Beyond the vibrant debate, real participation in a push to end poverty in America

Vision for a New America: A Future Without PovertyExpect sparks to fly in Washington tomorrow, when Newt Gingrich, who famously lobbed the term “food stamp president” as a criticism to President Obama last year, sits down at the table with outspoken left-leaning figures such as filmmaker Michael Moore and philosopher Dr. Cornel West, to debate issues of poverty in America.

They’ll be participating in an all-star panel hosted by Tavis Smiley, entitled “Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty” just ahead of President Obama’s inauguration. It will be nationally televised live on C-SPAN and streamed online, and subsequently rebroadcast on PBS.

What makes this panel different from many others that preceded it? In part, it’s who else, besides the biggest names such as Gingrich, Moore, West, and author Jonathan Kozol, will get to participate.

Drexel’s own public health and hunger researcher Dr. Mariana Chilton, will have a seat at the table.

Dr. Mariana Chilton
Dr. Mariana Chilton is an associate professor and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities in the Drexel University School of Public Health

“Participation” is a keystone theme for Chilton. The “Witnesses to Hunger” program she developed in Philadelphia in 2008 — part qualitative research, part empowerment and advocacy — equips mothers of young children in deep poverty with the tools and access to share what hunger really means to them.

“Women who know hunger and poverty first-hand can actually take the lead in policy,” Chilton has said. She plans to draw on both the wisdom of Witnesses she’s worked with and empirical data quantifying the impact of participation in public assistance programs on children’s health and development, to highlight several perspectives in the push to end poverty:

  • Public assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and WIC that promote child nutrition are essential investments and good medicine, both for children’s health and development and America’s economy.
  • Wage structures that leave many working poor Americans struggling with less than a living wage, and with few work supports (such as paid sick leave and childcare support) perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Chilton characterizes food stamps as corporate welfare because they allow corporations to pay employees wages that are artificially low.
  • Low income families need access to build assets, save money, and invest in entrepreneurial efforts, legally, in a system that currently criminalizes many sources of extra income and penalizes saving.

Over at The Nation, poverty writer Greg Kaufmann highlighted Chilton as one to watch on Smiley’s panel:

Chilton is one of the brightest, most creative people I’ve come across in an antipoverty field that is full of great thinkers and activists. Also, more than anyone I know, she touts the fact that the “real experts” on poverty are the people who are actually living in poverty—and Witnesses to Hunger is a testament to that belief. You can bet if Gingrich starts pushing stereotypes about poverty and hunger, Chilton will counter with facts, science, and the collaborative work she does with low-income citizens every day.

One Witness, Tami Santiago, will be on hand to speak at Smiley’s “Vision for a New America.” As you can see in this video interview she did with us last year, Santiago is bright, articulate, and ready to talk about how SNAP (food stamps), hunger, homelessness, and poverty all fit together. She’s lived it.

Will you watch “Vision for a New America” and participate in the discussion? The program airs live on C-SPAN from 6:30 to 9 p.m. EST on January 17, and will also be streamed live online here.

On Twitter, follow and participate using the hashtag #PovertyMustEnd. You can follow Chilton’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities @HungerFreeCtr.

Members of the news media interested in interviewing Chilton or a member of Witnesses to Hunger, please contact me at or 215.895.2614.