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.

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