Kidnapped by affluence

Michael Harrington’s war on poverty, 50 years on.

The poor, Michael Harrington wrote in his book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in 1962, “need a novelist as well as a sociologist if we are to see them. They need an American Dickens to record the smell and texture and quality of their lives.” Harrington, a stalwart of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party of America and a member of the editorial board of the left-wing journal Dissent, was not that novelist. But in his attempt to “describe the faces behind the statistics”, he proved himself to be, if not the Dickens of modern American poverty, then at least its Orwell.

The Other America is a short, furious book – Harrington writes that his “moral point of departure is a sense of outrage” – with a wide geographical sweep. To a readership that was either ignorant of or indifferent to the armies of the poor in its midst, Harrington showed the lives of black meat-packing workers in Chicago, the wretched hill folk of West Virginia and the alchoholic derelicts of “Skid Row” – the Bowery, in lower Manhattan. (He knew the “texture” of life in the Bowery intimately: for two years in the early 1950s, he’d belonged to a Catholic Worker group that shared a house a block away on Chrystie Street. Its members took a vow of “voluntary poverty” – they were unpaid and shared the living conditions of those they were trying to help.)

If, as Harrington contends on the first page of the book, there were 50 million poor people living in the United States in 1962 (poor on a definition supplied by the US Bureau of Labour), why did his outrage seem so unusual, and, in the best sense of the word, immoderate? His answer was that the consciences of the well-off (or of the two thirds of Americans who weren’t impoverished) had been kidnapped by “affluence”. To the millions of Americans who had fled the big cities for the suburbs, the poor were simply invisible. “Here is a great mass of people,” Harrington writes, “yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.”

Much of the intellectual effort of The Other America is concentrated in a sharp rejoinder to J K Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, which had appeared to considerable fanfare and national soul-searching four years earlier. Galbraith’s anxieties, and those of most of his readers, were, Harrington points out, the products of abundance. The obsession with GDP as the principal measure of social well-being and the transformation of the US economy into a gigantic machine for “consumer-demand creation” had, Galbraith argued, prevented Americans from grappling with the question of what the good life in an affluent society might look like. As for poverty, Galbraith thought it lingered in two residual forms: “insular poverty”, concentrated in depressed areas such as the Appalachians or the West Virginia coalfields, and “case poverty”, by which he meant the predicament of those individuals prevented by physical or mental debility from sharing in the spoils of postwar economic success.

However, neither category did justice to the scale of the phenomenon Harrington’s book describes. Talk of “islands of poverty” simply didn’t tally with the numbers, while the notion of “case poverty” treated mental illness, alcoholism and disease as individual pathologies rather than as social facts. 

Bad health among the poor, like bad housing and bad education, is part of what Harrington calls the “culture of poverty”, a notion that he took from the anthropologist Oscar Lewis (who had first used it when writing about the slum-dwellers of Mexico City). Harrington’s biographer Maurice Isserman has said he used the phrase to avoid sounding like a “stereo­typical Marxist” (which he never was); but to ­others it “opened the floodgates”, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote earlier this year, to those who would blame poverty on the “twisted spirits” of the poor. 

Harrington wasn’t responsible for the use others made of his work and he certainly never moralises in the book about the “other Americans” – on the contrary, he writes that they live at a “level of life below moral choice”. Any social programme designed to end poverty must, therefore, first help the poor before they can help themselves.

After the success of The Other America – it sold 70,000 copies within a year of publication – Harrington was briefly engaged as an adviser to the Lyndon B Johnson administration as it drew up plans for the “war on poverty”. He insisted that victory was only possible with a massive federal jobs programme. But Johnson tried to have the “Great Society” on the cheap and Harrington can’t be blamed for that. 

The failure of the war on poverty, he wrote several years later, showed the folly of “getting everyone excited about an imminent utopia and then investing funds that [were] not enough for a modest reform”. Now, that sounds familiar. 

Michael Harrington’s “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” is published by Scribner ($16)