Music Feature

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West: Poverty is Today's Public Enemy #1

by Zenique Gardner
"The Rich and the Rest of Us" co-authors stop in Philly to discuss how poverty threatens our national security. Photos by Kim-Thao Nguyen
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Although I will seldom admit it—I am poor and, on any given day, my net worth could be in the single digits. That is why it was without hesitation that—even with my little bit of money—I ordered Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto and purchased a ticket to hear them speak when I heard that their book tour had a stop in Philadelphia. Both well-known and admired media figures with their joint radio show, Smiley & West, and close to forty books authored between them respectively, it was no surprise that the event, which was held at the Free Library Central Branch in Center City at the end of April, was sold-out. 

I arrived early to meet with the Smiley-West duo to talk about their first book venture, the economic downturn and the plight of American people, and the war on poverty. The handsome pair shuffled in the room about twenty minutes before they were expected on stage: Cornel West in his signature black three-piece suit and Tavis Smiley, less formal, in slacks and a dress shirt with no tie. Both men greeted me with warm hugs and tired smiles and promptly settled into seats at the table to share their perspectives on how the poor is affecting our nation.

I first asked about The Poverty Tour which began last summer and was filmed and ultimately made into a documentary which aired on PBS during Poverty Week last fall. The tour traveled through 18 cities in 11 states and included visits to folks who lived on reservations, in the ghettos and barrios, and on the streets. Smiley and West beamed when talking about the family of ten from D.C. whom they spent the night with and slept on bunk beds (top bunk for West and bottom bunk for Smiley)—they were proud to share moments like these with their fellow Americans.

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Who are these fellow Americans? What is the new face of poverty? When West talks about the state of our nation, he wants his audience to understand that it is not about blacks, Hispanics, or Native Americans who are the usual groups in mind when speaking about the poor—but it is about our entire nation. As a growing number of white citizens become part of the unemployed and state assisted population, the louder the voices are against politicians pushing the agendas of large corporations and the wealthy upper-class. When defining the “new face of poverty,” West breaks down into three groups those who are affected most by the growing deficit: 1) the perennial poor—those who have persistently lived below the poverty line and are unaffected by the recession because they see no difference; 2) the near poor—those who live paycheck to paycheck; 3) and the new poor—former middle-class citizens who have lost their jobs and are facing foreclosures.

And how does a radio personality and well-known intellectual, both successful authors and nationally known public figures, relate to what the average citizen faces on a daily basis? Smiley assured me that no one is safeguarded and he, too, has felt the pressure of the economic downturn. With his privately owned publishing company, SmileyBooks, Smiley has worked hard to ensure that he can provide his employees with benefits and long-term employment, despite the fact that it gets harder when people are spending less and sponsors are forced to make cut backs on who will represent their brands (Smiley’s talk show was dropped by Toyota and Nationwide Insurance). West agrees, although on much different terms, stating that he has “decent input, but high output” after splitting a large portion of his income three ways amongst his former wives. West says with a laugh that he is “still trying to chase the 8 ball.” Still they both feel very blessed, they said. Smiley has been taking care of his mother for many years, paying her mortgage and bills. As the eldest of ten, Smiley says there are family members who are successful and others who have not always made the best choices and therefore create financial burdens. These familial ties for both West and Smiley keep them grounded and able to relate and be genuinely concerned about our nation’s poor.

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Smiley and West also attributes their commitment to social responsibility to their faith and belief systems. Both raised in the Baptist church, they believe that “poverty is not just a political, social, or justice issue, but it is also the moral and spiritual issue of our time.” Smiley and West speaks highly of the ideas of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former president, Lyndon B. Johnson when seeking change from the government. When asked about their tough critiques of President Obama and if they plan to support him in the upcoming elections, Smiley and West unabashedly agreed that they would support President Obama. When West spoke to the audience in the library auditorium, without prompt he made it crystal clear that Obama was their obvious choice, “We love Obama. We respect him. We wanna protect him… but we also wanna correct him.” Like most Americans, Tavis Smiley and Cornell West do not agree with all of the President’s decisions and they are very vocal about it on their radio shows and in television interviews. But they also admit that he is the best of all the candidates to lead this country. “He can do better. He can do much better,” West says of the President during our meeting.

In The Rich and the Rest of Us and when speaking about the book in interviews and on stage, the writers give accolades to former president Lyndon B. Johnson and the strides he made in improving the country’s growing deficit in the 1960’s when he declared a War on Poverty and decreased the amount of folks living in poverty from 24% to 11%. In the book’s last chapter which is titled, “A Poverty Manifesto,” Smiley and West propose twelve ideas that that could propel our country “from poverty to prosperity,” many of which are the same anti-poverty tactics used during President Johnson’s term and his “Great Society” movement. 

When I asked West and Smiley to consider the manifesto and give me three of the most important ideas of the list, they struggled to find which was more important than the other, arguing that they were all equally important. After a brief deliberation, they rattled off three that they felt would positively impact the most people and then asked for a bonus one—I agreed. The first is “The Jobs, Jobs and more Jobs Plan” which proposes a plan to develop 21st century jobs for the “blue-collar job gap” that exists in our country due to the lack of manufacturing jobs ; the second puts “Women and Children First!” and suggests a plan that would support single mothers whose plight has long been ignored; the third, “Universal Food Delivery System” promotes regional farms as well as urban farming so that “no one, especially children, go hungry in America”; and finally, the bonus is “Prisons and Mass Incarceration” which calls for a reformed criminal justice system and “a major overhaul of the prison industrial complex.” 

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Smiley closed the book and handed it back to me when he offered his final idea from the list—our time was up. We were then joined by the newly elected State Representative of Philadelphia, Jordan Harris, and his wife, and were ushered out into the auditorium for the main event. Smiley spoke first and West followed, lighting up the library’s stage as if it was a pulpit on Sunday morning—and just like a Baptist church preacher's sermon, he made us all believe again.

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