Smiley and West: Still Fighting for the Poor

Smiley Books; Cornel West and Tavis Smiley (Washington Post)
Smiley Books; Cornel West and Tavis Smiley (Washington Post)

If there's any doubt that the economic crisis persists, consider the takeaways from recent headlines: The official unemployment rate remains 8.2 percent. One in six Americans — nearly 52 million people — receives food stamps, even as Republican legislators in Washington and state capitals push austere cuts to social programs.


In a Gallup survey released Monday, two-thirds of Americans say they know someone who has been laid off in the last six months — the highest share in the venerable polling firm's history. But the biggest takeaway is this: The gap between the rich and poor in the United States is not only worsening; it's also greater than those in many other countries. Few people are connecting the dots.

Enter The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto — a richly insightful, slightly academic book released this month by talk-show host Tavis Smiley and professor Cornel West. The two men have been friends for 25 years. The current book project was born last summer during the duo's 18-city Poverty Tour, which extended from a Native American reservation in Minnesota to Appalachia and Washington, D.C. The tour came just as the Congressional Black Caucus launched a series of job fairs.


Both efforts became flash points in an unsurprisingly fleeting national conversation about income inequality, and in particular how the economic crisis is afflicting African Americans. The new book not only documents the Smiley-West tour but also aims to restart a meaningful conversation about poverty, especially as the 2012 general election takes shape.

"We're getting some traction," Smiley told The Root recently. Since last summer's tour, the authors have held a series of public conversations on the causes of poverty — and potential solutions — with leading figures in business and finance.

They've identified "the new poor" — people who, Smiley observes, "were once solidly middle class but who've lost their homes, lost their 401(k) and are just trying to hold on." The book notes that 1 percent of America's wealthiest people — those earning $380,000 or more each year — control 42 percent of the country's wealth. It challenges popular ideas about poverty that surfaced during the Republican presidential primary and are worth replaying here:

Herman Cain: "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."


Newt Gingrich: "Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they have no habit of showing up on Monday … They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of 'I do this, and you give me cash' unless it's illegal."

Mitt Romney: "I'm not concerned with the very poor. The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democratic Party the plight of the poor. And there's no question it's not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But [my] campaign is focused on middle-income Americans."


The book looks broadly at the middle-class implosion. When asked what this moment means for the black middle class, West pointed to a 1957 work that documented a black middle class that was largely invisible to much of the country. Of course, the civil rights movement enabled African Americans to share the country's economic expansion. But as many of us know, our tenuous wealth has been diminished in the last decade.

"The black middle class is disappearing," Smiley said. What are the effects? "You wind up with an oligarch society. You also end up with a social structure that looks like a diamond: mass poverty at the bottom. All this talk about American exceptionalism begins to disappear.


"The black middle class played a crucial role in telling the truth about suffering — from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to Martin Luther King Jr.," Smiley continued. "As that black middle class begins to disappear and find itself unable to sustain itself, then what was the leaven in the democratic loaf makes it stale."

Steven Gray is a contributing editor to The Root. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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