On the 50th anniversary: The Other America
September 30, 2012
Fifty years ago, amidst the post-World War II “victory culture” affluence, Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America came forth. The book was inspired by Harrington’s 1958 “on the road” trip across America, he encountered our country’s “invisible poor”: those caged by discrimination in the urban ghettos, the white poor of rural Appalachia, the migrant farm workers who lived in shanties without running water, and the remaining Southern sharecroppers, black and white.
Anatole Shub, then an editor at Commentary took Harrington to lunch in 1959 and suggested he write an article on poverty for the magazine. That 1959 Commentary article led to Harrington’s second book The Other America, and his only book that doesn’t mention the term “socialism.” Harrington later wrote that the book led “to a fundamental transformation of my life.” It certified his status as the foremost advocate for the poor in America. Later, the tome helped “stimulate the Kennedy-Johnson ‘War on Poverty.’” The Other America, published in March 1962, initially received only a few brief but supportive reviews. Then Dwight MacDonald wrote a 40+ page review in the New Yorker that instigated Harrington to issue a second edition of the book.
The thesis of Harrington’s book is that the poor were “invisible.” They had become ghetto-ized and outside the mainstream of American society, that clustered in cornfields at the edge of urban centers. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later say that Harrington “discovered the poor.” Harrington sold the rights to the paperback version of his book for $500 and retreated to France in 1962 to write a book of theory, the brilliant The Accidental Century.
In Harrington’s words, his book made poverty a topic of conversation “in the intellectual-political world of the northeast corridor” of the United States. When Harrington wrote the first article, poverty was at 22%. When Kennedy was assassinated, it had fallen to 17%. When Harrington returned from Europe at the end of 1963, he found himself summoned by the office of the President. Lyndon Johnson had decided to wage a “War on Poverty.”
The War of Poverty stimulated by Harrington’s work caused the poverty rate to fall to 11% by 1966. Working under Sargent Shriver, Harrington crafted domestic policies that are still with us today, or, still much in need at the present time. These include: Medicare, easy access to funding for higher education, Head Start for disadvantaged schoolchildren, federal government jobs training, and federal programs that helped people get hired in the private sector. Harrington would later lament that Johnson’s ambitious War on Poverty was defeated “in the jungles of Vietnam.”
Today, following the Great Recession, the poor are more visible than any time since the Great Depression. They are attacked by Republican candidate Mitt Romney as the 47% that feel entitled to government services. Many of the programs of Johnson’s so-called “Great Society” are under attack by the Tea Party and their ilk. The dream of right-wing Republicans, led by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, is to dismantle the programs inspired by Harrington’s book.
On this 50th anniversary year of The Other America there can be no more important issue than to protect the least of our brothers and sisters. One way is to attend the upcoming event in Columbus to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this important book:
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
The Other America: Poverty in the United States
7:00 PM. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Democratic Socialists of Central Ohio (DSCO) will be holding a special event in honor of the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington's influential book, The Other America. A panel of local experts will be guiding us in an exploration of how and why Harrington’s book is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, in a very different America, members of the largest middle class in our history, the envy of the world, were astonished to learn that there was poverty in their midst. Michael Harrington’s The Other America focused awareness of this issue and sparked an effort to overcome the problem. Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, and actual poverty rates declined to 11.1 percent in 1973, but have since risen to an alarming 15 percent level. It was recently reported that 46 million Americans are now counted as poor. As bad as that is, it would be nearly double that without programs such as food stamps and Social Security, casting another 40 million people into poverty. Why does the richest country in the world have such an abysmal record? And why is this situation absent from the election discussions? The short answer might be that the poor don’t vote or contribute money to campaigns. Yet many causes cited -- low wage jobs (most of the poor work), single-parent homes, etc. also exist in other countries without such effects. Of the 46 million Americans counted as poor, six million people have no income other than food stamps. Discussion of these issues frequently plays on fears of losing status and demonizes the poor, who function something like a canary in a coal mine for the eroding middle class.
Panelists at the event include: Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Director, Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks; Fadhel Kaboub, Assistant Professor, Economics Department, Denison University; Kevin Boyle, Professor, History Department, Ohio State University; Bob Fitrakis, Professor, Columbus State Community College, writer, publisher of the Free Press.
This event is sponsored by Democratic Socialists of Central Ohio, in conjunction with Simply Living, the Free Press, Green Education Fund and Jobs with Justice, and other supporters. We will explore these issues, reflect on Harrington’s Other America today, and discuss how we deal with poverty as a community and as a country.
Location: Progress Ohio Office, 172 E. State St., suite 600
Bob Fitrakis is a political science professor and the author of The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America and the Decline of the Socialist Party: Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington.
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