Maurice Isserman: Michael Harrington, Warrior on Poverty

Roundup: Talking About History

[Maurice Isserman is a professor of history at Hamilton College and the author of “The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington.”]

If there is a heaven, and it has a place for virtuous skeptics, I imagine Michael Harrington is looking down, amused by the recent cover of Newsweek proclaiming, “We Are All Socialists Now,” not to mention Newt Gingrich’s lament that the United States is seeing “European socialism transplanted to Washington.” Back in the 1960s, Harrington had some experience trying to “transplant” some socialist ideas to Washington — and the results were rather different from what he had hoped.

Fifty years ago this July, Commentary magazine (at the time a journal of bracingly liberal sentiments) ran Harrington’s article “Our Fifty Million Poor,” in which he sought to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived “below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.”

Harrington’s own knowledge of poverty was decidedly secondhand. Born in 1928 in St. Louis and educated at Holy Cross, Yale Law School and the University of Chicago, he moved to New York City in 1949 to become a writer. In 1951 he joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement as a volunteer at its soup kitchen. Within a few years he left the Catholic Worker (and the Roman Catholic Church) and joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth affiliate of the battered remnants of the American Socialist Party.

In researching the Commentary essay, Harrington picked up the notion of the “culture of poverty,” a casual bit of intellectual borrowing with fateful consequences. The phrase was coined by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who contended that being poor was not simply a condition marked by the absence of wealth; rather, poverty created “a subculture of its own,” and those raised within it were unlikely to escape. However different their places of origin, he argued, poor people in Mexico might have more in common with their counterparts in New York than with better-off people from their own countries.

Echoing Lewis, Harrington argued that American poverty constituted “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” He elaborated on this idea in “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” published in the spring of 1962. It was a short work with a simple thesis: poverty was both more extensive and more tenacious than most Americans assumed. An “invisible land” of the poor existed in rural isolation or in crowded slums where middle-class visitors seldom ventured. “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them,” Harrington wrote. “They are not simply neglected and forgotten. . . . What is much worse, they are not seen.”...

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