Part II: 50 Years after the Other America: Poverty in the U.S.

TeachableMoment marks the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington's influential book with a series of readings and discussion questions for high school students. In Part II, readings focus on the debate about who should count as poor in this country and proposals for combating poverty.

To The Teacher:

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 gave an overview of Michael Harrington's book and considered the state of poverty in the U.S. now. The two readings below focus on the debate about who should count as poor in this country and proposals for combating poverty. 


Student Reading 3:

How Poor is Poor?

How poor does an American have to be before we consider them to be living in poverty?

The US government has answered this question by creating a threshold known as the "poverty line." Currently that line is set at an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four. Families living on less than that are considered to be living in poverty.

But many people believe that the line is set too low. Mark Greenberg of the progressive thinktank the Center for American Progress wrote in an August 25, 2009, memo entitled, "It's Time For a Better Poverty Measure":

The federal poverty measure shapes our understanding of how many people are in poverty... and how much poverty goes up or down when economic conditions and policies change. But the official measure is deeply flawed. The dollar figures used to determine if families are in poverty are low and in many ways arbitrary. The rules don't consider some resources, such as tax credits and food stamps, and some key family expenses that determine a family's available income. As a result, the poverty measure often doesn't show the impacts of important policies that are intended to improve the economic well-being of families. It needs to be updated and improved.

Analysts like Greenberg contend if we adjusted the "poverty line" upward, we'd have a more accurate picture of the extent to which economic hardship grips America. And that would encourage a more thorough government response to the problem.

An organization called Wider Opportunities for Women generates a set of statistics called the Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST) Index. The index calculates how much money different types of families need to cover their basic expenses, including child care, housing, health care, transportation, and savings. The group's 2011 report found that single workers need $30,012 a year - nearly twice the federal minimum wage - to be secure. According to the BEST, single parents require nearly twice that ($57,756) per year to support two children, while dual-income households with two children require $67,920.

Some conservative commentators and political figures think Americans are doing better economically than such studies suggest. They argue that even Americans whose yearly income falls below the official poverty threshold are not, in fact, very poor. They note that many people who are classified as "poor" by the federal government own a range of consumer goods - perhaps a color TV with cable, a car, an air conditioner, video game systems, and a refrigerator. In July 2011, Richard Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation published a highly publicized report that examined the living conditions of the typical family living under the poverty line. They wrote:

As scholar James Q. Wilson has stated, "The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago." In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker.

The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. The typical poor American family was also able to obtain medical care when needed. By its own report, the typical family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.

Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table. Their living standards are far different from the images of dire deprivation promoted by activists and the mainstream media.

The Heritage Foundation's report was widely criticized by anti-poverty organizations and media watchdogs. A main criticism highlighted the fact that possessing basic consumer goods is no substitute for having access to safe neighborhoods and good schools. While the prices of items like TVs have dropped in recent decades, the costs of decent housing, healthcare, and education have risen sharply. As writer Matthew Yglesias argues in a July 19, 2011 blog post for the liberal website Think Progress:

Over the past 50 years, televisions have gotten a lot cheaper and college has gotten a lot more expensive. Consequently, even a low-income person can reliably obtain a level of television-based entertainment that would blow the mind of a millionaire from 1961. At the same time, if you're looking to live in a safe neighborhood with good public schools in a metropolitan area with decent job opportunities you're going to find that this is quite expensive. Health care has become incredibly expensive. The federal poverty line for a family of three is $18,530 a year. I wonder how many Heritage Foundation policy analysts are deciding they want to cut back and work part time because it'd be super easy to raise two kids in DC on less than $20k in salary?

Journalist Rae Gomes added in an article at Alternet:

[T]he true signifiers of American poverty are access to health care, education and the ability to find and keep adequate housing. Contrary to the report's claims, homelessness has risen in America. Emergency food programs, though inadequate in many ways, have been overwhelmed with the numbers of new people seeking help in order to feed themselves and their families.

Furthermore, poverty experts such as Marybeth J. Mattingly, who directs research on vulnerable families at The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, contends that some of the items identified in the Heritage report should not, in fact, be considered luxuries. Mattingly was interviewed for a article, which reported:

In order, the top five items for both the population and a whole and those classified as poor were: a refrigerator, television, stove and oven, microwave and air-conditioning...

Given the brutal heat wave that afflicted much of the country in recent weeks, causing numerous deaths, defining air-conditioning as a luxury seems a sure way to start an argument. What about cable TV or an Xbox video game system?

Mattingly pointed out that, particularly in rural America, cars are necessary to reach a job and that having more than one car does not mean that all are in working order. An Xbox system or other entertainment options at home may ensure that a child plays at home rather than venturing out into neighborhoods that may not be safe. A computer with Internet access increasingly is critical for children and adults to take advantage of educational opportunities or to access social services. Appliances, such as a microwave or clothes washer, may be owned by a landlord and not by the resident of a house or apartment.

While the debate continues, it is clear that defining poverty is more complicated than just cataloguing how many consumer goods a family has.

For Discussion:

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

2. Why does the Heritage Foundation say that most families living below the poverty line are not really poor?

3. What do you think? Can someone own an Xbox or air conditioner and still be poor?

4. What do you think are the most important standards for determining whether or not a family is living in poverty?

5. According to the World Bank, more than two billion people live on less than two dollars per day. Compared to that level of extreme deprivation, most Americans experience relative abundance. Do you think that people who live in wealthy countries can be considered poor even if they do not experience the same conditions as people in the developing world? Why or why not?


Student Reading 4:

What is being done about poverty?

When Michael Harrington wrote his influential book on American poverty, The Other America, fifty years ago, his target audience was not the poor themselves, but middle and upper class Americans - many of whom were surprised to hear about the prevalence of poverty. One of those Americans was reportedly President John F. Kennedy, whose administration had already been considering implementing a range of programs aimed at fighting problems related to poverty. But as biographer Maurice Isserman notes, it was Harrington who presented poverty as a unified issue.

Isserman cites comments by James Sundquist, a political scientist who was involved in early discussions of antipoverty legislation. In a 1969 essay on the origins of the war on poverty, Sundquist wrote that the Kennedy administration had been considering proposals "dealing separately with such problems as slum housing, juvenile delinquency, unemployment, dependency, and illiteracy, but they were separately inadequate because they were striking only at some of the surface aspects of a bedrock problem, and that bedrock problem had to be identified and defined so that it could be attacked in a concerted, unified, and innovative way. Perhaps it was Harrington's book that identified the target for Kennedy and supplied the coordinating concept: the bedrock problem, in a word, was 'poverty.' Words and concepts define programs; once the target was reduced to a single word, the timing became right for a unified program."

Following Kennedy's assassination, the Johnson Administration launched the "War on Poverty." As a part of this initiative, the government created programs such VISTA, Head Start, the Job Corps, and the Community Action Program. In addition, in 1965 Congress passed and Johnson signed the Medicare Act, which ensured for the first time that seniors would have access to healthcare (half of all seniors didn't have insurance at the time). Medicare contributed to a precipitous drop in poverty among the elderly.

Since the 1960s, however, a number of the War on Poverty programs have been cut. In light of the current statistics on poverty in the United States, what are policymakers trying to do now? What kinds of legislation is President Obama proposing, and what is the response?

Early in his presidency, amid the economic recession, Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - commonly known as "the stimulus." The stimulus was not an explicit antipoverty program like Johnson's War on Poverty. However, portions of the bill aimed at stemming rising unemployment and poverty by providing additional government funding for education, health care, food stamps and other social services, as well as for public infrastructure projects.

In addition, the Obama Administration has pursued several explicit antipoverty programs. These have focused on housing and urban neighborhoods. Launched in July 2011, the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative is the largest of these programs. The White House's website describes the initiative:

The Obama Administration recognizes that the interconnected challenges in high-poverty neighborhoods require interconnected solutions. Struggling schools, little access to capital, high unemployment, poor housing, persistent crime, and other challenges that feed into and perpetuate each other call for an integrated approach so residents can reach their full potential.

One piece of the Administration's strategy for catalyzing change in these communities is the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) -a bold new place-based approach to help neighborhoods in distress transform themselves into neighborhoods of opportunity.

Some progressives have criticized the Obama administration for not sufficiently addressing poverty. For instance, they argue that the administration did little to help millions of homeowners struggling with home foreclosure - even as the administration provided massive bailouts to big banks.

Conservatives, meanwhile, charge that Obama has gone to far. They argue that Obama's stimulus program and efforts like the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative represent out-of-control government spending. The mid-term elections in 2010 ushered in a new Republican majority in the US House of Representatives. This majority was committed to slashing federal government spending on social programs with a stated goal of balancing the federal budget. Republicans attempted to defund several elements of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. As Jarrett Murphy of the urban affairs website City Limits reported on July 12, 2011:

Amid the partisan battles that erupted over this year's $3.4 trillion-dollar federal budget, few observers noticed the skirmish involving President Obama's antipoverty programs. In their budget plan, House Republicans zeroed out all three parts of the president's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative: the school-centered Promise Neighborhoods, the housing-focused Choice Neighborhoods and the law enforcement-oriented Byrne Criminal Justice Initiative.

While Byrne ended up unfunded, Promise and Choice survived with $30 million and $65 million apiece - far less than Obama requested but more than might have been expected in a political environment where concern for the poor is absent.

These newer antipoverty programs were not the only ones to see cuts. The Obama administration also conceded to cuts to older programs, like the Johnson-era Community Action Program. This program helped create local "Community Action Agencies" which oversaw citizen participation in shaping antipoverty initiatives that were tailored to local needs.

The Republicans argue that cutting such programs is necessary because it will help reduce our federal debt, which will strengthen the American economy in the long term. They contend that this would help people across the economic spectrum, including the poor. Conservatives also argue that aid for the poor should primarily be left to religious institutions and private charitable organizations, rather than to government.

However, antipoverty organizations state that federal budget cuts hurt the poor.Robert Greenstein of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities described the Republican budget that passed the House of Representatives in the spring of 2011 this way: "In terms of a budget that has actually passed any chamber, I think this is probably - by a substantial margin - the harshest to people at the bottom."

What's more, progressives and economists of various political stripes argue that severe cuts in public spending and public employment in the cause of deficit reduction will in fact slow, not strengthen, our shaky economy - and hurt poor people in the process.

For Discussion:

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

2. How did Michael Harrington's analysis affect how policymakers approached the problem of poverty?

3. What was the "War on Poverty"?

4. What antipoverty initiatives has the Obama administration pursued?

5. How have Republicans responded? Why do they believe their actions will help poor Americans in the long run?

6. What do you think should be done to address poverty?


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

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