by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
January 26, 2012
MICHAEL HARRINGTON'S "OTHER AMERICA" COMES BACK WITH A VENGEANCE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- As the demolition derby that is the Republican presidential primary careens into Florida, the battle seems to come down to a choice between a vulture capitalist of, by, and for the 1 percent and a serial adulterer who has done more to drive politics into the gutter than any man alive.
You can't call the fight between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, because this assumes that today's Republican Party has a soul, instead of being the party of bigotry, stupidity and greed.
But it's a fight nonetheless, and it's a fight where America comes out the loser.
The elephant in the national living room can be summed up in these figures. The U.S. poverty line is set at about $22,300 for a family of four. There are 46.2 million Americans, or 15.1 percent of the population, living below the poverty line.
That's an increase of 27 percent from 2006 to 2010, and they are disproportionately people of color. And nearly 1 in 4 American children, 16.4 million in all, live in poverty.
Yet the Republicans refuse to discuss these figures, much less offer solutions. The silence is pretty loud among too many Democrats also. For all the ballyhoo of President Obama's State of the Union address this week, he did not address the issue of widespread and persistent poverty in America. Given the silence of those now in power, it's worth remembering a time when one book had the power to change public policy when it came to poverty.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington's "The Other America: Poverty in the United States" (ISBN 0-684-82678-X) . Even in the early 1960s, a time of affluence and limitless possibilities for many Americans, there was also grinding poverty in big cities and country villages, poverty that was nearly invisible to most of the nation.
Harrington wrote that the social welfare programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s did little to help those of the 50 million Americans who lived in poverty a generation later.
"Indeed, the paradox that the welfare state benefits those least who need help most is but a single instance of a persistent irony in the other America. Even when the money finally trickles down, even when a school is built in a poor neighborhood, for instance, the poor are still deprived. Their entire environment, their life, their values, do not prepare them to take advantage of the new opportunity," he wrote.
Today's poor, in short, missed the political and social gains of the Thirties. They are, as [economist John Kenneth] Galbraith rightly points out, the first minority poor in history, the first poor not to be seen, the first poor whom the politicians could leave alone.
"The first step toward the new poverty was taken when millions of people proved immune to progress. When that happened, the failure was not individual and personal, but a social product. But once the historic accident takes place, it begins to become a personal fate.
"There are mighty historical and economic forces that keep the poor down; and there are human beings who help out in this grim business, many of them unwittingly. There are sociological and political reasons why poverty is not seen; and there are misconceptions and prejudices that literally blind the eyes.
But the real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group.
"Once that mistake has been made, they could have been paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never even have had a chance to get out of the other America."
Harrington referred to a "vicious circle of poverty," where poor living conditions led to poor health, poor attendance at school or work, and over time, condemned generation after generation to a bleak existence where the means of escape simply did not exist.
"The fate of the poor," he concluded, "hangs upon the decision of the better-off. If this anger and shame are not forthcoming, someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same or worse."
Harrington thought he would be lucky to sell a few thousand copies of his treatise. Instead, it became a best seller and ultimately sold more than one million copies.
President John F. Kennedy read Harrington's book and was sufficiently moved by in to order his Administration to come up with an anti-poverty program in 1963. After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson (1963-68) quickly picked up this plan, added to it, and made fighting poverty a national issue within weeks of his taking office.
Johnson's "War on Poverty" initiatives such as Job Corps, VISTA, Head Start, and the Community Action Program succeeded in reducing poverty by 43 percent between 1964 and 1973. Combined with civil rights legislation, it opened more social, political and economic opportunities for the disenfranchised.
Five decades ago, we accepted Harrington's thesis that the idea of poverty in a prosperous nation such as ours is a moral outrage. Today, poverty isn't on the radar of our elected officials, and few seem concerned that poverty is returning to levels not seen in decades.
As has been the case for decades, the poor have no lobbyists in Washington. The most frustrating thing is that solving the problem of persistent poverty is not that difficult to do. Anti-poverty advocates say that just four simple initiatives - raising the minimum wage, strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding the Child Tax Credit and improving child care assistance - would reduce the poverty rate by more than 25 percent.
But the political will to do even this much is nonexistent. This is simply unacceptable, but as long as the poor remain invisible to our elected officials, and as long as no political price is exacted for ignoring the needs of the least among us, they get away with it.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.