Power and the Poor

THE RICH AND THE REST OF US is a stirring call to arms on eradicating domestic poverty. Co-authored by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, the self-described "poverty manifesto" seeks to convince readers that economic mobility is increasingly difficult for three demographics—the long-term poor, the new poor, and the near poor. Who are the poor in America? According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 150 million Americans are at or below twice the federal poverty level, which is $22,040 for a family of four.

Smiley and West invoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy throughout the book. King's imprimatur legitimizes their attempt to translate the Occupy Wall Street themes of the wealthy 1 percent and the financially fragile 99 percent for a general audience. Interestingly, the book contains a motivational quality reminiscent of self-help books. Each chapter and subsection opens with an inspirational quote or pithy observation. The authors employ statistics, personal anecdotes, poems, and trend analysis to demonstrate the magnitude of poverty in America.

Making poverty history, to use a popular phrase, is an important ideal. To achieve it, we must ask: Who is responsible for eradicating poverty? The co-authors argue that engaged citizens, an active civil society, and a proactive government are the principal agents for helping impoverished families. In several instances, President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty represents the promise of the aforementioned three-pronged approach to mitigating the structural causes and personal implications of poverty. From 1964 to 1973, the writers note, the Johnson administration reduced the national poverty rate from 19 percent to 11 percent. Smiley and West successfully contend that government programs play an indispensable role in eradicating poverty.

Their argument could be strengthened, however, by articulating the beneficial, poverty-reducing aspects of private enterprise as well. Within The Rich and the Rest of Us, all corporations fleece Main Street investors, operate outside of the rule of law, and idolize profit margins above human need. To be sure, the conduct of particular corporations—those within the financial services and insurance industries, for example—too often merit such descriptions. But on the whole, such depictions are caricatures that obscure corporate syndication of bonds to finance projects such as bridges and dams; the provision of manufacturing and industrial jobs; and the role of small and large businesses in the revitalization of neighborhood commercial corridors through retail, restaurants, and so on.

Smiley and West presume that the American public will either prioritize poverty as a matter of national security or perceive pervasive poverty as a threat to democracy. To that end, the authors look to the Marshall Plan, recalling the post-World War II European recovery plan that Secretary of State George Marshall created under the Truman administration. After detailing the merits of the approach, Smiley and West argue for an American Marshall Plan for the poor, noting that a recovery in our impoverished rural, suburban, and urban communities is an essential part of making our democracy real.

Last spring, the authors embarked on an 18-city, 11-state Poverty Tour to dramatize the difficulty families have making ends meet. This fall, the duo reprised the tour within four battleground states to coincide with the major political party conventions, in an attempt to force poverty awareness into the presidential debates. The tour provides an essential framework for reading the book. As we inch toward the presidential inauguration, let us begin again the work of eliminating poverty from sea to shining sea. n

Andrew Wilkes (@andrewjwilkes) is the faith and community relations associate for Habitat for Humanity-New York City and an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York.

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