Dr. Cornel West is a Princeton University professor and author. Tavis Smiley is a television and radio talk show host and author as well. The two have known each other for a long time, and last year they toured the country to hear from citizens and talk about the issue of poverty in America. After their travels and discoveries, they published a new book together, The Rich and the Rest of Us.
The central concept of the pair’s appearances, including visits to news programs and public speaking, is that poverty is largely ignored as an issue. When Mitt Romney explained that he wasn’t concerned about the very poor thanks to the systemic advantages this class is afforded, Romney was speaking from the system’s perspective.
Money rules politics, and only groups with significant amounts to pledge to campaigns or lobbyists can influence public policy. It’s the way our democracy is designed, and it’s not much different than when the country was founded. The primary difference is that wealthy corporations, not just wealthy individuals, have a bigger influence today. Democrats or Republicans, the power of money is the same.
Smiley and West offer an interesting statistic. They claim that one in two Americans — half of this country’s population — deals with poverty. 150 million people are in or near poverty, perhaps just one lost paycheck away from spiraling into a financial situation that could be difficult to fix. The authors are also including “new poor” in this figure, and the “new poor” are the former middle class.
I’d like to get a chance to chat with either of the authors about this concept. Is the middle class truly poor? As a group, they are certainly better off than those in abject poverty. My understanding of middle class — and I realize that there are always ways to interpret classes differently depending on one’s perspective — is that today’s middle class is generally working, earning a paycheck, and somewhat able to spend beyond the basic physiological needs like food and shelter.
On the contrary, the middle class has faced unemployment over the last few years, and for many, this has been a struggle for families. Unemployment has enabled class mobility in a negative direction, removing families from the particular designation of middle class. Families remaining in the middle class live paycheck-to-paycheck, so the loss of that consistent source of income combined with the difficulty of replacing a middle class job could lead a family into poverty. For many middle class families, debt is a way of life, and allows people to “afford” a living that appears to be like their neighbors’.
To work towards the solution of eradicating poverty in the United States, the two authors want to see President Obama or whoever receives the office after the next election set up a conference on the issue. They would like to see the government move forward with a massive job program, investment in education, and abandonment of austerity policies. This is not a solution to poverty, and I believe the authors realize this. It’s intended as a beginning, a way to keep poverty in the forefront of political discourse, and encourage smart people to get together and work on solutions to poverty.
It’s hard not to compare Smiley and West with their hero and the hero of many others in this country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The issue of poverty of worthy of as much attention as the civil rights movement received in the 1960s. Where the comparison fails is that Dr. King had the ability to foment a revolution. The public, for the most part, saw civil rights as an important issue. The time was right, with a public ready to be involved, empowered to force a change. Dr. King took his message to the streets; Smiley and West are taking their message to the streets, selling a book, and charging admission to their talks.
For poverty to become the lead story in a system that pays attention only to the issues prescribed by those with money, there needs to be an uprising, a revolution. An apathetic public without the feeling that the issue of poverty is personally relevant will not rise up. There might be a thought that the Occupy-branded protests show that the public is ready to support a major issue like civil rights was in the 1960s, but I don’t think it’s ready yet. The Occupy-branded protests are too small and too unfocused to make the necessary impact. If Smiley and West want to influence the way Americans think about poverty, they’ll need to take a page from Dr. King’s book, and do a better job of getting people to care about the issue and see the value of change.
Here’s a clip of Tavis Smily and Dr. Cornel West on Face the Nation (sorry about the advertisement first):
The pair also appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report recently for an entertaining interview.
Photo: DC Central Kitchen
Updated April 13, 2016 and originally published April 24, 2012.