The Rich and the Rest of Us - Book Review

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University of Richmond
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Book review
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The book under review is entitled The Rich and the Rest of us,' whose ISBN number is 978-1-4019-4063-8. It is authored by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. The first copyright date of this non-fictional book is 2012. In general, the book is about the perennial poverty in America: what causes it and the possible solutions. The book, which is 222 pages long, has special features such as graphs, pie charts and tables showing the levels of poverty in America, the trends, and the disparities that exist among the high class, middle and low-class people in America. The paperback format of the book goes for $7.78.

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In the twenty-first century, America is still grappling with dwindling economic opportunities, homeless families, widespread corporate avarice, unemployment, as well as increased cost of education, healthcare, housing, and food. These challenges have led to rampant poverty and the perennial widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. As a result, the nation has continually become crippled with economic inequalities that have often been the cause of friction between the people and the government of the day. The Rich and the Rest of Us is a book written with the poor in mind. In fact, the authors, who mainly use the first person narrative voice, make it clear that the target audience is the poor. Unfortunately, this target audience may never get the opportunity to read the book as most of them are busy eking out a living. Since they live from hand to mouth, it is difficult for these poor people to have the motivation, time and energy to read such an awe-inspiring book. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West got the inspiration to write this book after touring eighteen American cities and realizing the rampant poverty affecting millions of Americans. To them, the bus tour was one of the greatest opportunities to give a voice to the plight of poor American citizens of all creeds, colors, and races.

To highlight the poverty issue in a more elaborate manner, the authors of this book have consciously organized the content topically. They have begun by looking at the portrait of poverty then gone on to discuss the various forms of poverty such as the poverty of opportunity, courage, affirmation, imagination and compassion. As they wind up, the authors present a comprehensive poverty manifesto. They give suggestions on what can and must be done to deal with this unpalatable aspect of poverty in America. The authors of this book have highlighted the underlying predicament of the systemic poverty affecting Americans so as to awaken the authorities to the reality before it becomes too late. They have successfully placed poverty eradication in the context of the systemic poverty in America in an attempt to achieve their goal. The authors have articulated their argument so well that as one reads through the book, they cannot fail to notice the compelling passion with which these authors utilize twelve poverty changing ideas to challenge the reader to re-evaluate the assumptions that they have always held about what poverty actually is and the urgent need to eradicate it. I would, therefore, recommend this book to anyone who cares about the welfare of America because poverty affects all of them, and if they can eliminate poverty, then it would be possible for them to overcome any other challenge bedeviling America.

The main theme in the book is the extent of poverty in America and what can be done about it. The fabric that binds the contemporary American society is in danger due to the social and moral injustices taking place in the nation. The poverty tour undertaken by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West revealed the gravity of the poverty state in America. Touched by the rampant poverty, the authors used historical anecdotes and context, as well as factual information about the impoverished American society to drive their point home. To prove their point in the book, the authors cite statistical information which demonstrates that almost 30% of the middle-class members in America have slipped into poverty and an astonishing 77% of the overall population live paycheck to paycheck (the working poor). The authors also note that in 2011, there were about 1.6 million homeless children in America. They provide definitions for the permanently poor, the new poor, the near poor, and the working poor and link poverty to factors such as poor parenting, neglect, and hunger. These authors affirm that although the average poor American can afford extravagances such as Xbox, air conditioner, and microwave, the current economy's demands cannot give them a healthy living wage job. They argue that the American state of poverty is systemic but possible to eradicate.

As they endeavor to unsettle the powers that deny the poor people their rights, Smiley and West assert that breaking away from traditional paradigms and mapping a new way of eradicating poverty is the only means through which radical transformation of the society can be achieved. According to the authors, the great regression is not to fully blame for the escalating poverty levels in America; corporations are to blame for not only corruption but also the decline of the middle class. The authors support their thesis by suggesting that the rich, who contemptuously claim that the poor are socially and personally responsible for their woes, are out to oppress the poor. The authors blame the predatory lending practices by banks, the privatization of health care and education, and the politics of representation as some of the ways in which the rich subjugate the poor. With widespread unemployment, deaths caused by lack of access to health care, over 10% of the population, relying on food stamps, and many workers living below the poverty line, the authors warn that the widening gap between the rich and the poor is a potential source of tension among the American people. They, therefore, believe that urgent radical social transformation is the way to go.

Smiley and West conclude that the poor are not to blame since they never created the Great Recession that led to the deindustrialization and consequent poverty in America. They, therefore, feel that the recognition of the existence of poverty and the stigma associated with it is the first step towards eradicating poverty. The authors then lay out twelve ideas that are expected to help the current conversations about poverty to take a new shape if America is to eradicate poverty. Although some of the ideas are rather subjective, the interesting facts about the impact of various events in the American history on poverty give the book an authentic touch. The statistical evidence and reference to other authors further augment the accuracy of the ideas presented by the authors. They suggest that the government needs to seriously consider head start programs such as ensuring each American accesses medical insurance and quality health care, sealing all tax loopholes, creating cost-effective and environment-friendly living areas, converting the vacant homes into housing options for low-income earners, considering debt forgiveness for victims of predacious lending, and supporting community-based projects. To improve access to affordable healthy food, the authors suggest a Universal Food Delivery System that will ensure the delivery of canned but fresh food for the hungry. While ideas such as access to quality health care are practical and convincing, others such as debt forgiveness are quite theoretical and difficult to implement.

Having grown up in a poor, crowded family of ten, Smiley has the first-hand experience of what poverty really is. Perhaps, this is one of the factors that influence him to explore the issue of poverty with such passion. His co-author, Cornel West, may not have experienced abject poverty but was exposed to the aspect of fighting for social justice at an early age due to his parents' role in the early Civil Rights Movement and his role as the president of the students' body at the John F. Kennedy High School. This explains why these authors believe that the poverty dialogues need to take a new direction if the problem is to be dealt with once and for all in America. Their approach is not only unique and informative but also extremely thought-provoking. Americans can no longer afford to be fed with lies about poverty. Time for action is long overdue.

In conclusion, the book presents fascinating facts about poverty. The authors trace the progression of poverty through the American history and the impact of various factors that should have been prevented. One thing that is clear is that the poor are not to blame for their predicament. I have always found myself blaming the poor and assumed that they are in that state because of their laziness, but the ideas in this book have revealed that no human being would wish to live in the deplorable conditions of poverty. The poverty eradication manifesto suggested by the authors in the last chapter is very inspirational. It has changed my view on what should be done in the process of eradicating poverty. I had not at all viewed poverty as an aspect of slavery in the 21st century, but now I do. It is no longer fair to point fingers at the poor and blame them for their state. Each American is involved. Therefore, the role that every individual has played must be evaluated at a personal level. Although not every suggestion by the authors is workable, it is clear that adequate resources are required, and people who care enough must take the necessary action.


West, C., & Smiley, T. (2012). The rich and the rest of us: A poverty manifesto. SmileyBooks, New York.

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