Part I: 50 years after The Other America: POVERTY IN THE U.S.

 

By Mark Engler

 

To The Teacher:

Who is poor in America? Why? What can we do about it?

Fifty years ago, an American activist named Michael Harrington wrote a relatively short but influential study on the problem of poverty in the United States. The Other America, published in 1962, ultimately found its way into the hands of President John F. Kennedy, and the book had a profound impact on bringing poverty issues to public attention. It ultimately contributed to the launch of the government's "War on Poverty."

TeachableMoment marks the anniversary, and addresses the ongoing issue, with a series of readings and discussion questions for high school students. Readings one and two, below, give an overview of Michael Harrington's book and consider the state of poverty in the U.S. now. The next pair of readings in the series will examine the debate about who should count as poor in this country and proposals for combating poverty. 
 


Student Reading 1:

Michael Harrington's Other America

Fifty years ago, an American activist named Michael Harrington wrote a relatively short but influential study on the problem of poverty in the United States. The Other America, published in 1962, found its way into the hands of President John F. Kennedy, and quickly put the issue of poverty in America into public view. Indeed, tackling poverty became a central focus of much of the public policy of the 1960s - most notably with President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty." Harrington's book also touched off debates about how we define the term poverty, as well as how we think about our nation's poor. These are debates that remain relevant a half-century later.

Born in St. Louis in 1928, Harrington received a bachelor's degree from the College of the Holy Cross. He later attended graduate school at the University of Chicago and Yale Law School, but he never finished a graduate degree at either university. Harrington came from an Irish-American family and was drawn in the early 1950s to the left-wing Catholicism of the Catholic Worker movement, led by influential activist Dorothy Day. From 1951 to 1953 he was an editor for The Catholic Worker newspaper. Ultimately, though, Harrington moved away from religion towards secular democratic socialism. He pushed for reforms such as universal healthcare and the other social welfare protections guaranteed in most Western European states. As Harrington biographer Maurice Isserman writes in the Winter 2012 issue of Dissent Magazine:

A tireless organizer, prolific writer, skillful debater, and charismatic orator, Harrington succeeded Norman Thomas as America's best-known socialist in the 1960s, just as Thomas had succeeded Eugene Debs in that role in the 1920s. Socialism was never the road to power in the United States, but socialist leaders like Debs, Thomas, and Harrington were, from time to time, able to play the role of America's social conscience. (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=4110)

By the early 1960s Harrington completed his seminal work, The Other America. When it was first published in 1962, Harrington expected only a few thousand copies of the book to be sold. But The Other America quickly defied those expectations, selling over 70,000 copies in its first year. Over a million copies of The Other America have sold in the decades since.

What accounted for the book's surprising success? In the midst of the economic prosperity of the post-World War II years, Harrington's book alerted many Americans to the shocking truth about poverty in the United States, which had generally been obscured in media accounts of the nation's rising post-war prosperity. Writes Isserman:

[P]overty in the affluent society of the United States was both more extensive and more tenacious than most Americans assumed. The extent of poverty could be calculated by counting the number of American households that survived on an annual income of less than $3,000. These figures were readily available in the census data, but until Harrington published The Other America they were rarely considered. Harrington revealed to his readers that an "invisible land" of the poor, over forty million strong, or one in four Americans at the time, fell below the poverty line. For the most part this Other America existed in rural isolation and 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 in his introduction in 1962. "They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen."
(http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=4110)

For the approach to the problem of poverty presented in The Other America, Harrington was indebted to the work of the anthropologist Oscar Lewis. Lewis's primary contribution to the discourse of poverty in America was his "culture of poverty" thesis. This was formulated in his 1959 study of residents of slums in Mexico, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. There he argued that poverty was more than just a lack of money, but a "subculture of its own."

Today, the "culture of poverty" thesis has been appropriated by right-wing policymakers and pundits. They argue that the poor themselves need to take responsibility for breaking cultural patterns that perpetuate their economic distress, instead of relying on the government to spend more money on social services. But Harrington didn't hold this view. For Harrington, the term "culture of poverty" was synonymous with "cycle of poverty." He didn't argue that poverty was passed down culturally from generation to generation. He argued that a lack of resources trapped people in a set of conditions that became increasingly difficult to escape.

As Harrington wrote in The Other America:

The poor get sick more than anyone else in the society. That is because they live in slums, jammed together under unhygienic conditions; they have inadequate diets, and cannot get decent medical care. When they become sick, they are sick longer than any other group in society. Because they are sick more often and longer than anyone else, they lose wages and work, and find it difficult to hold a steady job. And because of this, they cannot pay for good housing, for a nutritious diet, for doctors. At any given point in this circle, particularly when there is a major illness, their prospect is to move to an even lower level and to begin the cycle, round and round, toward even more suffering.

While debate continues, Harrington's book was a landmark work that shaped the way we think about poverty in the United States.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Who was Michael Harrington? Why is he considered an important figure?

3. According to the reading, what accounted for the surprising success of Michael Harrington's book, The Other America?

4. How did Harrington view the "cycle of poverty"? How does that view differ from the "culture of poverty" idea many right-wing thinkers subscribe to?

5. Do you agree with the conservative view of poverty, as described in the reading? Why or why not? Do you agree with Harrington's view? Why or why not? 

 


Student Reading 2:

How extensive is poverty in the U.S. today?

When Michael Harrington published The Other America in 1962, many Americans were shocked to learn about the prevalence and persistence of poverty in the United States. Fifty years after Harrington shined a spotlight on the problem of poverty, how far have we come in addressing the issue of poverty?

Every ten years, the United States conducts a national census. Along with basic data about people living in this country - information such as the name, address, race, and age of each resident surveyed - census takers also record income data. Statistics from the 2010 census showed that the poverty rate is actually increasing, and that more than one in seven Americans live below the poverty line. The poverty line for a family of four was $22,314 per year in 2010- a figure that many economists believe is too low. It's very hard for a family of four to get by on that amount.

According to the Census Bureau:

The nation's official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 - the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate. Poverty in 2010 was at its highest level since 1993. There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 - the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years that these poverty estimates have been published.
(http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb11-157.html)

Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard, notes that 2010 was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income had not risen over such a long period (from 1996 to 2010). "This is truly a lost decade," Katz told reporter Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times (September 13, 2011). "We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we're looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.

Tavernise writes:

The bureau's findings were worse than many economists expected, and brought into sharp relief the toll the past decade - including the painful declines of the financial crisis and recession - had taken on Americans at the middle and lower parts of the income ladder. It is also fresh evidence that the disappointing economic recovery has done nothing for the country's poorest citizens.
(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/us/14census.html?pagewanted=all)

Poverty in the United States is not distributed evenly across the country. Poverty tends to be worse in rural areas where there are few jobs. The rural affairs website,The Daily Yonder, reported that in 2010, the poverty rate in rural areas was 17.8 percent, compared to 14.9 percent in urban areas (http://www.dailyyonder.com/recession-hikes-poverty-rates-rural-america/2011/12/17/3648).

Nor is poverty distributed evenly by race and age. Some Americans are affected more than others. The Census Bureau reported that 9.9 percent of all non-Hispanic white people live in poverty. The rate of poverty among Latinos and black Americans is nearly twice that - 26.6 and 27.4 percent respectively. Poverty is also concentrated among the young. According to the census, 22 percent of all Americans under the age of 18 live in poverty - more than one in five.

People living under the poverty line are not necessarily unemployed - in fact many work multiple jobs. As Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans writes in a January 2012 article, the number of "working poor," as this demographic is known, is swelling:

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor reported at least 10 million people worked and were still below the unrealistic official U.S. poverty line, an increase of 1.5 million more than the last time they checked… Since 2007 the numbers of working poor have been increasing. About 7 percent of all workers and 4 percent of all full-time workers earn wages that leave them below the poverty line. (http://www.truth-out.org/working-and-poor-usa/1327241817)

That the ranks of the working poor are growing speaks to a broader shift in the American economy. As well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs have disappeared, working people are increasingly finding employment in the low-wage service sector, at places like WalMart.

When the Johnson administration launched the War on Poverty in the 1960s, policymakers expected that poverty in the United States would be eliminated entirely. But they were wrong: The rate of poverty has changed little over the last fifty years.

And while poverty has remained relatively constant, inequality has skyrocketed. AsMother Jones magazine reported, the average household income of the bottom 80 percent of American families have remained stagnant over the last 30 years. Yet those in the top one percent have seen their average incomes rise from around $500,000 per year to nearly $2 million during that time span. 
(http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph)

Fifty years after The Other America, poverty is still a huge problem in America, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. And while Harrington's book helped set off a campaign to eliminate poverty, today's growing inequality is fueling new movements for change.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. According to the U.S. census, has poverty increased or decreased since 2009? What has accounted for this change?

3. Are you surprised by reports about poverty levels in the U.S.? Are they higher or lower than you expected?

4. How does the distribution of poverty in the United States vary by age, race, and geography?

5. What does the term "working poor" mean? How does the emergence of the working poor challenge some people's assumptions about poverty in America? 

 

This lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.

We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.