Our Invisible Poor

Dwight Macdonald, Our Invisible Poor. The New Yorker, 19 January 1963.
In September 2012, Jill Lepore wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “On January 19, 1963, the New Yorker published a 13,000-word essay, ‘Our Invisible Poor,’ the longest book review the magazine had ever run. No piece of prose did more to make plain the atrocity of poverty in an age of affluence. Ostensibly a review of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, which had all but disappeared since its publication in 1962, “Our Invisible Poor” took in a slew of other titles, along with a series of dreary economic reports, to demonstrate these facts: The poor are sicker than everyone else, but they have less health insurance; they have less money, but they pay more taxes; and they live where people with money seldom go….

“The Other America sold 70,000 copies the year after Macdonald’s essay was published (the book has since sold more than a million copies). “Our Invisible Poor” was one of the most widely read essays of its day. Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, gave John F. Kennedy a copy. The president charged Heller with launching a legislative assault on poverty. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson took up that charge, waging a war on poverty. He lost that war. In the years since, with the rise of a conservative movement opposed to the basic tenets of Macdonald’s interpretation and Johnson’s agenda, the terms of the debate have changed. Government, Macdonald believed, was the solution. No, Ronald Reagan argued, citing the failures of Johnson’s War on Poverty, government is the problem.”

[In his 1962 book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, Michael Harrington writes] ‘Poverty should be defined in terms of those who are denied the minimal levels of health, housing, food, and education that our present stage of scientific knowledge specifics as necessary for life as it is now lived in the United States.’ His dividing line follows that proposed in recent studies by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics: $4,000 a year for a family of four and $2,000 for an individual living alone….

Mr. Harrington estimates that between forty and fifty million Americans, or about a fourth of the population, are now living in poverty. Not just below the level of comfortable living, but real poverty, in the old-fashioned sense of the word—that they are hard put to it to get the mere necessities, beginning with enough to eat. This is difficult to believe in the United States of 1963, but one has to make the effort, and it is now being made. The extent of our poverty has suddenly become visible…

It is not…surprising to find that there is some disagreement about just how many millions of Americans are poor. The point is that all these recent studies agree that American poverty is still a mass phenomenon….

The distinction between a family income of $3,500 (“poverty”) and $4,500 (“deprivation”) is not vivid to those who run things—the 31 per cent whose incomes are between $7,500 and $14,999 and the 7 per cent of the topmost top dogs, who get $15,000 or more. These two minorities, sizable enough to feel they are the nation, have been as unaware of the continued existence of mass poverty as this reviewer was until he read Mr. Harrington’s book. They are businessmen, congressmen, judges, government officials, politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, editors, journalists, and administrators in colleges, churches, and foundations. Since their education, income, and social status are superior, they, if anybody, might be expected to accept responsibility for what the Constitution calls “the general welfare.” They have not done so in the case of the poor. And they have a good excuse. It is becoming harder and harder simply to see the one-fourth of our fellow-citizens who live below the poverty line…

[Mr. Harrington writes that] ‘the poor are politically invisible. . . . They are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized. They have no face; they have no voice. . . . Only the social agencies have a really direct involvement with the other America, and they are without any great political power. . . .’

The most obvious citizens of the Other America are those whose skins are the wrong color. The folk slogans are realistic: “Last to be hired, first to be fired” and “If you’re black, stay back.” There has been some progress. In 1939, the non-white worker’s wage averaged 41.4 per cent of the white worker’s; by 1958 it had climbed to 58 per cent. A famous victory, but the non-whites still average only slightly more than half as much as the whites. Even this modest gain was due not to any Rooseveltian or Trumanian social reform but merely to the fact that for some years there was a war on and workers were in demand, whether black, white, or violet. By 1947, the non-whites had achieved most of their advance—to 54 per cent of white earnings, which means they have gained, in the last fifteen years, just 4 per cent….

The poor are…different in a physical sense: they are much less healthy. According to “Poverty and Deprivation” [a pamphlet issued by the Conference on Economic Progress in 1962], the proportion of those “disabled or limited in their major activity by chronic ill health” rises sharply as income sinks….

An obvious cause, among others, for the very poor being four times as much disabled by “chronic ill health” as the well-to-do is that they have much less money to spend for medical care—in fact, almost nothing. This weighs with special heaviness on the aged poor. During the fifties, Mr. Harrington notes, “all costs on the Consumer Price Index went up by 12 per cent. But medical costs, that terrible staple of the aged, went up by 36 per cent, hospitalization rose by 65 per cent, and group hospitalization costs (Blue Cross premiums) were up by 83 per cent.”

This last figure is particularly interesting, since Blue Cross and such plans are the A.M.A.’s alternative to socialized medicine, or, rather, to the timid fumblings toward it that even our most liberal politicians have dared to propose. Such figures throw an unpleasant light on the Senate’s rejection of Medicare. The defeat was all the more bitter because, in the usual effort to appease the conservatives (with the usual lack of success—only five Republicans and only four Southern Democrats voted pro), the bill was watered down in advance. Not until he had spent $90 of his own money—which is 10 per cent of the annual income of some 3,000,000 aged poor—would a patient have been eligible. And the original program included only people already covered by Social Security or Railroad Retirement pensions and excluded the neediest of all the 2,500,000 aged poor who are left out of both these systems. These untouchables were finally included in order to placate five liberal Republican senators, led by Javits of New York. They did vote for Medicare, but they were the only Republicans who did.

Mental as well as physical illness is much greater among the poor, even though our complacent cliché is that nervous breakdowns are a prerogative of the rich because the poor “can’t afford” them. (They can’t, but they have them anyway.) This bit of middle-class folklore should be laid to rest by a study made in New Haven: “Social Class and Mental Illness,” by August B. Hollingshead and Frederick C. Redlich (Wiley). They found that the rate of “treated psychiatric illness” is about the same from the rich down through decently paid workers—an average of 573 Per 100,000. But in the bottom fifth it shoots up to 1,659 per 100,000. There is an even more striking difference in the kind of mental illness. Of those in the four top income groups who had undergone psychiatric treatment, 65 per cent had been treated for neurotic problems and 35 per cent for psychotic disturbances. In the bottom fifth, the treated illnesses were almost all psychotic (90 per cent). This shows there is something to the notion that the poor “can’t afford” nervous breakdowns—the milder kind, that is—since the reason the proportion of treated neuroses among the poor is only 10 per cent is that a neurotic can keep going, after a fashion. But the argument cuts deeper the other way. The poor go to a psychiatrist (or, more commonly, are committed to a mental institution) only when they are completely unable to function because of psychotic symptoms. Therefore, even that nearly threefold increase in mental disorders among the poor is probably an underestimate….

The main reason the American poor have become invisible is that since 1936 their numbers have been reduced by two-thirds. Astounding as it may seem, the fact is that President Roosevelt’s “one-third of a nation” was a considerable understatement; over two-thirds of us then lived below the poverty line, as is shown by the tables that follow. But today the poor are a minority, and minorities can be ignored if they are so heterogeneous that they cannot be organized. When the poor were a majority, they simply could not be overlooked….

The well-to-do ($7,500 to $14,999) have enormously increased, from 7 per cent of all families in 1936 to 31 per cent today [1963]. The rich ($15,000 and over) have also multiplied-from 2 to 7 per cent. But it should be noted that the very rich, according to another new study, “The Share of Top Wealth-Holders in National Wealth, 1922-1956,” by Robert J. Lampman (Princeton), have experienced a decline. He finds that the top 1 per cent of wealth-holders [the very rich] owned 38 per cent of the national wealth in 1929 and own only 28 per cent today. (Though let’s not get sentimental over that “only.”) Thus…there has in fact been a redistribution of wealth—in favor of the well-to-do and the rich at the expense of the poor and the very rich….

The post-1940 decrease in poverty was not due to the policies or actions of those who are not poor, those in positions of power and responsibility. The war economy needed workers, wages went up, and the poor became less poor. When economic stasis set in, the rate of decrease in poverty slowed down proportionately, and it is still slow [1963]. Kennedy’s efforts to “get the country moving again” have been unsuccessful, possibly because he has, despite the suggestions of many of his economic advisers, not yet advocated the one big step that might push the economy off dead center: a massive increase in government spending….

It’s not that Public Opinion doesn’t become Aroused every now and then. But the arousement never leads to much. It was aroused twenty-four years ago when John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” but Mr. Harrington reports that things in the Imperial Valley are still much the same: low wages, bad housing, no effective union. Public Opinion is too public—that is, too general; of its very nature, it can have no sustained interest in California agriculture. The only groups with such a continuing interest are the workers and the farmers who hire them. Once Public Opinion ceased to be Aroused, the battle was again between the two antagonists with a real, personal stake in the outcome, and there was no question about which was stronger. So with the rural poor in general. In the late fifties, the average annual wage for white male American farm workers was slightly over $1,000; women, children, Negroes, and Mexicans got less. One recalls Edward R. Murrow’s celebrated television program about these people, “Harvest of Shame.” Once more everybody was shocked, but the harvest is still shameful. One also recalls that Mr. Murrow, after President Kennedy had appointed him head of the United States Information Agency, tried to persuade the B.B.C. not to show “Harvest of Shame.” His argument was that it would give an undesirable “image” of America to foreign audiences….

The poor are even fatter than the rich. (The cartoonists will have to revise their clichés.) “Obesity is seven times more frequent among women of the lowest socio-economic level than it is among those of the highest level,” state Drs. Moore, Stunkard, and Srole in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. (The proportion is almost the same for men.)…

The poor actually pay more taxes, in proportion to their income, than the rich. A recent study by the Tax Foundation estimates that 28 per cent of incomes under $2,000 goes for taxes, as against 24 per cent of the incomes of families earning five to seven times as much. Sales and other excise taxes are largely responsible for this curious statistic….

The final irony is that the Welfare State, which Roosevelt erected and which Eisenhower, no matter how strongly he felt about it, didn’t attempt to pull down, is not for the poor, either.  Agricultural workers are not covered by Social Security, nor are many of the desperately poor among the aged….

It seems likely that mass poverty will continue in this country for a long time. The more it is reduced, the harder it is to keep on reducing it. The poor, having dwindled from two-thirds of the population in 1936 to one-quarter today, no longer are a significant political force, as is shown by the Senate’s rejection of Medicare and by the Democrats’ dropping it as an issue in the elections last year….

The authors of “Poverty and Deprivation” take a dim view of the Kennedy administration’s efforts to date: ‘The Federal Budget is the most important single instrument available to us as a free people to induce satisfactory economic performance, and to reduce poverty and deprivation. . . .

The effect of government policy on poverty has two quite distinct aspects. One is the indirect effect of the stimulation of the economy by federal spending. Such stimulation—though by wartime demands rather than government policy—has in the past produced a prosperity that did cut down American poverty by almost two-thirds….

…[T]here is now a hard core of the specially disadvantaged—because of age, race, environment, physical or mental defects, etc.—that would not be significantly reduced by general prosperity….

To do something about this hard core, a second line of government policy would be required; namely, direct intervention to help the poor. We have had this since the New Deal, but it has always been grudging and miserly, and we have never accepted the principle that every citizen should be provided, at state expense, with a reasonable minimum standard of living regardless of any other considerations. It should not depend on earnings, as does Social Security, which continues the inequalities and inequities and so tends to keep the poor forever poor. Nor should it exclude millions of our poorest citizens because they lack the political pressure to force their way into the Welfare State. The governmental obligation to provide, out of taxes, such a minimum living standard for all who need it should be taken as much for granted as free public schools have always been in our history….

[We did not know] what the budgetary effects would be when we established the principle of free public education. The rationale then was that all citizens should have an equal chance of competing for a better status. The rationale now is different: that every citizen has a right to become or remain part of our society because if this right is denied, as it is in the case of at least one-fourth of our citizens, it impoverishes us all. Since 1932, “the government”—local, state, and federal—has recognized a responsibility to provide its citizens with a subsistence living…. Nobody starves, but every fourth citizen rubs along on a standard of living that is below what Mr. Harrington defines as “the minimal levels of health, housing, food, and education that our present stage of scientific knowledge specifics as necessary for life as it is now lived in the United States.” Nobody starves, but a fourth of us are excluded from the common social existence. Not to be able to afford a movie or a glass of beer is a kind of starvation—if everybody else can.

The problem is obvious: the persistence of mass poverty in a prosperous country. The solution is also obvious: to provide, out of taxes, the kind of subsidies that have always been given to the public schools (not to mention the police and fire departments and the post office)—subsidies that would raise incomes above the poverty level, so that every citizen could feel he is indeed such.