The Rich and the Rest of Us:
A Poverty Manifesto
Q. What was the motivation behind this book?
Cornel West: There were a number of contributing factors that led to the writing of this book. First and foremost, my dear brother Tavis and I are avid disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The elimination of poverty, fair wages, and safe working conditions for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, was the issue King championed when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It all began in November 1967, when King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a Poor People‘s Campaign to address issues of economic justice and housing for the poor in the United States, aiming itself at rebuilding America‘s cities. The Poor People‘s Campaign did not focus on just poor black people but advocated on behalf of all poor people. King labeled the Poor People’s Campaign the ―second phase‖ of the civil rights struggle. Poverty mattered to King, so it matters to us.
Tavis Smiley: We weren‘t planning on writing a book about poverty until the idea was brought to us. It resonated with us because during our 18-city, 11-state Poverty Tour in August 2011, we were disturbed and disappointed by the narrow focus of the media coverage about poverty, which focused primarily on the middle class who had lost jobs, massive unemployment, foreclosures that resulted from the Great Recession, or political candidates who were depicting poor people as pariahs of society. These myopic conversations gave the impression that our woes will end and the middle class will be saved as soon as the economy bounces back. We felt it was necessary to paint a more realistic picture.
So-called ―entitlements‖ for poor people are not the cause of the recession. A stock market uptick or decreased employment rates that don‘t reflect the needs of those who have given up looking for jobs, or who have settled for part-time work when their families require a full-time salary, will not solve what we witnessed while traveling across this country. And even if the country did –bounce back, which is doubtful considering we no longer lead in the manufacture of what the world needs—it won’t reconfigure the nation’s current economic equations that keep the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Q. If eliminating poverty is the goal, why title the book The Rich and the Rest of Us?
Cornel West: Anytime you seriously dissect the issue of poverty, you have to talk about wealth, income inequality, and fundamental fairness. While the incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans have grown by 33 percent over the past 20 years, the income growth for the other 99 percent, including the middle class, has been at a virtual standstill. It is impossible to talk about poverty without discussing the greed, corporate avarice, dwindling opportunities in a politically paralyzed nation, and institutionalized guarantees that the rich will continue getting richer.
Q. “A Poverty Manifesto” is the subtitle of your book. What do you say to critics who contend that you are pushing a radical liberal agenda?
Tavis Smiley: First of all, we‘d invite them to pick up a dictionary. A manifesto by definition is simply a public declaration of intent. It is our belief that we can move toward eradicating poverty in our lifetime. With 150 million Americans poor, near poor, or new poor, it is our intent to publicly encourage citizens of all political persuasions to address the issue of widespread poverty and the growing, obscene, democracy-threatening divide between America‘s rich and poor.
Q. Why was it necessary to give readers a historical perspective on poverty?
Cornel West: We thought it would be fascinating to reveal how poverty has been addressed since this country was founded in the 18th century. Not only were we reminded of the historical divide between the privileged and the impoverished, but we noted several stops, starts, and stalls in the nation‘s efforts to reduce poverty in America: President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt‘s New Deal interventions in the 1930s and Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society initiatives of the 1960s are but two examples. We were also able to chart periods of resistance—such as the abolitionist, women‘s suffrage, and labor movements—when everyday Americans were pushed to a point where they stood up to the status quo and risked death and severe punishment to fight for freedom, equality, and economic justice. Against the backdrop of history we are reminded that we Americans have always sacrificed and fought for the common good once we understood what we were sacrificing and fighting for.