Michael Harrington wrote The Other America 50 years ago, part of what inspired the War on Poverty.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. When first published in 1962, it had a major impact on U.S. social policy. Now, more than ever, its lessons need to be remembered.
The 1960s were a far different time. While there has always been widespread suspicion of government in the U.S., for awhile, especially in the two decades after World War II, we believed government had done and could do good things. This perspective was the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the victory over Fascism in World War II, and unity in the face of the Iron Curtain with Cold War policies opposing communism. In addition, the economy was, for the most part, growing.
As Harrington pointed out, however, there was an “Other America,” largely invisible to the majority of the country. He argued that poor people, both rural and urban, lived in a distinct subculture of pessimism and fatalism. Poverty damaged them physically, psychologically, and emotionally, barring them from upward mobility. While Harrington’s culture of poverty thesis was then and continues to be debated, the living conditions of the poor were horrible fifty years ago and posed a moral obligation on the nation to “crusade against this poverty in our midst.”
When Harrington’s book appeared, poverty was already unfolding as a national issue. The Civil Rights movement had begun to expose the depths of racism and African-American poverty in the rural South and the nation’s inner cities. Meanwhile, stories handed down from the 1960 presidential campaign reveal that John F. Kennedy, who grew up in the exquisite wealth of upper-crust Boston, was appalled and deeply moved by the poverty he saw in West Virginia’s coalfields.
When Kennedy was elected, he inherited the fruits of experimental urban and rural development programs from Eisenhower, as well as elements of Roosevelt’s New Deal. But it took time for his anti-poverty commitment to flower. According to press reports, Kennedy read Harrington’s book and directed members of his administration to begin to lay out plans for an anti-poverty campaign shortly before his assassination on November 22, 1963.
Lyndon Johnson, a seasoned New Dealer from Texas who ascended to the presidency after Kennedy’s death, wasted little time in making poverty a national issue. Invoking Kennedy’s memory, he launched his War on Poverty on January 8, 1964. The Economic Opportunity Act that Johnson sent to Congress reflected his broad-ranging approach to alleviating poverty in rural and urban areas. The legislation addressed poverty on many fronts:
• It proposed a Job Corps and work training and work-study programs to help poor youths complete their educations and develop skills;
• boosted community development with a Community Action Program based on “maximum feasible participation” to give American communities the opportunity to develop their own comprehensive plans to fight local poverty;
• set up Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic Peace Corps program to recruit volunteers to counter poverty;
• proposed a loan program as an incentive for those who hired the unemployed.
Congress, at Johnson’s behest, created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to coordinate the War on Poverty, leaving a legacy of positive government activity that included Head Start for disadvantaged school children, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Sadly, many critics of the War on Poverty state flatly that it did not work. Could it have done better? Certainly. Was it a failure? Absolutely not. Evidence clearly shows that anti-poverty measures of the 1960s played a vital role not only in reducing poverty, but in creating mechanisms to protect the chronically poor from hunger and health problems, while at the same time opening opportunities to economic opportunity and community improvement.
It is true that poverty rates were falling rapidly when the government implemented its anti-poverty measures. This was partly the result of a dynamic economy that was growing to provide more jobs and higher wages for many workers. But the War on Poverty, coupled with civil rights legislation, opened even more economic opportunities and access to political processes for the disenfranchised, while creating mechanisms to cushion the cyclical impacts of poverty.
For rural areas, the longer-run benefits of the War on Poverty are clear. From the early 1960s until now, the gap between nonmetropolitan and metropolitan poverty has closed markedly, from a difference of about 15 percentage points to about 3 percentage points. The gap narrowed despite the massive shifts in the national and global economy, changes that have moved jobs and people across the nation and all over the world.
While the approach and data presented in Harrington’s The Other America are now part of historical memory, his cry for justice is a universal. The curiosity of it all was that Harrington was a Democratic Socialist who would be ignored in our halls of power today. Yet in the 1960s leaders read the book and were driven to act on it.
Really, the essence of Harrington’s message is simple. Poverty in such a wealthy country is a moral embarrassment. It also proves a national weakness that erodes our vitality, especially now as we endure the pains of a protracted downturn.
The means are at hand to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can now be abolished. How long shall we ignore [the] underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?
… For until these facts shame us, until they stir us to action, the other America will continue to exist, a monstrous example of needless suffering…
— Michael, Harrington, The Other America
Poverty can be diminished. We owe Harrington, who died in 1989, a debt of gratitude for reminding us of our ethical obligations, for reminding us that we can always reach greater goals, if we have the political and economic will to do so.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.