The Other America: Poverty in the United States

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The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington examines the extent of poverty throughout the United States prior to the book's publication in 1962. The work depicts the dismal status of the poor despite post-war economic growth. The phrase “the other America” describes those living under Harrington’s poverty standards [1]. Harrington estimates the membership of “the other America” to number 40-50 million [1]. More significantly, he claims the general population is unaware of those living in poverty. With this statement he presents a number of blinding factors. Notably he targets the rhetoric of the higher classes which he feels renders the poor “invisible," fostering beliefs of a general level of affluence throughout the United States. The elimination of this “invisibility” factor is essential to his conclusion that the higher classes must act on behalf of “the other America”. This extrinsic action must target the “culture of poverty”, a term Harrington uses to describe the tenacity of the epidemic. The primary argument is that the resistance to upward mobility for those living in poverty is at its core an issue of corrupt values.

Harrington explains that the skewed values of "the other America" contribute to the "vicious circle" of poverty. Harrington also stresses the point that the poor are not just in concentrated areas; they are all over the United States. There were the rural poor such as small farmers, farmhands, and migrant workers whose jobs were replaced by machines or worked jobs too dirty and specific for machinery. There were also the urban poor that included people who had moved from rural towns and found their transition difficult, beats who lived in poverty voluntarily, alcoholics who lived only for the drink, people who had always been poor, and people who lost their jobs or worked in jobs that were unskilled or semi-skilled. Harrington explains that this poverty was caused by a poverty cycle. He explains that they lived in a culture of poverty. He says, “The United States contains an underdeveloped nation, a culture of poverty. Its inhabitants do not suffer the extreme privation of the peasants of Asia or the tribesman of Africa, yet the mechanism of the misery is similar. They are beyond history, beyond progress, sunk in a paralyzing, maiming routine” (158).[1]

This web of interdependent factors inhibits escape from impoverishment. Harrington details the factors which have allowed political figures to skew the mindset of the general American public, including changes in travel and manufacturing habits and the fact that the poor are the minority for the first time in the history of the United States. Harrington goes beyond the economic reasons to end poverty. He asserts that it is morally objectionable that a society with such vast resources as the United States should not allow poverty to continue. Harrington argues that such suffering is an “abomination in a society where it is needless that anything that can be done should be done.”[1]

One of the influences he talks about was the shift in travel habits of many Americans. The largest contributor to this transition is the widespread use of air travel. Airplanes impacted the "visibility" of poverty and the impoverished in that people are no longer forced to drive through or stop in low income areas on the way to their destinations. This change means that many people are only as aware of other regions as the news and public figures want them to be.

The difficulty in garnering a true understanding of the hardship in areas while flying over them is one explanation for how and why society has become so disconnected from their surroundings, but the question still remains why people living near to these pockets of impoverished Americans not more vocal about the severity of the problem? The answer Harrington said comes from an unexpected source, the changes in the production systems of clothing. Corporations transitioned to a mass production method of clothing manufacturing which has both flooded the market with more products but also decreased the average cost of the garments. This seemingly inconsequential movement oddly enough helped to mask the historical signs of poverty. Americans more readily identify poverty with dirty people clothed in rags rather than the man next to them on the subway wearing the same designer shirt they are. The fact the author so poignantly elucidates is that while the face of poverty has changed societies expectations have not allowing people to more readily believe the idea that poverty in America is dead.

While there are some physical changes that have led to the "invisibility" of the poor potentially the most important factor has been the fact that for the first time in US history the poor within the country are not the majority. Harrington does not deny that many Americans are far wealthier than ever before however he clearly shows that because the people left behind in the recent technological booms are the minority they are far less of a voice in our culture. Politicians are able to ignore the epidemic because the men and women affected do not have the influence that they historically wield.

The impact that The Other America had on our country was substantial. It was rumored that shortly before President Kennedy was assassinated, he was reading Harrington's book and wanted to implement changes on the way the Federal Government dealt with poverty. Linden Johnson's war on poverty cut the nations poverty rate from 1959 to 1973 in half from 22.4 to 11.1%. While the poverty rate has never returned to the astonishing level it was at at the time of publishing, it has fluctuated significantly over the past half century. In 2010 over 15%, or 46 million Americans were living in poverty and Harrington's suggested policies have not been put into practice at the level that he had recommended.

Harrington stressed that the amount of spending for antipoverty programs(less than 1% of the federal budget) is not significant enough to make a dent in the high U.S. poverty rate. Since the 1970's the poverty rate has fluctuated but has been two to three times higher than most other European counterparts. This is surprising in the fact that some of these governments offer their people cheap to free healthcare as well as various social welfare policies and stronger labor unions.


References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Harrington, Michael. The Other America; Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Print.
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