In their book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, noted public intellectual Cornel West & broadcaster Tavis Smiley challenge the presidential candidates to at least talk about poverty.
Q. What was the motivation behind this book?
Cornel West: There were a number of contributing factors that led to the writing of this book. First and foremost, my dear brother Tavis and I are avid disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The elimination of poverty, fair wages, and safe working conditions for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, was the issue King championed when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It all began in November 1967, when King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a Poor People‘s Campaign to address issues of economic justice and housing for the poor in the United States, aiming itself at rebuilding America‘s cities. The Poor People‘s Campaign did not focus on just poor black people but advocated on behalf of all poor people. King labeled the Poor People’s Campaign the second phase of the civil rights struggle. Poverty mattered to King, so it matters to us.
Tavis Smiley: We weren‘t planning on writing a book about poverty until the idea was brought to us. It resonated with us because during our 18-city, 11-state Poverty Tour in August 2011, we were disturbed and disappointed by the narrow focus of the media coverage about poverty, which focused primarily on the middle class who had lost jobs, massive unemployment, foreclosures that resulted from the Great Recession, or political candidates who were depicting poor people as pariahs of society. These myopic conversations gave the impression that our woes will end and the middle class will be saved as soon as the economy bounces back. We felt it was necessary to paint a more realistic picture.
So-called entitlements for poor people are not the cause of the recession. A stock market uptick or decreased employment rates that don‘t reflect the needs of those who have given up looking for jobs, or who have settled for part-time work when their families require a full-time salary, will not solve what we witnessed while traveling across this country. And even if the country did bounce back, which is doubtful considering we no longer lead in the manufacture of what the world needs it won‘t reconfigure the nation‘s current economic equations that keep the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Q. If eliminating poverty is the goal, why title the book The Rich and the Rest of Us?
Cornel West: Anytime you seriously dissect the issue of poverty, you have to talk about wealth, income inequality, and fundamental fairness. While the incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans have grown by 33 percent over the past 20 years, the income growth for the other 99 percent, including the middle class, has been at a virtual standstill. It is impossible to talk about poverty without discussing the greed, corporate avarice, dwindling opportunities in a politically paralyzed nation, and institutionalized guarantees that the rich will continue getting richer.
Q. “A Poverty Manifesto” is the subtitle of your book. What do you say to critics who contend that you are pushing a radical liberal agenda?
Tavis Smiley: First of all, we‘d invite them to pick up a dictionary. A manifesto by definition is simply a public declaration of intent. It is our belief that we can move toward eradicating poverty in our lifetime. With 150 million Americans poor, near poor, or new poor, it is our intent to publicly encourage citizens of all political persuasions to address the issue of widespread poverty and the growing, obscene, democracy-threatening divide between America‘s rich and poor.
Q. Why was it necessary to give readers a historical perspective on poverty?
Cornel West: We thought it would be fascinating to reveal how poverty has been addressed since this country was founded in the 18th century. Not only were we reminded of the historical divide between the privileged and the impoverished, but we noted several stops, starts, and stalls in the nation‘s efforts to reduce poverty in America: President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt‘s New Deal interventions in the 1930s and Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society initiatives of the 1960s are but two examples. We were also able to chart periods of resistance—such as the abolitionist, women‘s suffrage, and labor movements—when everyday Americans were pushed to a point where they stood up to the status quo and risked death and severe punishment to fight for freedom, equality, and economic justice. Against the backdrop of history we are reminded that we Americans have always sacrificed and fought for the common good once we understood what we were sacrificing and fighting for.
Q. The legacies of former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, and to some extent Harry S. Truman, receive favorable coverage in your book. What impressed you about those administrations’ approach to poverty?
Tavis Smiley: The initiatives Roosevelt and Johnson implemented after the Great Depression and during the turbulent 1960s, respectively, were some of the most audacious anti-poverty measures in history. We mentioned Truman because of the Marshall Plan, aimed at helping an economically devastated and broken Europe recover after World War II. These moments in history were made more profound because our leaders inspired the nation to step up and address poverty in meaningful ways. Not since Johnson‘s War on Poverty, which included Great Society programs, has a president boldly articulated a plan to end systemic and institutionalized poverty in America.
Q. When you announced the Poverty Tour in 2011, your critics accused you of using poverty to attack President Obama’s policies. Will readers be surprised that Obama is rarely mentioned or criticized in your book?
Cornel West: Not if they were paying attention to what we said about the tour and what others were saying. From the outset, we said that our decision to address poverty in America wasn‘t about our dear brother President Obama. It had more to do with the economic divide between common folk and oligarchies and corporate elites. Although we would have liked to have heard the president, as well as other political leaders on the left or right, speak to poverty, this issue transcends politics. Eradicating poverty demands leadership, but we aren‘t naïve enough to believe politicians who depend on the rich to get elected will ever lead this revolution. This book calls for a people-powered movement.
Q. The book highlights profound insights from the “Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity” panelists, such as Jeffrey Sachs, Michael Moore, Suze Orman, Barbara Ehrenreich, and others. Why did you decide to bring other voices and opinions, besides your own, to this book?
Tavis Smiley: We‘re not politicians or policy-makers, but we have been blessed with the public platforms to champion and discuss issues that matter to us. Recently I‘ve had the pleasure to host conversations about poverty with the notables you mention as well as many others, either on my television or radio programs or during our poverty symposium. As we were writing the book and dealing with specific issues, several of their comments kept popping up in our heads. Since they expressed observations, issues, and solutions so profoundly, we thought it would be a disservice not to include their comments in the book.
Q. Politicians and pundits, particularly from the right, have dismissed the debate about the divide between the rich and the poor as class envy or jealousy on the part of the poor. What’s your response to that allegation?
Cornel West: Actually, along with filmmaker Michael Moore and economist Jeffrey Sachs, we address that charge in the book. Basically, what we say is that this fight is not based on class envy or jealousy; it‘s a war. As Moore emphatically put it, It‘s a war perpetrated by the rich onto everybody else. It escalated when Wall Street used taxpayer bailout money to award themselves huge bonuses. It‘s a war of necessity because politicians insist on giving the rich and powerful special preferences and tax breaks while they gut education, health care, and other vital necessities to the ever expanding pool of poor brothers and sisters.
Q. You challenged the Heritage Foundation’s report “What is Poverty in the United States Today?” by breaking down the annual expenditures of the average impoverished family. What do these numbers demonstrate?
Tavis Smiley: We found that report very insulting. It basically says if a family owns so-called luxury items like a microwave, air conditioning, or an Xbox game console, then they aren‘t really poor. An average family of four, according to the US Census bureau, earning $22,400 annually, fits the poverty definition. So, we took that figure and broke it down annually in terms of rent, utilities, food costs, and other necessities of survival. Turns out, a family that spends only $150 per week on food, pays $500 a month for rent, and $1,000 for the entire year on clothing will wind up with a whopping $1,744 for other necessities such as insurance and transportation costs. We‘d love to see anyone at the Heritage Foundation rely on $22,000 a year for their family and then come back and tell us what it means to be poor in America.
Q. There’s a section in the book that challenges the 10 biggest lies about poverty. One of the distortions that you call out is the idea that Blacks and Latinos use the largest percentage of government programs and so-called entitlements. Why was it necessary to address this issue?
Tavis Smiley: It was necessary because so many politicians crudely reinforce and play on the ingrained misperception that minorities use the majority of what they crudely refer to as government handouts. In reality, nearly half of all American households, including white households, receive some type of government benefit, and more than 70 percent of food stamp recipients are white. People over the age of 65 receive the majority 53 percent of government entitlements, and another 20 percent goes to disabled people. We addressed this poverty lie and others in the book because they allow people to write poverty off as a character failure or someone‘s just deserts for bad choices. These lies help people ignore the poor and deny the vast and extensive impact that poverty has on all Americans.
Q. You spotlight the 2012 Republican presidential nomination candidates, who you say “didn’t hesitate to throw red meat to their base” with racial stereotypes and coldhearted language that demean the poor. Was this partisan favoritism?
Tavis Smiley: Not at all. Even former First Lady Barbara Bush dubbed the 2012 GOP race the worst campaign she‘d ever seen in her life. It was ugly and vitriolic, and it was a campaign where candidates willingly wallowed in outdated racial stereotyping. We simply highlighted their viciousness by repeating the words they used on the campaign stump. There was Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum saying he doesn‘t want to make Black people‘s lives better by giving them somebody else‘s money, and Mitt Romney repeatedly accusing President Obama of transforming America into an entitlement society. And, of course, we heard Newt Gingrich label Obama the food stamp president and suggest that poor Black kids, specifically, become school janitors. All this garbage just happens to be a brand of Reagan-era racial politicking that‘s been synonymous with the Republican Party since the 1980s.
Q. Your book offers “12 poverty changing ideas.” Most people would probably list jobs and shelter as top concerns, but “women and children first” top your list. Why?
In their book, The Rich and the Rest of Usnoted public intellectual Cornel West & broadcaster Tavis Smiley challenge the presidential candidates to at least talk about poverty.
Cornel West: If we challenge the overused cliché—children are our future—then we‘re forced to grapple with the fact that there are 1.6 million impoverished children in America. We know that poverty is cyclical. Odds are, a poor child today will grow up to be a poor adult. There are more than 15 million households in America with no father in the home, headed by women. Therefore, in order to secure a more promising future for our children, we must make changes that allow single parents, particularly mothers, to move out of poverty. This means we have to invest in workplace day care and Head Start programs, so moms don‘t have to choose between earning a living and caring for their children. Single mothers must be able to work or secure job training while their children are cared for and educated. The evidence is indisputable that Head Start programs are critical to getting pre-school-age children on track for academic success. So, if we‘re really committed to ending poverty, women and children must be at the top of our priority list.
Q. You suggest that a “fundamental fairness” lobby is necessary in Washington, D.C. What would be the role of such an organization?
Tavis Smiley: As you know, Washington is swarming with lobbyists bankrolled by the haves who summarily determine the fate of the have-nots. These emissaries of the elite drive our nation‘s socioeconomic policy and champion the concerns of the wealthy. We maintain that poor folk need comparable representation that will advocate for fundamental fairness and challenge democracy-destroying schemes like Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that allows the wealthy to secretly fund and buy elections.
Q. The book paints an ominous picture of America’s economic future. Why do you doubt the possibility of our economy roaring back to full capacity?
Cornel West: The painful truth is that manufacturing jobs in the United States have been declining for the past two decades and had accelerated in the years prior to the recession. We‘ve lost a staggering average of 50,000 manufacturing jobs every month since 2001. We used to be the number-one manufacturer and exporter in the world, but now we rank last among the top 15 manufacturing nations in terms of exported industrial production. Experts have noted that blue-collar job loss has been on the proportion of what we experienced in the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Almost seven out of every ten jobs lost through the end of 2011 were construction, truck driving, warehouse, and other blue-collar jobs. The magnitude of declines is so unprecedented; it‘s hard to imagine America bouncing back to full capacity, especially in an ever increasing, globalized marketplace.
Q. You not only stress the connection between poverty and the prisons; your book calls for a complete overhaul of the prison industrial complex. Why?
Tavis Smiley: As poverty rates rise, we discovered increased efforts to privatize prisons based on guarantees of long-term service contracts and full occupancy. There‘s also a disturbing trend in some states where poor people are being locked up for uncollected credit card debt. We know today‘s prisons are overpopulated with inmates of color. But, as we stress in the book, poverty isn‘t bound by race. What happens to the old poor now threatens the new poor. We just find something woefully immoral about a costly and corrupt system designed to send bankrupt poor people to jail for debt while morally bankrupt bankers go free after putting an entire nation in debt.
Q. What is the most practical next step you want concerned citizens to take regarding the issue of poverty?
Cornel West: When America gets serious about something, we can move proverbial mountains. If we were serious about eradicating poverty, we can do it in 10, 15, or 25 years. And there is no better way to set a national tone of seriousness for this course of action than a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty. These undertakings led by our next president—whomever that may be—will summon the best and brightest diverse viewpoints to explore how we can end poverty. And this need not be a protracted politicized affair. There are all kinds of plans, from all kinds of respected Americans out there. What‘s needed, however, is what we refer to in the book as the three P‘s: priority, plan, and path. A White House conference on ending poverty establishes priority. It also provides the president with a workable plan that will enable him or her to articulate a pathway that will result in the eradication of poverty.
-Reprinted with permission from Smiley Books