“Can we still claim ‘the greatest’ status when one out of two Americans is living in poverty or near the poverty line?” asks broadcaster Tavis Smiley and academic Cornel West.
This question serves as the crux of their recentlypublishedbook, “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.”
The book is a product of Smiley and West’s Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience, which took place last summer. The tour traveled across the country to listen to stories and “call the nation’s conscience to the plight of the poor in America.”
The book follows in the intellectual footsteps of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whose “last battles involved the eradication of poverty.”
For Smiley and West, continuing this tradition requires prioritizing the issue of poverty in the minds of both politicians and average Americans.
Smiley and West spend a large portion of their work tracing how Americans have understood and combated the problems of poverty historically.
The historical “victors” of combating the problems of poverty are clearly President Lyndon B. Johnson and King
Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s resulted in numerous social programs that prioritized the issue of poverty.
As a result, poverty rates decreased dramatically from around 19 percent of the national population in 1964 to around 13 percent by 1970. Similarly, the black poverty rate fell almost 10 percentage points from 1966 to 1969.
King likewise spent the last months of his life not only working to eliminate poverty and unemployment, but also underemployment. While employment was important, fair wages were more important.
Smiley and West encouraged readers to remember, “The day [King] was assassinated, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to speak out against the horrendous working conditions and poverty-level wages endured by 1,300 striking sanitation workers.”
Historical “villains” included Presidents Nixon and Reagan that helped bring back the 19th-century stereotype that the poor are lazy and irresponsible criminals.
Smiley and West paint President Bill Clinton in a similar light for signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996.
While a work like “The Rich and the Rest of Us” can easily become partisan, Smiley and West largely avoid playing divisive, partisan politics. Both Democrats and Republicans have neglected the issue of poverty and contributed to the problem.
The most unsettling undercurrent throughout the book is the number of children living in poverty.
According to the book, the National Center on Family Homelessness reported in 2011 there were 15,759,129 children categorized as poor, 7,023,152 children living in extreme poverty, and 31,398,104 children in school lunch programs.
Smiley and West write that “something is profoundly wrong in America when the younger you are, the more likely you are to be poor.”
The Obama administration proclaims its concern for children through the $4 billion “Race to the Top” initiative.
West responds: “I know you all are break dancing over this $4 billion initiative, but Afghanistan gets $4 billion every day. So, militarism trumps any case of poverty and poor children. That’s the country’s priorities and how warped our priorities are!”
“The Rich and the Rest of Us” brings issues of poverty, which are often left unsaid, to light. It raises questions that Christians are morally obligated to evaluate.
How are churches to aid the impoverished in our society? How are churches to understand their role in combating this issue in the political arena?
Christians have a moral imperative “to seek the peace and prosperity of the city [or nation] to which [God] has carried [them] into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7).
When I was younger, I remember hearing how government handouts and programs that benefited the poor were bad policies.
I heard Christians preach about helping people find Jesus (Matthew 28:16-22), but I do not remember Christians preaching about helping people find food, jobs, clothing or shelter (Matthew 25:31-46).
They may have been seeking peace, but they certainly were not seeking prosperity.
As I read the recent words of Smiley and West and think back to thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch, I find that we all too often skip Matthew 25:31-46 and jump straight to Matthew 28:16-22.
We want to fulfill the Great Commission. We want people to hear Christ’s call. Sometimes, however, I feel like we forget it can be difficult for people to hear Christ when all they really hear is the grumblings of a hungry stomach.
Andrew Gardner holds a PhD in American Religious History and is the author of “Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists” (Nurturing Faith Publishing).