The Other America: Poverty in the United States

Michael Harrington, The Other America. March 1962. “The Other America spurred many of the domestic policy initiatives undertaken by the federal government in the 1960s, known collectively as ‘the war on poverty.'” Maurice Isserman: “Harrington’s most famous appeal to the American conscience, The Other America, was a short work (one hundred and eighty-six pages in the original edition) with a simple thesis: poverty in the affluent society of the United States was both more extensive and more tenacious than most Americans assumed…. Harrington revealed to his readers that an “invisible land” of the poor, over forty million strong, or one in four Americans at the time, fell below the poverty line. For the most part this Other America existed in rural isolation and 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 in his introduction in 1962. ‘They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen.'”

Excerpts from book:

[T]he 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….

Here is one of the most familiar forms of the vicious circle of poverty. The poor get sick more than anyone else in the society. That is because they live in slums, jammed together under unhygienic conditions; they have inadequate diets, and cannot get decent medical care. When they become sick, they are sick longer than any other group in the society. Because they are sick more often and longer than anyone else they lose wages and work, and find it difficult to hold a steady job. And because of this, they cannot pay for good housing, for a nutritious diet, for doctors. At any given point in the circle, particularly when there is a major illness, their prospect is to move to an even lower level and to begin the cycle, round and round, toward even more suffering….

[I]n this book I have attempted to describe the faces behind the statistics, to tell a little of the ‘thickness’ of personal life in the other America. Of necessity, I have begun with large groups: the dispossessed workers, the minorities, the farm poor, and the aged…. And finally, there are the slums, and the psychology of the poor.

Throughout, I work on an assumption that cannot be proved by Government figures or even documented by impressions of the other America. It is an ethical proposition, and it can be simply stated: In a nation with a technology that could provide every citizen with a decent life, it is an outrage and a scandal that there should be such social misery. Only if one begins with this assumption is it possible to pierce through the invisibility of 40,000,000 to 50,000,000 human beings and to see the other America….

What shall we tell the American poor, once we have seen them? Shall we say to them that they are better off than the Indian poor, the Italian poor, the Russian poor? That is one answer, but it is heartless. I should put it another way. I want to tell every well-fed and optimistic American that it is intolerable that so many millions should be maimed in body and in spirit when it is not necessary that they should be. My standard of comparison is not how much worse things used to be. It is how much better they could be if only we were stirred….