The Recorder recently sat down for an interview with Van Jones, who works for CNN and was a former advisor to President Barack Obama, about poverty. Below is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Read our story on Jones visiting Indianapolis here.
Recorder: What can we do right now to combat poverty?
Van Jones: Business owners are in a tough spot because a lot of the poverty that we have is we have people who are working every day and are still poor. I think that business owners being willing to pay more and be more flexible can have a tremendous impact on their employees’ ability to make it.
There is no easy-bake, quick-fix solution for poverty. The problem is that we have tens of millions of people in poverty, and in order to move the needle in a significant way, it does require public-private cooperation to make a difference.
I kind of reject the premise of your question, that there’s some-quick, easy-fix for poverty, that we can do something by next Thursday.
Recorder: I wasn’t suggesting ending poverty overnight, but in the meantime…
So, what are those big, structural things that we need?
Van Jones: Number one, it’s not like there isn’t a lot of work to be done, right? My favorite story is, you’re trying to explain poverty to young people, and the kid says, ‘Why are so many people poor?’ Well, because they don’t any work. And the kid says, ‘Is all the work done?’ Well no, actually, all the work is not done. There’s a lot of work to be done. Cleaning up the environment, dealing with child care. The big tragedy of poverty is we have all these people who need work, and we have this work that needs to be done, and yet we don’t focus enough on connecting the people who most need work to the work that most needs to be done.
I’ve always suggested that that work is best maximized in the area of environmental solutions: cleaning up the air, cleaning up the water, putting up solar panels, making the organic agriculture revolution real. That’s what I really think the biggest bang for the buck is when it comes to trying to fight pollution and poverty at the same time.
Recorder: Do you advocate for something like a federal jobs guarantee?
Van Jones: Listen, I don’t know if a federal jobs guarantee is a practical solution. I do think, though, that our businesses need more incentive and more help in terms of hiring people in tough populations. I think there should be tax credits for people who hire people who were formerly incarcerated, people who are coming home from prison, people who are coming out of addiction. I think when our business leaders step forward and take those kinds of risks, they should be rewarded by government policy. I do think that there is a lot more that we could be doing.
If at the end of the day we need a federal jobs guarantee or, as Andrew Yang talks about, a basic minimum income, I’m open to those ideas. We could do a lot more than we’re doing right now before we even get to those bigger solutions.
Recorder: Can you ever eliminate poverty in a capitalist society?
Van Jones: You know, it’s never been done in a capitalist society, but what you have been able to do is alleviate and ameliorate the worst effects of poverty and flatten the space between the very top and the very bottom so there’s more opportunity and more justice. You’ve never eliminated poverty in a capitalist society, and of course you’ve never eliminated poverty in a socialist society either. Jesus says the poor will always be with us, but I think that represents a moral challenge to society as much as an economic challenge. What do we do about those who have not benefited as much as others from the society you live in, whether socialist or capitalist?
Recorder: For Black Americans in particular, can you eliminate poverty without reparations?
Van Jones: You know, the conversation about reparations is very interesting. My observation is if you say, ‘I want a billion dollars to help Black people,’ the first question people ask is, ‘Why?’ If you say, ‘I want it for the past because of past wrongdoing,’ people who are non-Black tend to have very little enthusiasm. If you say, ‘Never mind. I just want it to address some of the inequities in the present, I’m not talking about reparations, I’m talking about redistribution of wealth and income,’ there also seems to be a really big drop-off of enthusiasm for those answers. If you say, ‘I want a billion dollars to invest in a better future,’ there tends to be a little more interest.
So, my observation is that when you say you want that billion dollars, that hundred billion dollars, to fix the past, I don’t see the enthusiasm. When you say you want it to redistribute income in the present, I don’t see the enthusiasm. But I do see enthusiasm when you talk about investing in the future. I don’t care about the rationale by which we deliver those dollars to poor communities and communities of color. I care about the reality that we need to. I’ve just been more successful talking about investment and green and clean solutions moving forward. That was a part of the overall Obama stimulus package. We had $787 billion in the Obama stimulus package; $80 billion of that went to investment in green and clean solutions. Much of that wound up in low-income communities.
Do I personally believe that reparations are owed to a people that have spent 300 years in slavery? Yeah, I do. Do I think that that is the best or only rationale for a major investment in poor communities and Black communities? Probably not.
Recorder: Then maybe it would be something like reparations by practice but not by name?
Van Jones: Look, if somebody wants to call it reparations, if someone wants to call it redistribution, if someone wants to call it investment, I don’t care. I think we spend a lot of time worrying about the language, and I don’t care about the language. I care about the actual dollar.
Recorder: Of the Democrats who are running for president right now, who do you think has the best ideas when it comes to poverty?
Van Jones: I’m on the left wing of our party. I like a lot of the ideas that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have. However, I’ve been very impressed by Andrew Yang and his fresh thinking about a lot of this stuff. What I like about the process that we’re in within the Democratic Party is you literally have every kind of idea in our party being pretty vigorously debated. I can’t endorse anybody because I work for CNN, but I’m just looking forward to seeing who the voters like.
Recorder: Did you ever consider running for president?
Van Jones: Heck no. Look, I’ve seen that stuff up close. I worked for the state legislature when I was in college. I worked for the president of the United States when I was in my 40s. It takes a different kind of human being to be a professional piñata. That’s what a politician is.
Recorder: When we talk about poverty, I’m assuming we’re getting something wrong. We talk about in a way that’s not helpful. What is your analysis of that?
Van Jones: Honestly, we don’t talk about poverty that much. I would say the main thing we get wrong about poverty is that we spend way more time talking about the people in the country that are rich. The lifestyles of the rich and famous, obsessing about their new Fendi bag or their new deal or their new merger, and just too little time talking about the tens of millions of people who are actually poor.
We have a lot of people who control the levers of public discourse who have not been in a laundromat in 30 years, who haven’t ridden a public bus in 30 years, who haven’t gone to a community clinic to get their cough checked out maybe ever. And they don’t get it. They don’t get it. And so, I don’t think it’s the way we talk about poverty. I think it’s the fact that we don’t talk about poverty and the reality of poverty and the reality that there’s way more poor people in the country than rich people by exponential factors.
Recorder: You probably work for and with people at CNN who are in that boat you were just talking about. How do you move the conversation?
Van Jones: I don’t know. I find myself in a very odd stage of life. I turned 51 last month. I’ve got a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows. I’ve spent literally my entire adult life working for social justice and environmental justice and criminal justice and racial justice. And I don’t know that I’ve done a great job. I could always justify myself by pointing to this victory or this bill or this best-seller or whatever, but I don’t know that I’ve done a great job. And I don’t know that I’m using my position at CNN to the best effect. I’m proud that I’m one of the few who’s on national television every night who’s also on the ground in West Virginia, in South Central Los Angeles, in the hall of state legislatures like Pennsylvania trying to make a difference, trying to pass bills, trying to build programs. But I just don’t know.
Recorder: What are you going to do to get better?
Van Jones: At this point, if I can just survive the impeachment and election process with my sanity within reach — because it’s already gone — but if I can survive with it in reach, I’ll count myself lucky. I think the whole country is gonna have to look in the mirror in December 2020 and look back at this last four to six years and scratch our heads a little bit and figure what we want to try to do going forward.
What I’ve tried to do as best I can is to keep my respect for both political parties. You can’t beat poverty without two things that usually don’t go together. You need liberal social values when it comes to having the programs, creating the opportunities, the tax credits, all of those things. You need activist government to eliminate poverty. But at the same time, you have to have individual traditional conservative values if you’re actually poor to take advantage of all those programs. In other words, you can have the best program in the world right in front of you, but if you’re not gonna show up on time, if you’re not gonna hold yourself accountable to learning, if you’re not gonna avoid a bunch of vices, then what happens is the program is wasted on you. And you don’t get any benefit from it.
As much as we fight, liberals and conservatives, I’ve never seen a bird fly with only a left wing, not even in Berkley. And I’ve never seen a bird fly with only a right wing, not even in Mississippi. It really does take two wings to fly. So you need activist governments. Republicans probably like the tax credits. If you’re a Democrat you also like the programs. But you also need those traditional values of hard work and personal accountability to be successful and use those programs really well.
We need each other. One thing I’m trying to do is develop my capacity to disagree with my conservative friends without being disagreeable, without being disrespectful. Because at some point there’s going to be an election, and then there’s gonna be the day after the election, and we’re all still gonna be here. On that day, I want us to be at work together.