MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, the Jewish high holidays are nearly here. We're going to catch up with an author who spent a lot of time trying to understand his faith. The book is called "Am I a Jew?" and we'll speak with him in just a few minutes.
But first, we're going to return to our Barber Shop roundtable. With us are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar, Johns Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence, and Mario Loyola; he's with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a columnist for the conservative National Review magazine.
Back to you, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right. Well, we've all heard that saying about how, you know, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Well, the latest income report from the U.S. Census Bureau bears those facts out, so now we can all get some sleep.
MARTIN: OK. Well, you know, it's the latest poverty report. The Census Bureau does one every year and it showed that 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2011. That amounts to about 46 million Americans at or below the poverty line.
You know, earlier this week I talked with Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson. He's one of the - you know, the country's leading, you know, experts on poverty, and he wrote a book 25 years ago, a very influential book called "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy," and he says that, you know, poverty could be eliminated if there was enough political will to do so.
And interestingly enough, Jimi, that's one of the things that people have been talking about in this election year, and one of the things that they've been saying is that the politicians aren't talking about that. Other people are.
IZRAEL: Well, your friend and mine, political benefactor Tavis Smiley and Cornel West - you know what? And public radio darlings, I forgot. You know, they say that's what they want to do. They've started their version of 2.0 - 2.0 of their tour to highlight poverty issues this week, and Tavis was talking about it on TALK OF THE NATION yesterday.
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TAVIS SMILEY: The reality here is that when we want to get something done, we do and the money is there. It's just that poverty has not been a priority.
IZRAEL: Oh, Tavis, thank you so much. Listen, Lester, as a poli-sci professor, I'm going to let you weigh in first. What's the one thing you want the candidates to say and do about poverty?
LESTER SPENCE: First, to say that government matters. Before LBJ conducted the war on poverty, poverty rate was like 19.2 percent, 19 percent, like in 1964. Ten years after it was 11 percent. Social Security, unemployment insurance - without just those two programs alone, the poverty rates would be much higher. Right?
So you have to say government matters, and first, say how it matters. What can we do? You can streamline food stamp benefits to make it easier for people to get food stamps. You can combine job training with poor housing stock and help people get into homes and actually help people to garner income using that. Government matters. That's the line. That's the line.
IZRAEL: Mario Loyola, do you think the government should do more or less about poverty?
MARIO LOYOLA: Yeah. I think that government matters and government intervention can have a lot of unintended consequences. And first of all, the reduction in the poverty rate from the '60s could be attributable to many causes. I wouldn't be surprised if a major one is anti-poverty programs of the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and all that, but there were people at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other prominent liberal figures, writing in the New Republic and even in The Nation, who predicted that expanding from, you know, charitable safety nets to big entitlement wealth redistribution schemes would have a lot of negative effects, such as, you know, eliminating the need for a father figure in the household, eliminating the need for people to work and struggle in order to survive and make it.
And a lot of those predictions have been borne out. I mean, the bottom 15 percent of society now among income earners is a very different demographic than it was in the '60s. It's - you know, it's unwed mothers in households of three children. That demographic was largely created by the anti-poverty programs, arguably, and that's something that hopefully Tavis and Cornel will be addressing in their poverty tour.
IZRAEL: Well, let Arsalan check in here.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Well, I think it's important. I think Lester and Mario both hit on this, is that there's no silver bullet response to dealing with poverty in America. You know, we have health care issues. We have education issues. We have, you know, welfare reform issues that, you know, both candidates need to address.
You know, obviously it's pretty staggering that, you know, 15 percent or 46 million people, are currently considered to be under the poverty line. I just think it's something that needs to inject itself more in the rhetoric of the political campaigns. I think that - you know, I think President Obama and Mitt Romney have both been talking more esoterically on, you know, the general economy, issues talking about the middle class, but I think that there's, you know, obviously a large swath of the demographic population of America that's being ignored.
IZRAEL: All right. Well, our next topic is top of mind this election season. Men and women in the kitchen.
MARTIN: OK. Because food is never far from our thoughts. I know we've had a lot of heavy issues to talk about this morning, so I just thought that - well, today - and I just thought that it would be interesting to get your feedback on a piece that grad student Shayla Pierce wrote in XOJane and it's titled "I Learned to Cook for a Man. Am I a Sellout?" And she said she lived on microwaved meals for most of her life and balked when boyfriends expected her to cook, and then she said that if knowing her way around the kitchen is required for women, the ability to navigate Home Depot should be mandatory for men. I'll gladly get in the kitchen if you build me one first.
But, then she found a boyfriend she really liked and he inspired her to learn how to cook. We're going to be talking to Shayla Pierce about that for Monday's program, but before we do, I just thought I would be interested to hear your perspective, so maybe I can share it with her.
IZRAEL: Well, obviously she's insane. You know, I mean because you should want to learn how to cook for you. This isn't about necessarily cooking for a man or cooking for your cat. You know, cooking is what keeps you healthy. You know, home cooked meals keep you healthy. McDonald's makes you obese. It gives you high blood pressure. You know, those microwave meals are high in salt. And not for nothing, your ability to cook, no matter what gender you are...
IZRAEL: ...no matter what gender you are, help - makes you a more marriageable mate. I'm sorry. If you can't cook, you know, then so what? We're going to spend a third of our income, you know, eating out? You know, I mean, no, no, no. Somebody in that house has to cook. In my house, it's me and I'm OK with that.
MARTIN: I think we're going to second source that. Arsalan?
IZRAEL: Hit it.
IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, let me put down my po' boy sandwich before I say anything here. No. I think, you know - I think it is - it's silly to think that, you know, cooking for somebody else makes you a sellout. You know, if a man cooks for his wife, is he considered to be a sellout?
IZRAEL: Right, right.
IFTIKHAR: It's obviously, you know, a nonstarter there. You know, I think it's important, you know, to keep in mind that, like Jimi said, you know, cooking is one of the things that sustains us as human beings and I think that, you know, cooking for yourself is something that people should start and, you know, carry that on to their families.
IZRAEL: So you mean whether you're a man or a woman - really?
IZRAEL: Wow. That's remarkable.
IFTIKHAR: I know. Perish the thought.
MARTIN: Lester, you're a good cook, aren't you?
SPENCE: Yes, I am. I grow my greens and I cook my greens.
IZRAEL: That's what's up.
SPENCE: I've got three boys and I've got two girls and there will be a significant problem if all of them can't cook by 20.
MARTIN: You know what? I think we should ask Mario because he's the only one who is single in the group. Mario, is skills in the kitchen a requirement for your lady love?
LOYOLA: It's a required - it's a requirement I impose on - I mean, first of all, I have sort of a personality disorder because if I walk into the kitchen and see someone doing something that's not quite right, I have to admit that I'll - I'll be like just let me do that. Let me cut the onions.
IZRAEL: And you're single? Oh, my gosh.
LOYOLA: No, but I - no, no, no. But I - you know, but I think it's an important - I mean, I want my motto to be - I say in Spanish, you know (Spanish spoken).
MARTIN: Which is?
IZRAEL: Which means?
LOYOLA: I make everything good.
IZRAEL: Hakuna matata, in other words.
MARTIN: OK, OK.
LOYOLA: I think that I make everything delicious, but anyway, the point is that I think it's important to provide the entertainment, and so that's my philosophy. I've been trying to cook well since I was in law school. Actually, when I was in law school, I wasn't sure that the whole law school thing was going to turn out well, so I decided I'd hedge my bets by learning to cook.
IZRAEL: We're all grateful for that.
MARTIN: OK. Here we are. But this isn't Match.com, so we'll leave it at that because I'm sure that - I'm sure that the right person will find you. OK? Mario Loyola is director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think tank focused on the impact of federal policy on states. He's also a columnist for the National Review and he was with us from Austin, Texas.
Here in Washington, D.C., Arsalan Iftikhar, civil rights attorney and founder of the website TheMuslimGuide.com. Lester Spence, professor at Johns Hopkins University. And Jimi Izrael, writer and culture critic.
SPENCE: See you.
IZRAEL: Yup, yup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.