Seeing What No One Else Could See

(Fred W. Mcdarrah/Getty Images)

Michael Harrington in 1964

Michael Harrington’s The Other America, the book that first documented the existence of pervasive poverty within the postwar United States—then congratulating itself for being the world’s first majority-middle-class nation—struck American liberals like a thunderbolt after its publication 50 years ago. It became required reading among college students, particularly for that exceptional group of young people who went south, at considerable risk, to register black voters in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. It was required reading for journalists, labor activists, and Democratic reformers. It was read in the White House, where it provided at least some of the impetus for the War on Poverty. Martin Luther King Jr. joked with Harrington that “we didn’t know we were poor until we read your book.” 

Harrington’s was one of three books published in 1962 and 1963 that changed the way millions of Americans thought about the world. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the threat that industry posed to nature and helped incubate the environmentalist movement. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique made the subordination of women a public issue and helped engender modern feminism. Harrington’s book didn’t create a movement but had far-reaching consequences. By documenting that half of America’s seniors were poor—an easily verifiable fact that no one else had managed to notice—it laid the groundwork for establishing Medicare and indexing Social Security, thereby greatly reducing poverty among the elderly.

Like Carson’s and Friedan’s volumes, The Other America unearthed an ill that readers may have sensed, however dimly, but could not have articulated or documented until they read about it. More directly than the other two volumes, Harrington’s book was aimed at the nation’s conscience, at its sense of human solidarity and fairness. “How long shall we ignore this underdeveloped nation in our midst?” he asks at the book’s conclusion. “How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer?”

Harrington’s book, though, is in no way preachy. Like his speeches, which had the cumulative effect of persuading thousands to devote their lives to the cause of social justice, it is a work of reportage, analysis, and persuasion, devoid of histrionics. Harrington’s writing is straightforward, his observation and indignation leavened by irony and elegance. “If one is to make the mistake of being born poor,” he writes at one point, “he should choose a time when the majority of people are miserable too.”

The Other America is not merely a tour de force but a tour d’horizon, revealing, chapter by chapter, the distinct and overlapping geographies and demographics of American poverty. Harrington begins with a chapter on the working poor, describing a typical morning at New York’s 80 Warren Street, home to dozens of temporary employment agencies, where thousands reported daily for short-order jobs in kitchens and on construction sites. He next visits a non-union, low-wage factory in Chicago. Then he looks more broadly at low-paying jobs, noting that 16 million Americans in a labor force totaling 69.6 million were excluded from the federal minimum-wage law. He moves on to chapters about agricultural workers, African Americans, Appalachia, the elderly, the alcoholic and the mentally ill, in every case beginning with on-the-scene reporting before dissecting the broader historic, socioeconomic, and political factors that created so much misery. 

For all its power and impact, Harrington pulled one punch in The Other America—precisely to preserve its power and impact. At the time he wrote it, Harrington, then 33, was the successor-in-waiting to the aging Norman Thomas for the role of America’s leading socialist. Each year, Harrington delivered hundreds of talks that mobilized his listeners in both the immediate struggles for justice and the long-term battle against capitalism. But The Other America makes no reference to socialism (or capitalism, for that matter) for fear, as Harrington later wrote, that it “would divert attention from the plight of the poor.” The resulting book, more purely than anything else he ever wrote, is the work of a moral tribune. Harrington was following, however inadvertently, the path laid out by his two great predecessors, Eugene V. Debs and Thomas. Despite their best efforts, it was the fate of all three not to lead a mass socialist movement but rather to be acclaimed as the nation’s conscience. 

Although The Other America eschews the S-word, Harrington’s socialism is what enabled him to see what almost everyone else had missed: that 40 million Americans in a nation of 176 million were poor. Amid what he termed the “familiar America” of new suburbs and two-car garages, the poor were still with us, but they were a hidden poor, “a great mass of people, yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.” The new middle-class majority that had moved to suburbia bypassed the decaying inner cities on the recently built interstates, kept their distance from the African American ghettos, never encountered the migrant farmworkers, and failed to see (at least in aggregate) the millions of impoverished elderly. None of these groups had political power or a visible collective presence; they had not found a way to announce their existence. So Harrington did.

How, we may wonder at the distance of half a century, did everyone else—even the social critics of the 1950s—miss them? The answer, understandably enough, is that everyone was amazed at America’s unprecedented, and unprecedentedly widespread, prosperity. The New Deal and post–New Deal reforms were working. Unions were powerful, employment levels were high, and thanks to the G.I. Bill, vastly more Americans were college-educated. Social critics such as David Riesman and William Whyte focused on the ailments of prosperity: corporate culture and its conformity. John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, which chastised the elevation of private endeavors over public ones now that poverty was largely eliminated, acknowledged that two kinds of poverty persisted even in the midst of plenty: “case poverty,” by which Galbraith meant the poverty of the mentally afflicted, alcoholics, and the like, and “insular poverty,” which he defined as the intergenerational poverty of places—he singles out Appalachia—that modernity had left behind. But Galbraith made no attempt to tally the poor, and he overlooked millions of Americans whose poverty didn’t fit into his categories.

A handful of intellectuals—disproportionately socialists—believed that the national preoccupation with affluence obscured the country’s actual condition. Writing in the socialist quarterly Dissent in 1955, Irving Howe complained that no one was writing about “the gradual decay of the New England textile towns” and the formation of an impoverished Puerto Rican community in New York. Economists Robert Heilbroner (a heterodox socialist) and Leon Keyserling (a heterodox liberal) ran the numbers on American poverty during the 1950s (Heilbroner at the start of the decade and Keyserling near the end) and concluded that there were a lot of poor Americans.

 

In December 1958, Anatole Shub, an associate editor at Commentary who had recently come over from the social-democratic magazine The New Leader, turned to another socialist for an article he wanted on American poverty—a piece that didn’t just count the poor but explained who they were. Harrington wasn’t an expert in the field. But there were no experts; there was no field. Harrington’s acquaintance with poverty was more experiential than academic. For two years in the early 1950s, he had been a member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, a group of radical lay Catholics who championed workers and the poor and lived in voluntary poverty themselves. Harrington lived and worked at the organization’s headquarters on New York’s Bowery, where members cared for the derelict down-and-out. He spent the rest of the decade in the voluntary semi-poverty of a Greenwich Village bohemian (he was the central figure in a loose group of artists and writers who repaired nightly to the White Horse Tavern) and itinerant socialist organizer, touring the nation by bus and by thumb, speaking at campuses and union halls, dazzling his listeners with his casual eloquence. Harrington had no studies of poverty to his name when Shub asked him for the article. But Shub had asked the right man.

Harrington had worked closely with fellow socialist Bayard Rustin (a key Martin Luther King adviser who would organize the 1963 March on Washington) and others in the fledgling civil-rights movement. He had visited friends who were attempting to unionize California’s Mexican and Filipino farmworkers. American labor was never more powerful than it was then, but Harrington knew the sectors and regions it hadn’t penetrated; he knew activists struggling with how to better the lives of low-wage workers employed in stores and hospitals, many of them in jobs excluded from minimum-wage protections. He had seen the new poor, as even so thoughtful an observer as Galbraith had not. 

The poverty that Harrington documented in The Other America, which grew out of his work for Commentary, wasn’t simply “case” or “insular.” It was also racial, and ending the poverty of blacks, he wrote, required nothing less than “a transformation of some of the basic institutions of the society.” It was also specific to the elderly and required an expansion of Social Security and affordable medical care. The eradication of poverty, he argued, required a massive investment of federal resources in public works, health care, education, and decent housing. He aimed to persuade liberals, and he did persuade many—but it took a socialist to make the case, even though it was not an explicitly socialist case.

Indeed, Harrington introduced a distinctly non-socialist concept in The Other America, that of a “culture of poverty” to which the poor were prey. Concentrated into ghettos and slums; unable to find work in thriving, unionized industries; uneducated with little hope of advancement, the new poor, he wrote, frequently led lives of disconnection, disorganization, and despair. In poor communities, families disintegrated and out-of-wedlock births increased.

Harrington had taken the concept of the culture of poverty from anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s work on Mexican peasants. By the 1970s, however, some neoconservative critics of the Great Society (and it was Harrington, in his debates with them, who coined the term “neoconservative”) adopted “the culture of poverty” for their own purposes. The poor were poor, argued Charles Murray and his right-wing colleagues, because of their own individual or collective flaws. Theirs was a culture of disorder, devoid of self-discipline, and no government policy that targeted resources to them was likely to succeed. Harrington could not have disagreed more. Far from blaming the poor for their ills, he wrote, “the real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group.” 

In later years, Harrington was criticized by some on the left for introducing a concept so ripe for the right’s picking, and, indeed, in his voluminous later writing he made no further reference to the culture of poverty. But even in The Other America, the stories of economic descent that Harrington tells are stories of declining industries, racial bias, or old age—not tales of the feckless poor beyond the help of an enlightened government. The people whose poverty he describes include workers laid off when their Packard factory closed, 40 percent of whom had to settle for jobs that paid less. (Harrington places particular emphasis on a problem more prevalent today: technological advances in manufacturing that enable managers to turn out products with fewer workers.) Conversely, he argues that decent employment is the best solution for the culture of poverty. When the poor “did break into the economic mainstream,” he writes, “when, for instance, the CIO opened up the way for some Negroes to find good industrial jobs—they proved to be as resourceful as anyone else.”

 

The nation whose eyes Harrington sought to open was one that took mass prosperity for granted. Fifty years later, however, that’s become a belief that’s difficult to sustain. The progressive taxation, regulation of finance, and widespread unionization that emerged from the New Deal to give America three decades of broadly shared affluence have crumbled under the subsequent 35-year assault from business interests and a resurgent right. What does Harrington’s book have to say to this newly diminished country? What’s the value of The Other America in an age when mainstream America is looking more and more “Other” itself?

Hardly anyone noticed it at the time, but this was a possibility that Harrington gave credence to in his book, and, indeed, he predicted some of the ways in which it came to pass. “Even more explosive” than letting the minority poverty of 1962 go unchecked, he wrote, “is the possibility that people who participated in the gains of the thirties and the forties will be pulled back down into poverty. Today, the mass production industries where unionization made such a difference are contracting. Jobs are being destroyed. In the process, workers who had achieved a certain level of wages, who had won working conditions in the shop, are suddenly confronted with impoverishment. This is particularly true for anyone over forty years of age and for members of minority groups. Once their job is abolished, their chances of ever getting similar work are very slim.”

Readers in 1962 were likely to dismiss this analysis as dystopian fantasy, but today those words could be found on the business page of almost any publication. Lurking behind this remarkable passage is its author’s socialist understanding of capitalism, which he saw as a relentlessly destabilizing system that, if not sufficiently checked by democratic popular power, would seek to diminish workers’ earnings and influence in its continual quest for profits and control. The New Deal, Harrington believed, could be repealed. Beginning in the late 1970s, Harrington often included in his speeches a line that was both an exhortation to radical reform and a warning of calamities to come: “We have to go as far beyond [Franklin] Roosevelt as Roosevelt went beyond Hoover,” he would say, “or we’re going back to Hoover.” Strange though that may have sounded in 1978, it sounds grimly plausible today.

Nine months after The Other America was published to respectful reviews, Harrington decamped for a year to Paris. Shortly thereafter, The New Yorker ran a 50-page review by Dwight Macdonald. At the time, it was the second--longest article the magazine had ever run (only John Hersey’s piece on Hiroshima had been longer). Macdonald, an idiosyncratic radical who had become one of the nation’s leading (and more dyspeptic) critics, not only declared the book to be the most important social writing the nation had seen in years; he restated its argument, buttressing it with some statistics he’d tracked down on his own. Overnight, The Other America became a sensation. A few days before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy told his chief economist, Walter Heller, that he wanted to do something about poverty. Heller related this to Lyndon Johnson the day after Johnson became president, and Johnson told him that a war on poverty was “my kind of program.” 

Returning from Europe at the start of 1964, a somewhat startled Harrington found himself acclaimed as “the man who discovered poverty” and was asked to come to Washington to help formulate Johnson’s war. For 12 days, he was immersed in round-the-clock meetings with cabinet members and administration economists. In a string of memos, Harrington recommended upgrading the quality and availability of education and health care and instituting massive public-works programs on a Rooseveltian scale. What ultimately emerged from the White House and Congress were programs boosting aid to education and setting up community organizations through which the poor could better themselves—good ideas as far as they went, Harrington believed, but not sufficient to the problem at hand.

Most of the memos Harrington wrote were co-authored with his friend Paul Jacobs, a onetime Trotskyite who two years later was to become one of the founders of the radical magazine Ramparts. Aware that they were improbable presidential policy advisers, they puckishly concluded many of their papers with the same punch line: “Of course, there is no real solution to the problem of poverty until we abolish the capitalist system.” Harrington, who was famous for counseling radicals to work for “the left wing of the possible,” was kidding. He also meant it.

Harrington’s mission, like that of a number of writers and activists who emerged in the early 1960s, was to create a movement for justice. To the extent that he sought to create a specifically socialist movement—perhaps an impossibility on American soil—he failed, as in fact he expected to. To the extent that he sought to swell, deepen, and partially socialize American liberalism, he succeeded, at least for a time. But he had no illusions as to the depth and permanence of the challenges confronting the poor and working people. “In times of slow change or stalemate, it is always the poor who are expendable in the halls of Congress,” he wrote at the conclusion of The Other America. “There is no realistic hope for the abolition of poverty in the United States until there is a vast social movement, a new period of political creativity.” True then. Truer now. 

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