move the needle on any of this.
JOHNSTON: A lot of that is at the state level. Many of the state
universities now get 15 percent of their money from the state. We`ve
raised tuition. Tuition when I went to college there was no tuition at
least in California, and so we need to recognize that in many cases this is
a place where we`ve seen the state laboratory and what the state laboratory
has been is make it harder for poor children to get a college education,
even the ones that are straight A students.
MILLER: But you also have bloated university administrations. I mean
there`s a cost structure in that health care that affects all of this.
HARRIS PERRY: Sure. But the speed with which the costs of tuition has
gone up is not comparable to the speed with which university
administrators` salaries have gone up. Like it`s simply the rate of change
is too fast, but it does fit with the massive cuts of state governments to,
you know, to local colleges and universities. So, and I guess part of this
is -- part of what I want to come back to, Jim, because all the way in the
beginning you said, OK, we have education as our deep public value that
provides for economic and social mobility. And it sounds lovely, but the
reality is that so many conservative policies have actually undermined and
cut actual public education, the resources that go into everything from K
WATKINS: Well, we don`t have to have good conservative policies, we just
have to have good policies as it relates to kids. You know, I run a school
district that has been failing for a number of years and we`re trying to
unfail it, trying to make it a good public school district. And I`m trying
to get kids to college. And even before you deal with the college tuition
issue, I`m trying to create a public school environment, a model for
successful public schools that gets kids, especially in poor neighborhoods,
to college. And we need policies that allow for that, that allow for
public education to succeed. Now, of course .
HARRIS PERRY: I`ll just say public education is succeeding just fine in
places with high property taxes and high income. I mean I just like - I
mean I just want to point out .
WATKINS: But for the poorest Americans .
HARRIS PERRY: Granted. Granted. But my only point is when well
resourced, right? In communities where there`re plenty of resources public
education does seem to work. So, we get this narrative that somehow we
have no idea what to do, but I feel like we do know what to do.
MILLER: And we`re the only country that tolerates these huge gaps between
what spending is per pupil in wealthy district versus others. In Europe
and other places conservatives agree that there should be relatively equal
per pupil spending or you need to invest more for disadvantaged kids. Here
you`re considered a socialist.
HARRIS PERRY: We`re going to wrap this part of the question, but my letter
of the week is next.
HARRIS PERRY: In June the Supreme Court invalidated the formula used by
the 1965 Voting Rights Act. To determine which states have to seek
Department of Justice approval before implementing changes to their voting
laws. Since then, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers has been
working to update the formula. And just last week they introduced a bill
to do just that. Now, some Democrats think the bill doesn`t go far enough,
but other politicians are irritated that the new proposal would restore
federal oversight of voting to their state. My letter this week goes to a
man who admits he just can`t understand why Texas should still have to seek
preclearance. In fact, he went so far as to say that the new bill, quote,
"discriminates against Texas."
Dear senator John Cornyn, it`s me, Melissa, you told the editorial board of
"The Dallas Morning News," "I don`t understand the rationale for
discriminating against places that have made huge leaps and improvements in
terms of minority voter participation by continuing to treat them as if
it`s 1965." You don`t understand? Well, let me see if I can help. You
are opposing a bipartisan bill that will subject states with five voting
rights violations in 15 years to greater federal scrutiny. Or one
violation could be enough in an area with long-term low minority turnout.
That means Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are in. But it`s not
discrimination, it`s a formula. Now I know you want to focus on Texas`
huge leaps in the last 50 years, but let`s put those leaps in context
because Texas has quite a history.
Back in 1848 even though a treaty ended the Mexican-American war and
granted citizenship to Mexicans living in your state and others, Texas used
English language proficiency, property requirements, violence and
intimidation to keep them from voting. During the Civil War in the 1860s
because Union troops never made significant advance into Texas, well, your
state became a place for slave holders to stash their human property while
also suppressing news of emancipation. Then after the 15th Amendment
granted black men the right to vote in 1870s y`all down in Texas got real
creative not only implementing poll taxes and other Jim Crow voting
tactics, but also innovating the white primary, which barred black voters
from casting primary votes. 1917 your state banned interpreters for
Spanish-speaking voters at the Texas polls and in 1962 residents in
Houston`s minority communities received false warnings that they might be
arrested at the polls if they had outstanding parking tickets. And Latinos
in Rio Grande got letters saying it would be better for them to stay home
rather than risk arrests. Your state`s history is relevant, Senator
Cornyn, because it is a long and shameful litany of tools to abuse, coerce,
and disenfranchise nonwhite voters in your state.
For the past 50 years the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights
Act has limited your state`s ability to continue that history. Though some
abuses did continue, like in Waller County restrict voter registration
rules, allowed county officials to reject voter applications, mostly from
students at the HBCU prairie view, A&M University. And Texas was second
only to Mississippi between 1982 and 2006 in the number of Justice
Department objections under the VRA Section 5. And it seems Texas couldn`t
wait to get back to even more aggressive efforts because when the Supreme
Court struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act last June, it took
just hours for Texas Attorney General to announce that Texas would move
forward with its voter I.D. law, a law that not only affects voters of
color, but also disproportionately affects Texas`s women, including State
Senator Wendy Davis. In the most recent lection she had to sign an
affidavit before casting her ballot because her voting record didn`t
include her middle name. So, Senator Cornyn, I hope these reminders help
you to understand why Texas should fall under any new formula for
preclearance. It`s really not about discriminating against Texas, it`s
about Texas`s history of discriminating against its own voters. Sincerely,
HARRIS PERRY: Elections have consequences and that is especially clear in
Virginia. Well, not only did Democratic Terry McAuliffe prevail over hard
right Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the governors` race, but Cuccinelli
himself was replaced as Virginia`s Attorney General by Mark Herring who won
his election at just 907 votes to complete a Democratic sweep of the top
three statewide races. Now, back in 2006, 57 percent of Virginians voted
to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But Herring,
a Democratic state senator at the time supported that ban then, but now in
2014, it seems he has changed his mind. He announced Thursday that he
believes the state`s ban on marriage equality is unconstitutional and that
Virginia will join at two same-sex couples in asking a federal court to
strike it down. In explaining this decision, Herring cited the landmark
1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down bans on
interracial marriage. Herring said, quote, "It`s time for the commonwealth
to be on the right side of history." And the right side - or maybe the
left side of the law. The state being on the right side of history surely
means a lot to LGBT Virginians who work on the other side of the Potomac in
Washington, D.C., deemed the gayest city in America by LGBT magazine "The
Advocate" this month.
And also, this month the new issue of "National Journal," pictures all
eight of the openly gay members of Congress are on its cover and asks
throughout the issue what it means politically to be a member of the LGBT
community inside the Beltway. Joining me now from Washington for more on
this is Adam Kushner who is executive editor of "The National Journal."
Nice to have you, Adam.
ADAM KUSHNER, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": Thanks, Melissa.
HARRIS PERRY: Now, Adam, why this issue right now?
KUSHNER: I think ten years ago an issue like this might have seemed like a
very strange idea. And while we have an annual issue on women in
Washington documenting overtime the way they`re increasing if maybe still
incomplete share of the power that`s rightfully theirs has changed policy
and politics and the culture in town. That couldn`t really be said to be
happening among prominent guy Washingtonians the decade ago, many of whom
were still not out. Since then, as you know, progress has been so
unbelievably quick, just last year, nine more states approve same sex
marriage, doubling the number that exists in the country. And those
changes are happening in Washington, too. Every week it seems like there`s
a state legislature or a ballot measure or a judge making some changes and
those make headlines like the first openly gay senator and things like
that, but beneath the surface topography there are major tectonic shifts in
the way Washington works as the rise of a whole new power class of LGBT
influentials has sort of come into power and politics and policy here. And
there are a lot of other effects that we document in this week`s issue.
HARRIS PERRY: Now, Adam, let me ask you a bit about this. Because even as
I think about how it is now easier in part because of this tectonic shifts
that even the topography, as you describe it, sort of the visual identity
politics as well as the substantive policy changes making it easier to be
out as an insider in D.C., but when I look at that cover I still wonder if
it is limited to some kinds of gay identity. In other words, would it
still be quite difficult, for example, to be an out gay member of the
Congressional Black Caucus or to be a transgender congress person. Like
I`m wondering if there are still ways, in which it is predominantly white
male, you know, white gay men who are in long-term relationships who are
seen as sort of the right kind of out insider.
KUSHNER: I think there`s a lot to what you say, although in the list of
the eight gay members of Congress who are pictured together for the very
first time in our cover, it`s a historic photograph. One of them is a man
of color and two of them are women. But on the whole I think you`re right.
And it doesn`t represent necessarily limits on what`s tolerable in
Washington. And in fact, as Barney Frank told me in a very rollicking
interview this week, D.C. has always been very accommodating in a way kind
of like what Switzerland was in World War II. It was a place where spies
could go and not - sort of have a safe space and not shoot at each other.
The problem insofar is that exists what you describe, I think, is much more
in districts and on the ground. Is any district ready for a trans Congress
person? It hasn`t appeared that way yet. But I think D.C., given the way
it`s changed will be much more welcoming.
HARRIS PERRY: Let me go to that Barney Frank interview a bit, because
you`re right. It was quite an interview. You just - you know, you always
sort of thought that Frank spoke his mind, but now he really seemed to (no
audio). This one quote in particular where he says, "Marches and
demonstrations were useful to a point in the 1970s when people didn`t know
we were here, at this point talking about gay members of Congress. And
they aren`t effective - but they aren`t effective as a political tool. The
NRA is the model disciplined political activity making sure that anybody
you vote for knows what you think and voting against them if they don`t do
it. So I thought it was interesting that he invoked the NRA as a model of
how to now bring pressure politics around LGBT issues.
KUSHNER: It`s amazing, isn`t it? I mean in some ways it`s very much the
answer of an establishment creature who`s been here and worked inside the
system for several decades. And I said, you know, what is it like - what
was it like to be a gay member of Congress in the `80s when the Reagan
administration and the FDA were slow peddling AIDS treatments and he said,
oh, you know, we did a lot in Congress to combat that. And we fought rules
that would have prevented programs from being nice to homosexual people.
And so, his view is very much from Washington. He believes that the
political system can work and, in fact, that`s the only way really to make
a difference. It`s what you would expect from here. I challenged him on
that assertion. I suggested to him that protests around AIDS drug trials
maybe got access for people who wouldn`t otherwise have had it. And he
stipulated the point. But he thinks - he made the argument that
politicians are subjects to -- politicians are less subject to outside
pressure than companies. The company with a 23 percent disapproval rating
is stricken with terror whereas a politician with a 62 percent approval
rating is ecstatic.
HARRIS PERRY: Yeah, that`s right, absolutely. Thank you to Matt Miller
and Christina Bellantoni and to Adam Kushner who joined us from Washington,
D.C. David and Joe are actually going to be back in our next hour. But
folks at home, you are not going to want to go anywhere because up next,
the one and only Harry Belafonte. He just walked into the studio and there
was a hush that fell over the place. There`s more "Nerdland" at the top of
HARRIS-PERRY: Welcome back. I`m Melissa Harris-Perry.
In a week when the antics of Justin Bieber dominated headlines, it`s easy
to forget that not all artists give in to the downside of celebrity accused
of breaking the law and resisting arrest. Some use that position to resist
injustice and inequality.
Take Bono of U2 who launched both Project Red in Africa to combat AIDS, and
One, which helps to fight poverty and preventable disease. Or Alicia Keys,
who co-founded Keep a Child Alive, which has raised millions of dollars for
AIDS patients around the world. These are high profile reminders that the
artist has always played a unique and crucial role in advancing the
political and social goals of democracy because artists push the boundaries
of convention, because they demand to be seen and heard, because they can
create substance out of nothingness and because they have a distinct
interpretive capacity, artists are indispensable to activism.
One artist in particular embodies these truths. In the 1950s, he formed a
friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and became a well-known voice
in the civil rights struggle. He used his celebrity to keep a spotlight on
the challenges of the African continent, whether as a goodwill ambassador
for UNICEF, campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, or initiating
the We Are the World effort to help alleviate famine in Ethiopia.
At nearly 87 years of age, he has not slowed down a bit because there is
still work to be done. In July of last year, he joined the Dream Defenders
at the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee as they demanded that Governor
Rick Scott call a special meeting to repeal the stand your ground law,
racial profiling and massive incarceration of young people in the state.
And earlier this month, he announced a new focus for his work, ending
violence and oppression against women worldwide.
This past Monday, on Martin Luther Jr. Day, while giving the keynote
address at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, he questioned
whether Americans have lost our moral compass, citing our nation`s prison
system as an example.
And I am honored to welcome Mr. Harry Belafonte, artist, activist,
humanitarian and inspirational to all of us, who recently funded the
Sankofa Justice and Equity Fund, a nonprofit organization that utilizes the
power of culture and celebrity in partnership with activism.
HARRY BELAFONTE, SANKOFA JUSTICE AND EQUITY FUND: Thank you for having me.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, tell me about Sankofa.
BELAFONTE: Last year, I had occasion to give a speech at the NAACP Image
Awards, and in that speech, I spoke to my fellow artists, this was quite a
number gathered, and spoke to the issues of art and social responsibility
and I challenged my colleagues to man up, to step up to the plate and
become more engaged in deeper social issues. In that critique and in that
moment several artists on the spot led by Jamie Foxx and others stepped to
the plate and said, we accept that we have been less than vigilant in our
responsibilities and we would like to join in a force to begin to push for
issues that need to be brought to the public attention.
HARRIS-PERRY: And I want to put a peg in it there for just a moment
because this is not about charitable giving, this is about social justice
work. And often when we think about artists, we think about them as
wealthy and giving a portion of their wealth to charitable giving, but this
-- your call in Sankofa is for a deeper kind of engagement?
BELAFONTE: Yes. I think the artists have a platform. They have a power.
They have a gift. And by using that gift and power to put it in the
service of those who are being ground out by inequity and by systems that
are unjust, we begin to put a light and a new -- on a new dynamic into what
it is that`s going on with the poor, going on with those who are racially
oppressed, sexually abused. And by doing this we help heighten the
consciousness of people who are being constantly distracted from taking a
deeper look at what goes on in our social issues.
And by asking the artists to look at this possibility in the use of their
power, we find that more often than not, society is rewarded. I think the
number of artist that is have stepped to the plate to do other things that
we did during the civil rights movement, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, Paul
Roberson, Bob Dylan -- all of those artists brought their power to the
table to talk about peace against the war in Vietnam, about civil rights
and eventually the artists community did a lot to focus on women`s issues
and we found that with the artist`s voice, our society was more informed.
Now, today, we have these issues that are -- the right wing is very clever
in the way it uses its power to become divisive and to become somewhat
abusive of the power of communication to blur what our issues are. Artists
can shape that in a new discourse.
HARRIS-PERRY: And one of the key issues that you have identified as one
that grinds people into oblivion almost is our prison industrial complex.
I want to play a short clip of MSNBC`s Ari Melber in conversation with Eric
Holder, our attorney general, discussing the costs of massive incarceration
to communities. Let`s take a quick listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: This mass incarceration happens with a
cost, if you look at the way it impacts certain communities. Let`s be
honest about this, communities of color where young men who should be the
future of these communities are taken out, labeled, then have inabilities
to obtain good employment, to be the kind of productive citizens that they
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: So, this is our attorney general saying, in communities of
color, young men lose a way to help themselves because of mass
incarceration. How can artists intervene in that?
BELAFONTE: When we had done that broadcast last year in California, the
very next day, Jamie Foxx, without any formality, got on a plane, flew to
New York, and participated in Union Square -- excuse me, participated in
Union Square on a rally defending and putting light on the issues of what
happened to Trayvon Martin.
His presence caught instant press attention. A lot of people began to stay
focused. He brought huge resources to the table and there was a
consciousness. You could almost equate it tangibly.
By doing this, he also reached out and influenced others, people like Chuck
D and Common, all the rappers got into it. We had a huge meeting here in
New York. About 60 of the leading artists in the rap culture showed up and
they said, "What can we do?"
And we decided in looking at a number of events and things that we could be
participants in, put a light on it, we decided to throw our major resource
and our first major attempt at using this power to uplift human
understanding around the issues of women. We are now working with Eva
Ensler. I call her Eva Onslaught.
HARRIS-PERRY: And the 1 billion rising.
BELAFONTE: And the 1 billion rising, the issues affecting women, and the
role that men play in this cruel situation which women find themselves. We
talked to de Blasio here in New York in Central Park, the first warm day in
this summer we really going there and we`ll have a huge massive cultural
outpouring to talk on issues that affect women which is directly related.
We talk about men in prison, we very rarely talk about the number of women
who are in prison.
HARRIS-PERRY: I keep -- as you talk about this space that can be created
by artists into which politics can occur, I am reminded that if we go back
and look at the visual images of 1939 of Marion Anderson standing at the
feet of the Lincoln Memorial, singing right there because the daughters of
the American Revolution would not allow her to perform in Constitution
Hall. So, she stands there in 1939. If you then look at those same images
of 1963 of Dr. King in that same space delivering the "I Have a Dream"
speech, you realize, oh, my, this cultural moment, right, this performance
actually makes space for the activism that then comes behind it almost 20
So, your point about Jamie Foxx or Common or Chuck D being able to bring
the cameras, being able to clear the landscape where then the political
organizing can occur.
BELAFONTE: That`s precisely what our mission is. You know, Paul Roberson
once said that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization`s
radical voice. I think without voices that live outside the box and say in
common on life with no hidden agenda other than human care and human
welfare, nobody possesses that authority better than do artists.
And I think that when you see what artists say, most of our constituency
trusts our voices and by using that voice, I think we can heighten social
awareness on issues that are usually codified whether it`s people from the
right and people from the left in a debate. You usually talk about things
that take us off issue. Artists keep us on issue.
HARRIS-PERRY: As soon as we come back, we`ll take a quick break, but I
want to push this a little bit and talk about the intergenerational nature
of this kind of activism, because it seems to me that if artists are our
great gatekeepers of truth, then the destruction of art programs in our
public school is not only bad for our cultural life, but particularly and
possibly awful for our democracy. And I want to push more on that as we
come back in just a moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BELAFONTE: And in the celebration of these victories, those of us who were
the beneficiaries of that (INAUDIBLE) triumphant, blinked, and as a
consequence, we find ourselves here now today at this very moment in the
same struggle, in the same fight.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: That was my guest, Harry Belafonte speaking before New York
City`s recent mayoral election in support of then-candidate and current New
York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
So, Mr. Belafonte, you say that those who inherited that moment blinked.
What do you mean by that?
BELAFONTE: I`m not quite -- I did not quite hear the playback, but what
was the blink in reference to?
HARRIS-PERRY: The idea that those who were part of the victories of the
civil rights movement blinked and, therefore, we find ourselves again in
the same struggles.
BELAFONTE: I think we were -- we have perfected our campaign in the
rebellion against the segregationist laws and injustice because the forces
that were engaged were bright and powerful and young and redid our task.
The minute we won those victories, the minute we achieved those ends, then
we had a new order put before us and that was to now let`s get on with
Let`s not, for the first time, fill up the halls of legislation with black
candidates, black representation. Let`s run for the presidency. Let`s run
for all the offices that electoral politics offered us because that`s the
name of the game in any democracy.
And in that period, we find ourselves wholly diminished in ideas and
thoughts. We need to look and find candidates to run. It`s one thing to
get the right to vote. Now, the question is what do we vote for and who
speaks for us.
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. Yes.
BELAFONTE: So we had to harvest all of the forces that had made the civil
rights movement work to now become political activists in electoral
politics, to become the people who would run for office and by taking this
elite, by taking these well-versed people in issues and cause, once they
put them into the world of electoral politics, the neighborhoods were left
abandoned. The activists and those who shape the issues that affected
communities were no longer there. In that space, we lost, we disconnect.
Most of our leaders went off to become captains of industry, they went off
to become higher officials in government, and the community was left
fallow. And in the generation that`s taken us to replace that, it has
taken its toll on us. We now have come back to a place where we have
effectively brought new people to the fore. They`re all over the country
like the young people down -- Dream Defenders in Florida.
BELAFONTE: And other places around the country.
I think America is replete with wonderful, gifted people who can step into
the space now. Our task is to get from there.
HARRIS-PERRY: When I think about what communities did with the fallowness,
what was left in that space, so that`s my generation, right? I`m born in
1973, and that`s the same year that hip-hop is born. And so, our voice,
our counter hegemonic voice that was artistic was hip-hop music suggesting
there was something of value left in these communities, something that poor
young people had something to say about the American project, had a
critique of it.
And yet, it`s so frequently feels as though the value of our artistic
contributions are sometimes within the context of intergenerational
conversation pooh-poohed, like, oh, well, that`s not art -- that`s not
politics. How do we harness the best of what hip-hop can do while still
maintaining a critique of the worst of what hip-hop is?
BELAFONTE: The artists themselves have to define that. I don`t think it
can be defined by external forces. External forces can have influence on
how we direct our energies.
But, by and large, all of this is in control of the artists themselves.
So, when I talk to Q-Tip and I talk to Carlos Santana and I talk to Chuck
D, we say, look, fellas, when we started this game with the hip-hop
culture, we had content, we had political overview. We had to look at the
global -- excuse me -- look at the global humanity. It is in your charge
to be able to write song, to write verse, to say things that get us back on
course to things that do deeply affect human behavior.
And I think they`re stepping to the plate to do that. They`ve gotten
distracted by the goal, Wall Street that invested so much in the hip-hop
culture. Gave it a lot of gold, a lot of cars, a lot of flavor, and that
flavor was abused. The lyrics became very anti-woman. They became very
anti-black. They used language that constantly diminished us as a people
and as a country.
And now, they understood that that was a deep blow to our growth as a
people and the nation and that course is being changed. I cannot tell you
what a delight it is for me to sit with these hip-hop artists and to look
at what we have projected for what the future will mean and the kinds of
things they`ll begin to do with their art.
HARRIS-PERRY: Let`s go one more generation. If there`s a generation of
new artists and then there`s a generation of hip-hop that maybe is lost and
found. And then there`s a generation of my children, of your
grandchildren, who many are in public schools now, even in places like New
Orleans where music is part of the great contribution of the people of New
Orleans to the American project and we`re not teaching art and were not
providing choral programs, and there are no instruments in these schools.
And I just keep thinking, I had an opportunity to speak with Felecia
Rashad, and she said that is about democracy. If you do not produce
artists you will not produce anyone who will question the system.
BELAFONTE: That`s exactly right. That`s why when Roberson said the
artists are the gate keepers of truth, that wasn`t just hyperbole. That
wasn`t just a fleeting moment. He really believed that.
And there`s still the idea in Sidney Poitier, and Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee,
all of us in that generation who grew up with that concept in mind. And I
think in applying ourselves to that fact, we can keep human behavior on
course. That comes out of what we call the humanities, and what has been
one of the most devastating blows by the shiftiness of those who control
power, is that they have robbed our school system of the humanities.
We take out the arts programs. We take out the school programs. Nothing
better enriched me as a public school student in New York City than what
went on in the arts programs, in our schools. I`ve got to know my Jewish
I`ve got to know my Italian neighbors. We began to know one another,
through what we understood about each other culturally. If you stifle that
power, then you have no way to communicate other than what we do in the
hard sciences. And hard sciences does not deal with the deeper nuances of
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. There`s a reason it`s called the humanities, because
it is part of our humanities.
BELAFONTE: That`s right.
HARRIS-PERRY: Mr. Belafonte, it has been an honor here to have you on MHP
SHOW and here in Nerdland. Thank you so much for spending some time with
When we come back, we`re going to talk about marriage and who really stands
HARRIS-PERRY: Is marriage the answer to your economic woes? It is if you
were among the 800,000 people who work in the $51 billion a year wedding
industry. Venues, caterers, florists, wedding planners, ring makers, dress
makers, custom stationers, deejays, photographers, videographers, bakers,
limo drivers, hotels and restaurants. Whoo. Weddings are big business for
a lot of people.
The American dream includes a big wedding, a fair tale princess, today is
your day, go all out kind of wedding -- which means that salespeople have
an easy time of convincing you that money is no object. The reported
median cost of tying the knot in America, $18,086 in 2012. And in
Manhattan, the most expensive wedding market, the median is $55,104. At
Disneyworld, you can spend an extra $2,850 just to arrive in your wedding
in a glass Cinderella carriage shaped like a pumpkin and drawn by six Welsh
To look at it in another way, in the year following legalizing same-sex
marriage, New York City saw an estimated $259 million more in spending
thanks to those weddings alone -- $259 million in straight up economic
stimulus from just 11 percent of the marriage licenses issued in the city
But these figures are not what Republicans are talking about when they say
marriage is the solution to poverty.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: The truth is that the greatest tool to lift
people, to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases
the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn`t a government
program. It`s called marriage.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: So, whether marriage is really the answer to poverty if
you`re not making $18,000 off someone else`s fantasy wedding, when we come
HARRIS-PERRY: So if you`ve been with us all the way since the top of the
show, and I just know you have, you know that we mentioned that Republicans
are trying to stake their claim on the issue of alleviating poverty to be
the party for the poor and their proposals have a common theme -- marriage,
of course. Getting married and everything is going to be OK.
Now, we`ve heard this story for years, for decades really. Recently the
call has been renewed by the Heritage Foundation and now, David Brooks and
Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Paul Ryan. They argue that children
with married parents are less likely to be poor than those with a single
parent most often a single mother. Marriage proponents are correct on that
one narrow data point. There is a current relationship between unmarried
parents and child poverty.
And while data don`t lie, politicians can misinterpret data when they use
it selectively. So let`s back up and look at this relationship between
marriage and poverty from a broader perspective.
Here`s a graph from the Heritage Foundation based on Census Bureau numbers
showing what they call the death of marriage. As you can see, the
percentage of children born to married couples has plummeted pretty much
unabated over the past five decades. Now, let`s look at the poverty rate
over that same period -- ups and downs, ups and downs, actually largely
correlating with a variety of economic recessions. Look again, marriage,
now, let`s look at poverty.
Now, tell me how you look at these two graphs, one line going straight
down, the other one going in cycles. I`m just telling you one going
straight down can`t cause the one going in cycles. In fact, it`s probably
not even much of a correlation.
With me at the table are Michelle Goldberg, senior contributing writer at
"The Nation", Joe Watkins, political strategist and former aide to
President George H. Bush, Yolanda Pierce, associate professor of African-
American Religion and Literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary, and
David Cay Johnston, contributing editor for "Newsweek".
So, Michelle, I want to start with you, because -- look, you can`t deny
that there is at time point one, right, whatever moment snapshot those born
into families with two parents married are less likely to be poor but that
causal just doesn`t add up.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG, THE NATION: You know, that`s true, although I actually
think there might be something causal. I mean, there`s a lot of evidence
that economic stress causes divorce and also causes people not to get
married in the first place. You know, and so there is, I think, a huge
correlation between the breakdown especially of working class men`s wages
and the breakdown of -- I mean, basically what`s dissolved is not the kind
of moral underpinning of marriage, but the financial underpinning of
HARRIS-PERRY: This is so important. I feel like I`m stats 101, right? If
we saw the relationship between the two of them, it`s actually more like
basically what we know from public opinion, as you point out, people
actually do want to marry.
HARRIS-PERRY: They value marriage, but they don`t think if they have
enough financial resources, that they can get married. So, the poor are
not less likely to marry. Not that those who less likely to marry become
GOLDBERG: And they`re actually not wrong that their marriages will be
endangered. There`s a lot of data about economic stress being toxic for
marriage and not just that, there is a study in the "Journal of Marriage"
studies, I might be getting it -- 2010 that says single mothers who marry
and divorce end up financially worse off than single mothers who don`t
marry at all.
So, you know, they`re not wrong to be skeptical of getting married if the
financial foundation isn`t in place.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, Yolanda, part of what distresses me about the language
from Senator Rubio is literally the language of tool. Marriage is the
great tool to do these other things.
And, you know, I`m not terribly romantic. My husband teases me about it.
But I do feel like, whoa, wait a minute, I don`t want marriage to have a
job. I want marriage to be a companionship relationship that people choose
to enter for a variety of personal and ethical and spiritual even reasons.
YOLANDA PIERCE, PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: Also that we don`t
demonize the people who choose not to enter into that union. There are
some people who choose a life of singleness. And for them, that choice is
an ethical and moral choice that we should support.
And then the second piece of this is where are -- where`s this pool of
ready to go, mature spouses that people feel that we can access? Because
it`s like, well, just go ahead and get married. OK. Happy to do that if
we can talk about where --
HARRIS-PERRY: "Essence" magazine 101. Where is the brother?
PIERCE: Where is the pool? There are people who choose to remain single
by choice and we should honor and respect those decisions. There are
people who would like to be married and don`t necessarily have that pool.
So, we continue to say this is a panacea and yet at the same time, all of
the evidence suggests that, well, having a good, strong, ethical moral
foundation in terms of raising children really makes a difference.
So I`m a little skeptical here.
So, David, how should we think about this economically? So, on the one
hand, there`s a question potentially about availability. There`s a
question about what we think is necessary to actually make a union that
will work. Talk to me also just about the finances here -- is marriage a
magical sort of a tool or is it about having multiple incomes in a
household, which could be provided in a have right of different formations?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, NEWSWEEK: Well, let`s not get the cart in front of the
horse. That`s the problem with Rubio`s argument.
JOHNSTON: If we have sounder economics as Michelle pointed out, we will
have better marriages and, you know, we live in the society where it takes
two incomes for most people and sometimes two plus incomes just to get by
because we don`t as a society value child rearing and coupling. And other
modern economies pay parents to stay at home of small children.
HARRIS-PERRY: Oh, amen. Say that one more time.
JOHNSTON: We literally -- our economic competitors pay parents to stay at
home because they know they get better outcomes at the end.
The other thing we do is we put all of this tax money into child care for
low paid parents. Now, child care is very, very expensive. Quality child
care like we have in Rochester, New York, we have the best child care in
Americans, in Canada, in all of Western Europe, in Rochester, New York, it
costs this much more. If we`re going to follow that policy, let`s at least
have quality child care.
But we should ask the question why do -- isn`t it valuable to society to
have at least one parent at home when children are growing up and shouldn`t
we subsidize that instead of building another Walmart or another Hilton
HARRIS-PERRY: And the notion of subsidizing poor single mothers to stay at
home is the demonization of the welfare queen. I mean, there`s sort of two
ways you can say it. You welfare queen who -- but the other is you are an
unmarried mother who we value your time with your young child. It is in
our interests to subsidize your time at home.
Why not imagine that kind of argument from conservatives?
JOE WATKINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, we`ve got we have to uplift
single mothers. Would he have to uplift single mothers and make sure that
every family, no matter what that family looks like, has an equal shot in
living a decent life because their kids matter, too. All of our kids
matter and are special.
Now, you`re asking a married guy who has to provide for two marriages this
year, about how marriage and finance -- how marriage alleviates poverty.
Well, you know, of course, if you get married, then you make a little bit
of money, you have to pay for weddings. You get back to poverty where you
But that being said, it`s a wonderful institution, it can be a wonderful
institution. And I don`t -- I applaud people who are struggling
financially and who make the decision to get married anyway, because I know
a lot of people -- my parents didn`t have any money when they first got
married and yet they had a wonderful marriage, raised six beautiful kids.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, interesting idea. I want you to stay there because I`m
going to talk about the ways in which government is trying to actually push
people into marriage and the extent to which that is a good or bad idea,
when we come back.
HARRIS-PERRY: So let`s say for the argument that raising children in
households headed by married couple is the answer to poverty. How does
that translate to policy?
The federal government has for years been involved in funding projects
offering counseling and marriage, training to poor, unmarried couples and
other programs intent at promoting marriage. How have those programs done?
Not so well. An intensive three-year study of the Bush era program
building strong families found that after three years, building strong
families had no effect on the quality of couples` relationships and did not
make couples more likely to stay together or to get married.
Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on the program and it didn`t
stop with W. In 2013, the Obama administration awarded $120 million in
grants to programs promoting responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage.
And in 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services helped launch a,
quote, "fatherhood buzz barber shop tour" in which HHS officials trained
barbers in eight cities on how to talk to their customers about fatherhood.
David, if I have $120 million --
HARRIS-PERRY: Right? If I have $120 million and have I to spend it to
improve poverty outcomes for children, is marriage promotion programs, are
those the best way to spend my $120 mill?
JOHNSTON: Best way to waste your money. Having a good marriage? Tell
your spouse what you`re thinking, listen to what your spouse says, pick up
HARRIS-PERRY: So, I mean, yes --
PIERCE: So my issue -- there are two issues. One is that we continue in
this country to shame the poor and we continue to associate poverty with
certain moral behaviors and choices. There are poor broke people with good
marriages and there are rich people with bad marriages.
PIERCE: And that is the case across every socioeconomic spectrum. So,
And then two is the nuclear family is stressed because for generations,
we`ve lived in multi-generational families. So perhaps if we want to
devote some resources, let`s look at the multi-generational families where
aunties, uncles, grandparents are helping the village that it takes.
We can continue to stress nuclear families be they two-parent or be they
one-parent, but at the end of the day, it takes almost more than two
incomes to help raise a child.
JOHNSTON: Change houses.
HARRIS-PERRY: And the Obama family is a great example, I mean, right?
Grandma Robinson lived at the White House for goodness sake, in part --
PIERCE: If they can`t do it, who can?
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. Sort of super special extra people. Let me also ask
this question as part of that. Is it possible -- is it just possible that
there are certain kinds of benefits to rearing a child solo that we also
have to acknowledge? Because your point that there are bad -- there are
bad marriages for wealthy people but they are afforded privacy because
wealth by privacy, because the only people who get the spectatorship are
But could we also say that it`s possible that there are certain benefits
that accrue to raising children alone, both for the child and for the
PIERCE: Absolutely, but we don`t want to talk about that. We don`t want
to talk about, for instance, how many adoptive parents there are who may be
single who have an economic stability, who are old enough and mature enough
to want to make the choice to raise a child.
So, instead, we just demonize single parents and we say here is the optimal
environment. The optimal environment, I mean, you know, the colloquial
expression, if mama ain`t happy, ain`t nobody happy.
So, unhappy, unhealthy, mentally unstable people of any socioeconomic
background in any marriage or non-marriage situation are not the best
choices necessarily to raise children without help. So, there are some
situations in which children are being loved and are thriving in homes that
are nontraditional homes.
HARRIS-PERRY: And, Michelle, in fact, we know that on this question of
sort of mama being happy, also mama being safe. We know that among women
in poverty studies have consistently shown that at least 50 percent to 60
percent of women who are receiving public aid have experienced physical
abuse by an intimate partner at some point as compared to 22 percent of the
general population. So, the idea that we should tell women to marry
abusive partners is deeply troubling.
GOLDBERG: Right. And more than troubling, it`s dangerous. This new
Shriver report, which I think is extraordinarily rich and full of so much
information and data about all of this stuff, it did a poll, right, of a
whole bunch of different people. But one of the subsets was low income
single mothers. And among those who were divorced, 19 percent regretted
their divorces, right? The vast majority of those who were divorced
thought that that was a good thing for them and their families.
What they regretted were things like marrying too young, having their
children too young, interrupting their education. You know, presumably
these women are intimately connected to their own lives and kind of know
what is best for them and their families.
The other piece of this is that children in -- I mean, children in single
parent families do statistically have all sorts of disadvantages, but it`s
not universal that they have it as bad as they have it in this country,
right? In other countries, where you have a rich provision of social
services children in single parent families fair much better.
I think that the gap in standardized testing achievement in single parent
families in the U.S. is 23 percent. In other developed countries, it`s 5
percent -- you know, and so, all of these disadvantages are not inevitable.
GOLDBERG: They are also a result of policy choices.
HARRIS-PERRY: And speaking of policy choices, I want to listen to Mike
Huckabee who said something specific about public policy and women`s
reproductive choices this week. Let`s take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: And if the Democrats want to
assault the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless
without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each
month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their
reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it. Let
us take that discussion all across America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: So with only one minute, there`s so much to say about Uncle
Sugar and our libidos. But it does feel like what was revealed in that
moment is this sense that what the conservative perspective is on this is
actually about punishing women for sexual activity. It`s not really about
-- because if it was about controlling fertility, then you guys would be
all down for reproductive rights of various kinds because then children
wouldn`t be borne out of poverty because women would have birth control.
But instead, it`s like if you have libido, and you have sex, you have a
child as a result of it, you have to be punished with poverty.
WATKINS: Hopefully not, hopefully not.
GOLDBERG: Let me tell you, when I was writing my first book, I went to a
rally where Mike Huckabee and his wife entered into a covenant marriage
which is a marriage that`s hard to get out of. And she promised to submit
to him in front of thousands of people in this stadium and then thousands
of wives in unison promised to submit to their husbands. It was this very
bizarre spectacle, but I think it gets at the heart of that`s what they see
is the answer.
HARRIS-PERRY: Let me be clear. Let me make a little submission is not
always a bad thing.
WATKINS: I submit to my wife. I care what she tells me to do.
HARRIS-PERRY: I`m just saying Beyonce has reminded us a little submission
can be a lot of fun.
Thank you to Michelle Goldberg and Joe Watkins and Yolanda Pierce and David
Up next, our foot soldier of the week is making very special diaper
deliveries. Yes, diapers.
HARRIS-PERRY: Oh, the joy of a newborn baby, tiny baby clothes and pastel-
colored blankets, mobiles and bassinets and diapers. An average of 12
diapers a day for newborns at a cost of $18 per week. And for three out of
10 low-income mothers, supplying this staple item is financially
impossible, especially since diapers are not covered under government
assistance programs like SNAP or WIC.
According to a study published in the August 2013 issue of "Pediatrics", an
insufficient supply of diapers can put both the child`s health and the
parents` well-being at risk. We have learned on this show that where there
is a problem, there is almost always a foot soldier ready to address it.
And this week`s food soldier is no exception. When Michelle Old, who had
recently adopted a son, realized the deficiency many parents cope with, she
loaded up her car with diapers and drove them to the mothers in her home
state of North Carolina who reached out for help. That`s how the diaper
bank of North Carolina began in June of 2013, by partnering with
organizations like the Duke family care program and local schools and
The diaper bank has grown from one woman to 150 volunteers, organizing
diaper drives. Since June 2013, the diaper bank has distributed more than
Joining me now from Raleigh, North Carolina, is our foot soldier of the
week, the executive director of the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, Michelle
So nice to have you, Michelle.
MICHELLE OLD, DIAPER BANK OF NORTH CAROLINA: Thank you. It`s a pleasure
to be here.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, tell me, what prompted you to start the diaper bank?
Why this cause?
OLD: Well, I didn`t realize the diaper need until we were in the middle of
adopting our youngest child. And he had severe reactions to diapers and
illnesses. And we were changing 15 to 20 diapers a day. And my husband
and I would easily grab the next diaper.
And one night late, I was at the hospital again with my son, and he -- I
started just thinking about what if we did not have diapers? What if we
were not able to easily grab the next diaper? And how would that bonding
have been altered if he had seen the stress in our face or the anxiety,
because we just didn`t have another diaper.
So, I really started to do research, and was surprised to find there was no
assistance for diapers.
HARRIS-PERRY: And your point here, I think, is so key. I don`t think that
most folks know -- even in Nerdland, this was a surprise to us, to think
about exactly that point, this diaper shortage problem.
When your organization tells other folks about it, what kind of response do
you get? What kind of support for what you`re doing?
OLD: Well, there`s shock at first. People assume, like I did, that WIC
and food stamps helped cover diapers, or there is some sort of assistance,
which there is not. We are finding that more and more families are
choosing between food and diapers. They`re not able to pay their utility
bills or they`re buying diapers, and that they`re going longer period of
time before changing a diaper.
But I think what`s important to know is the majority of these families we
work with are working families. They`re working one to two jobs, and they
still are making the hard choices between food and diapers.
HARRIS-PERRY: That idea of making a choice between food and diapers or
having to wait to change -- you can sort of immediately see why this would
be stressful, why this would be bad for a child`s health. So, I was just
in North Carolina, I love the people of North Carolina.
How can someone anywhere else, Indiana, Georgia, Louisiana, how can they
start what you have started here?
OLD: You start with a drive -- a simple drive, putting up a box, talking
about the need, and sharing the information. And it`s the community of
Durham and Orange County have just rallied around this issue. I did not
come up with 74,000 diapers. The community brought -- took this as an
issue and thought it was important babies had clean and dry diapers. And
it`s been an amazing response.
HARRIS-PERRY: I love this, in part because we started foot soldiers,
because we wanted to talk about people who see a direct need and don`t wait
for policy to change. They go in and change it right away. And that`s
what -- that`s what you have done here, despite being the mother to several
children, including a young baby yourself, which is a tough time.
And so, I just want to say, thank you so much, Michelle Old, for being our
foot soldier this week, and for demonstrating what people with do in their
OLD: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
HARRIS-PERRY: And that is our show for today. Thanks to you at home for
watching. I`m going to see you tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern. We
are going to be talking about NFL cornerback, Richard Sherman, the pre-
Super Bowl backlash against him, and what it may say about a broad other
issue of race, and black men in America.
Right now, it`s time for a preview of "WEEKENDS WITH ALEX WITT."
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