By MAURICE ISSERMAN
If there is a heaven, and it has a place for virtuous skeptics, I imagine Michael Harrington is looking down, amused by the recent cover of Newsweek proclaiming, “We Are All Socialists Now,” not to mention Newt Gingrich’s lament that the United States is seeing “European socialism transplanted to Washington.” Back in the 1960s, Harrington had some experience trying to “transplant” some socialist ideas to Washington — and the results were rather different from what he had hoped.
Fifty years ago this July, Commentary magazine (at the time a journal of bracingly liberal sentiments) ran Harrington’s article “Our Fifty Million Poor,” in which he sought to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived “below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.”
Harrington’s own knowledge of poverty was decidedly secondhand. Born in 1928 in St. Louis and educated at Holy Cross, Yale Law School and the University of Chicago, he moved to New York City in 1949 to become a writer. In 1951 he joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement as a volunteer at its soup kitchen. Within a few years he left the Catholic Worker (and the Roman Catholic Church) and joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth affiliate of the battered remnants of the American Socialist Party.
In researching the Commentary essay, Harrington picked up the notion of the “culture of poverty,” a casual bit of intellectual borrowing with fateful consequences. The phrase was coined by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who contended that being poor was not simply a condition marked by the absence of wealth; rather, poverty created “a subculture of its own,” and those raised within it were unlikely to escape. However different their places of origin, he argued, poor people in Mexico might have more in common with their counterparts in New York than with better-off people from their own countries.
Echoing Lewis, Harrington argued that American poverty constituted “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” He elaborated on this idea in “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” published in the spring of 1962. It was a short work with a simple thesis: poverty was both more extensive and more tenacious than most Americans assumed. An “invisible land” of the poor existed in rural isolation or in crowded slums where middle-class visitors seldom ventured. “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them,” Harrington wrote. “They are not simply neglected and forgotten. . . . What is much worse, they are not seen.”
Harrington argued that poor Americans were “people who lack education and skill, who have bad health, poor housing, low levels of aspiration and high levels of mental distress. . . . And if one problem is solved, and the others are left constant, there is little gain.” Instead of relying on a rising tide of affluence to lift all boats, he argued, America needed a broad program of “remedial action” — a “comprehensive assault on poverty.”
Harrington said he would be happy if “The Other America” sold 2,500 copies. Instead, it sold 70,000 within a year (and well over a million in successive editions). Among the book’s readers, reputedly, was John F. Kennedy, who in the fall of 1963 began thinking about proposing antipoverty legislation. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the issue, calling in his 1964 State of the Union address for an “unconditional war on poverty.” Sargent Shriver headed the task force charged with drawing up the legislation, and invited Harrington to Washington as a consultant.
In February 1964 Harrington helped write a background paper, working with the radical writer Paul Jacobs and a Labor Department aide named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an old drinking partner from the Greenwich Village days. The memo argued that “if there is any single dominant problem of poverty in the U.S., it is that of unemployment.” The solution was a return to the model of the New Deal, creating massive public works projects to end unemployment and redistribute income to those most in need.
But of what relevance was the concept of the “culture of poverty” if all that was needed to counter it was jobs? In “The Other America,” Harrington used the concept interchangeably with “vicious circle of poverty” — by which he meant poor living conditions leading to poor health, poor attendance at school or work, and so on. Nothing in this “vicious circle” was culturally rooted in the sense that Oscar Lewis had argued — so at any point additional income would suffice to break the circle.
Jobs programs, however, were expensive: the Works Progress Administration had cost $5 billion in 1936, and Johnson had made it clear that appropriations for his “unconditional” war on poverty had to be brought in under a billion dollars for the coming year. The strategy was to help the poor to improve themselves — a “hand up, not a handout,” as Shriver put it. The resulting legislation, passed in August 1964, provided funds for preschool education, community action agencies, legal services and the like, but did little directly to provide jobs and income for the poor.
Harrington’s active involvement with the war on poverty came to an end after his month of consulting. But Moynihan continued to fight for their alternate strategy from his Labor Department post. His famous 1965 position paper, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” better known as the Moynihan Report, was bitterly attacked from the left for describing the urban black family as a “tangle of pathology.” Less noted was his continued advocacy of an expanded federal jobs program.
Indeed, that aspect of Moynihan’s and Harrington’s thinking was roundly rejected by the group of thinkers who ultimately carried the day on poverty. In the 1970s, neoconservatives — former liberals disillusioned with the welfare state (Harrington himself popularized the term in a 1973 article) — neatly turned the argument of “The Other America” on its head, arguing that welfare programs only strengthened the culture of poverty by encouraging single-parent families and discouraging work. The poor, in their view, would be better served by dismantling the welfare state and instituting tougher neighborhood policing than through further meddling by would-be social engineers. When Bill Clinton ran for office pledging to “end welfare as we know it,” it was clear who had won the political argument.
In 1999, Time magazine named “The Other America” one of the 10 most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. But how relevant does it remain today? As social theory, it is deeply flawed. Harrington’s culture-of-poverty thesis was at best ambiguous, at worst an impediment to making the case for what he regarded as the real solution. (In later books, he made no use of the term.)
But what remains fresh and vital in “The Other America” is its moral clarity. Harrington argued that Americans should be angry and ashamed to live in a rich society in which so many remained poor. “The fate of the poor,” he concluded, “hangs upon the decision of the better-off. If this anger and shame are not forthcoming, someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same or worse.”
Today the poor are no longer invisible, thanks to writers like William Julius Wilson, Alex Kotlowitz and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and to a popular culture that has young people in middle-class suburbs emulating the styles of the inner city. But Harrington’s prediction is otherwise correct. For all the changes ushered in by the 2008 election, a renewed war on poverty does not seem to be in the offing.
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