Want to close wealth gap? 'Make smart sexy again'

Can the poor save capitalism?
'How the poor can save capitalism'   

The burgeoning gap between the rich and the poor in America can be halted and reversed by embarking on a financial literacy revolution, said an advisor to Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush on ways to solve the problem of wealth inequality.

"We need a cultural revolution. Financial literacy has to become a civil rights issue," said John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation HOPE and author of the new book "How the Poor Can Save Capitalism."

"In the last 20 years, we've made dumb sexy. We've dumbed down and celebrated it. We got to make smart sexy again," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Besides raising awareness of the plight of the working poor, Bryant said his book aims to deliver solutions too, including outreach to schools to "stoke young entrepreneurship energy" and encourage students to make business leaders in their communities their role models.

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The economy needs 100 percent of the population to thrive, not just the top tier, he argued. "People who make $50,000 or less in income put 80 to 90 percent of their money back into the economy, versus those who have more tend to keep more."

Bryant said his approach is the answer to the wealth gap problem highlighted by French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the highly acclaimed and controversial "Capital in the Twenty-First Century."

Amanda Rohde | E+ | Getty Images

Piketty recently defended his thesis on CNBC's "Squawk Box," saying his research shows the gap between "the haves and have-nots" is going to back to levels not seen in 100 years. In the book, he also proposed a host of policy changes to combat the problem, including an international wealth tax.

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"I need more than just Ph.D.s," Bryant said. "We need 'PHDos.' What we need is a complete movement of business people" to save capitalism for everyone.

America needs to get back to its roots of being "obsessed with ideas," instead of just making money, he advised. Get a great idea and start a business around it like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, and wealth will be the byproduct of your success, he concluded.

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—By CNBC's Matthew J. Belvedere.

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