This is a joint Nation/TomDispatch article and will appear at TomDispatch.com.
It’s been exactly fifty years since Americans, or at least the nonpoor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other America. If this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out.
Harrington’s book jolted a nation that prided itself on its classlessness and even fretted about the spirit-sapping effects of “too much affluence.” He estimated that one-quarter of the population lived in poverty—inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farmworkers and elderly Americans among them. We could no longer boast, as President Nixon had done in his “kitchen debate” with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow just three years earlier, about the splendors of American capitalism.
At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently and led lives characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote, “There is…a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”
Harrington did such a good job of making the poor seem “other” that when I read his book in 1963, I did not recognize my own forebears and extended family in it. All right, some of them did lead disorderly lives, by middle-class standards, involving drinking, brawling and out-of-wedlock babies. But they were also hard-working and in some cases fiercely ambitious—qualities that Harrington seemed to reserve for the economically privileged.
According to him, what distinguished the poor was their unique “culture of poverty,” a concept he borrowed from anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who had derived it from his study of Mexican slum-dwellers. That concept gave The Other America a trendy academic twist, but it also gave the book a conflicted double message: “We”—always the presumptively affluent readers—needed to find some way to help the poor, but we also needed to understand that there was something wrong with them, something that could not be cured by a straightforward redistribution of wealth. Think of the earnest liberal who encounters a panhandler, is moved to pity by the man’s obvious destitution, but refrains from offering a quarter—since the hobo might, after all, spend the money on booze.
In his defense, Harrington did not mean that poverty was caused by what he called the “twisted” proclivities of the poor. But he certainly opened the floodgates to that interpretation. In 1965, as an assistant labor secretary under Lyndon Johnson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a sometime liberal and one of Harrington’s drinking companions at the famed White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village—blamed the shaky structure of the “Negro family” for inner-city poverty, clearing the way for decades of victim-blaming. A few years after Moynihan’s report, Harvard urbanologist Edward Banfield, who was to go on to serve as an adviser to Ronald Reagan, felt free to claim that “the lower-class individual lives from moment to moment…. Impulse governs his behavior…. He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless…. [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.”