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August 28, 2014, 5:08 am

West, Smiley make an issue of poverty

Record unemployment and rampant corporate avarice, empty houses but homeless families, dwindling opportunities in an increasingly paralyzed nation — these are the realities of 21st-century America, land of the free and home of the new middle class poor. Award-winning broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, one of the nation’s leading intellectuals, co-hosts of Public Radio’s “Smiley & West,” now take on the “P” word — poverty.

“The Rich And The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (SmileyBooks, $12)” is the groundwork the duo provides in their continued crusade to confront the underlying conditions of systemic poverty in America before it’s too late.

In an exclusive sit-down interview on Friday with the Philadelphia Tribune, both men shared that ending poverty is sure to emerge as the defining civil rights struggle of America’s 21st century.

“We believe that poverty has to be a priority in the country — and at the moment it is not,” said Smiley. “We have not had a sustained conversation about poverty in this country since Lyndon Johnson and the war on poverty. And obviously since that time we’ve had both Democrat and Republican presidents, but nobody has seemed to make poverty a priority. It almost as if there is a bi-partisan consensus in Washington that poverty doesn’t matter. So, we argue in the book that poverty is a matter of national security. We argue that poverty is threatening our democracy. And finally, we argue that there are a number of things that have to be done right now to make poverty a priority and reduce it and eradicate it. It can be done. This is not a skill problem — it’s a will problem. We’re just trying to put this issue on the table, and it is not coincidence that this is coming out in an election year, because we want this issue to be discussed this year — unlike last time.”

“The Rich and the Rest of Us” is the next step in the journey that began with Smiley and West’s 18-city bus tour, which gave voice to the plight of impoverished Americans of all races, colors and creeds. By placing the eradication of poverty in the context of the nation’s greatest moments of social transformation — the abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, and the labor and Civil Rights movements — Smiley and West ask readers to confront assumptions about poverty in America with 12 poverty changing ideas.

“To put it in historical context, we try to take seriously the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer and others who were talking about organizing poor people in such a way that their dignity and their humanity is affirmed,” explained West. “Right now we’ve got one percent of the population who got 93 percent of the income growth in the last year and a half, and we know that one percent of the population owns 42 percent of the wealth — so we’re really talking about an oligarchy. If we’re really going to talk about poverty, we’ve got to talk about massive job creation, massive investment in education and massive investment in housing that allows poor people to gain access to resources. The way you do that is to first try to tell the truth about their suffering, and secondly, try to engage in a kind of democratic awakening in the country to acknowledge the poverty is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, in addition to the political and economic issue of our time.”

“The Rich And The Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto” is available at major bookstores and online at or


Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .