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The Rich and the Rest of Us

This article was written by in Society, Wealth and Affluence. 17 comments.

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.

Cornel West and Tavis SmileyMoney 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.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

This is a nice post. It is impossible, of course, to do this issue justice without getting into what causes and perpetuates poverty. This isn’t even touched on here. It seems that West and Smiley (both very far left liberals) think they have the makings of an “answer” to the problem, but “a massive job program, investment in education, and abandonment of austerity policies” won’t get it done.

As I’m sure Flexo is interested in presenting both sides of the issue, I’ll look forward to the conservative perspective in an upcoming post.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Poverty is a problem that impacts every one of us… saying that the poor already have ways out just isn’t connecting with the problem. If there is already a solution, why is there so many poor?

Somebody needs to be bold and have a vision for a better America for all.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Many Black activists like Al Sharpton, from the House of Justice, help create and maintain Poverty in the Minority communities. Look at this and share ” The Poor and the rest of us” video with friends I have a story to tell, no one will give me the mic, not willing to loose advetising.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I don’t think that half the nation is ‘poor’.

However, half the nation lives paycheck to paycheck so they are pretty close to poor. Miss one paycheck and they’re unable to pay their bills and essentially poor. So I can see someone saying that half the nation is ‘near poverty’ in the sense that they’re one paycheck away from it.

But… whats the cause of that? A lot of people living paycheck to paycheck are making good money and simply spending too much.

I don’t think exaggerating the problem that poverty poses really helps the cause. I AM concerned about the very poor, but I’m not concerned about the not-really-poor members of the middle class.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Middle class is poor? Compared to what? At what income level are you considered poor? If you compare us to the rest of the world the poorest poor in the US is pretty wealthy. For me I consider someone poor who doesn’t have enough money to eat, shelter, and have clothes. There are very few in the US who meet that criteria, and if they do we have stop gaps to assist.

After that everything is really a “luxury”. Unless you have a physical or mental issue I see no reason why you shouldn’t go out and get what you want. Earn it, what a concept.

“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’.”

This is because of our whole fiat monetary system and they way it’s designed. Debt is money and without it we would have no economy. So while I’m not saying people should go into just because of my statement, it’s more because of our system we go into debt. After all, who’s getting rewarded right now? Savers or debtors?

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avatar 6 Anonymous

What does fiat money have to do with debt. We still had debt when we were on the gold standard. Are you claiming it takes fiat money to go into debt?

I think what you really mean is that debtors used to be primarily for risk activities with the intention of getting a return. But now debt is being used live beyond your means with no potential for return. This is a problem with how the financial system has allowed people to get access to capital based on future earning potential. But that is not related to fiat money. Whether the money is paper, gold or chickens, Whimpy can still pay for a hamburger on Tuesday that he eats today.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

fiat money = debt. Without debt there is no money.

“Are you claiming it takes fiat money to go into debt?” I’m claiming fiat money is created out of debt.

I’m not suggesting either going back to the gold standard solves our issues either. Just stating the difference between a fiat currency and a gold standard.

Getting back to the topic of poverty, I’m suggesting as an individual because of a fiat currency it’s much easier to get into debt. In the current economic climate it’s obvious who’s getting more rewarded. Hence people being rational creatures (most of the time) will do what helps them in the short term. Spending money you don’t have is one of them.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I can be convinced. Show me how. I am going to assume we are using currency and not barter since your claim seems to be that the problem is with fiat not with currency.

So, if we had gold sitting in a vault in fort knox backing all of our dollars, how would that prevent consumer debt if there are lending institutions who are willing to extend credit to them? Are you claiming that gold backed dollars would prevent these institutions from extending credit? If so how? Is your concern with the fractional reserve lending system? If so are you claiming that is only possible because of fiat money? If so why could you not do fractional reserve lending even if money was actual gold coins who were valued at the value of the gold?

I am not trying to be argumentative. I just don’t see what fiat has to do with the ability of consumers to go into debt so I would appreciate any explanation that goes beyond fiat = debt.


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avatar 9 Anonymous

Actually this video I recently found discribes it very well. Warning over a hour long!

avatar 10 Anonymous

Let me add… You will agree inflation is built into the equation of fiat money. Money is constantly being devalued so therefore we are stupid if we hold onto it for any length of time (not investing I mean). It forces us to spend it now rather than later, because we know more than likely things will be more costly in the future than now.

Again, I’m not saying a gold backed currency solves all our ills. A gold backed currency has other issues (ie more limited to pull future economic growth to the present).

Personally this is why I poo-poo any financial guru who says all debt is bad. How can all debt be bad if our currency is debt based and inflation is already baked into the economic pie?

What they really mean is consumer debt is bad. Most individuals mistake things like cars and consumer goods as “investments” when they are not and go into debt for them. I donno how many times I’ve meet someone who’s not wealthy boast about their great new car they bought, or other do-dads they claim are investments.

Debt like home loans are typically good for the long haul (30 years), especially in the environment where we can get a home loan less than the previous 30 years inflation rate.

avatar 11 Anonymous

Unfortunately that video is voodoo propaganda. I could create the same scenarios with no banks and just private individuals operating with 100% cash.

I do agree that inflation seems to come with fiat money. However I think we are off the topic.

The topic was can you have debt without fiat money. And of course the argument is silly because it’s easy to show you can. I can work for you and you promise to pay me by giving me your cow when I am done. When I am half done with the job you owe me half a cow. You are in debt to me. When I am finished you now owe me the entire cow. Until you give it to me you are in debt to me. Money certainly can make debt easier and make it easier to propagate and for people to take it on. But just because money makes debt easier does not mean it is necessary for debt.

Money is not debt nor does it’s existence require debt. It certainly makes it almost inevitable but neither one is required for the other.

avatar 12 Ceecee

I applaud the efforts of these two gentlemen to address poverty here at home. I think that they will have a battle. Look at the flap that was caused by trying to ensure everyone adequate health care. A lot of those who live at the poverty line got there due to health issues and inadequate coverage. A comprehensive health plan is a good start at helping to alleviate poverty…..and a lot of people seem to resent it.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

I haven’t read their new book yet, but I’ve enjoyed watching Dr. West and Mr. Smiley appear on the talk shows from time to time to share their views.

I don’t know how anyone can seriously think or believe that another conference, massive government job program, more money for education, or increased welfare spending will solve the problems of poverty.

We need to rethink poverty. I really love what my friends at the Acton Institute are doing with their new Poverty Cure initiative, which seeks entrepreneurial solutions to the problems of poverty at home and around the world. You can learn about it at

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avatar 14 wylerassociate

I like both Dr. West & Tavis Smiley as well, their interviews are good. Unfortunately, this is will be a tough long road to fight. If the american congress can’t get universal health care passed without knownothing fools screaming about nonexistent death panels then how can the issues of student loan debt, taxes, immigration reform & other serious issues be solved.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Three comments:
– What was passed isn’t universal health care (single payer)
– If you are suggesting poverty can be completely solved by government intervention let me give you three examples. How did it work out for Cuba, Russia, and North Korea? While there are some things we can do to minimize poverty, it will unfortunately always exist. Capitalism is still the best method to rise individuals out of poverty.
– Healthcare is already rationed, what makes you think economics stop happening when the government gets more involved?

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avatar 16 qixx

currently awaiting on the book from the library. Hopefully it will be available soon to read it. Until then i’m not sure we can claim that they don’t go into depth about the problems even though the interview focused on solutions.

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avatar 17 qixx

Finally managed to get the book from the library and read it. I recommend anyone on here that has not done so get and read the book. I don’t agree with all the points in the actual Manifesto (toward the end of the book). The book does make you want to do something about the situation. Their solution involves a top down and bottom up approaches. I don’t feel top down (governement) answers are the solution.

Who else read the book? What were your thoughts on the points of the Manifesto?

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