It's over half a century since Michael Harrington published his eye-opening analysis of poverty in the U.S., "The Other America." Yet the problem he identified so vividly and effectively is still very much with us: Poverty is growing.
In his revelation, Harrington presented a gripping picture of American poverty: the workers who could not earn a living wage; the teens who had nothing constructive to do because their were no jobs for them; the homeless who through no fault of their own slept in their cars or on park benches; the mothers frazzled by their failure most months to make their meager grocery purchases get their families through to the next paycheck; the seniors living on dog food and forgoing their prescribed medicines.
Complacent and quite pleased with themselves, most Americans of the early 1960s did not see such people, Harrington observed, because they were able to insulate themselves from them. They lived in suburban communities where such poverty didn't reach, and drove over or around the neighborhoods where it did, worked in steel and glass cocoons from which the poor were barred, and took their leisure in places where they needed neither to see nor to think about them.
Yet the poverty was there, visible to those who could or would see. It was not the same as in the undeveloped nations "where millions clung to hunger as a defense against starvation." But tens of millions of Americans were, Harrington wrote, "maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency." If they were not starving, they were hungry, and were without adequate housing, education and medical care. Poverty had twisted and deformed their spirits, and they were pessimistic, victimized by a mental suffering of a degree unknown in suburban America.
Historians have credited Harrington's book, and an essay in The New Yorker about it by Dwight Macdonald, "Our Invisible Poor," with awakening President Kennedy's interest in the phenomenon and moving President Johnson to undertake his subsequent "war on poverty."
That initiative did not solve the problem. The poor are here, and poverty has spread into the middle class. One sees them begging on street corners and in front of stores, sleeping in sheltered doorways, camping in the greenbelts in summer. Hardly a winter passes in Anchorage without a homeless death attributable to exposure.
President Reagan crudely remarked, "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won." His quip has been used by many to justify the notion that poverty is insoluble, and that programs to combat it are a waste of money and, worse, that such programs create a class of dependent and expectant Americans who mooch off the rest of us and are a serious drag on the economy and on American cultural sensibility.
In fact, anti-poverty programs do work, when they are funded, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out recently. Family assistance for at-risk teenage girls has lowered the teenage birth rate. Parent coaching has helped pregnant women curb their drinking and smoking. Save the Children and Thirty Million Words have helped parents learn better how to help their children so they become more employable. Head Start graduates go on to have improved life outcomes. The earned income tax credit has helped many families.
It is important to construct the political base to keep such programs viable. A big part of that is getting over the idea that people are poor because they don't, or can't, try hard enough, that they don't manifest the discipline, motivation and focus to be and stay employable. In fact, most of the poor and near-poor are working but at jobs that don't bring a living wage; the well-paying jobs simply aren't there. Many of the people with cardboard signs at busy and familiar intersections in Anchorage might not be there if there were a wider and better array of job training and counseling programs.
More to the point, too many of us do not keep the political pressure on our legislators and governors, in large part because we too don't want to face the problem, don't want to face the poor. That was the lesson Michael Harrington tried to teach us, that we still need to learn.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.