Today's date:
Winter 1987

The Other America Revisited: A More Difficult Poverty

Michael Harrington's 1962 examination of poverty amidst affluence, The Other America, stirred the conscience of the nation and inspired the Kennedy-Johnson policies that resulted in the War on Poverty.

We recently went back to Harrington and asked him to reflect on "the other America" almost a quarter of a century later.

The Other America Then
When I wrote The Other America in 1962, I estimated there were 40 million poor out of a population of 200 million. At that time, the aging were the poorest group about 40% lived in poverty. I also mentioned migrant workers. But the main focus was on the urban ghettos, in the North as well as in places like Atlanta, and rural poverty.

The nature of poverty that existed in Appalachia concerned me very much. There, we first saw in rural areas the vicious downward cycle of industrial dislocation or underdevelopment that characterizes America's inner cities today. The area was failing geographically. Because it was failing it couldn't raise tax resources. Without tax resources it couldn't fix the infrastructure. Without an infrastructure it couldn't attract industry. Ultimately, the most creative and imaginative people would get out at their first opportunity, leaving the rest behind without the financial or cultural resources to change their condition.

Finally, I explored at the time the emotional and mental pathologies of the poor, concluding that these were not Freudian in genesis, but socially caused. I felt it was true then, and is true now, that the mother and father figures didn't cause the poor to lose their equilibrium in society, but instead that loss was caused by the basic determinants of their life: crowding, violence, hunger, noise and various forms of social disintegration.

The Other America Now
Looking at the situation again in 1986, there are a number of things to be said.

The official government poverty line cuts off at $10,000 annual income for a family of four. If we further define poverty relatively as one-half of median income, there has actually been an increase in poverty. It went down in the 1960s, stabilized in the 1970s and started going up again around 1977.

The aging have made enormous gains, although roughly 15% are still poor. When I originally looked at the question, Social Security was by no means universal; its benefits were low and not indexed. Since 1971, three things have happened. Social Security was universalized, benefits were substantially increased, and they were indexed to inflation.

Today, children have replaced the aging as the group which is worst-off. Almost one quarter of children under six years of age are poor in America today!

In terms of black urban poverty, a couple of things have occurred in the last 25 years - both failure and success. There has been an incredible persistence of poverty among blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups. But there has also been progress.

At the beginning of the 1960s, blacks were democratically poor. Everyone was poor, with the exception of entertainers and athletes. There was not much of a middle-class. Education, plus affirmative action, plus the expansion of the economy in the sixties changed that. The number of blacks today who are making $30,000 to $50,000 a year is not insignificant.

This progress, however, may have made the poverty of those who didn't make it worse. Now, they are threatened by the feeling that it's their fault alone that they couldn't make it. Before, they could say, "It's simply racism. No blacks are making it except Jackie Robinson." Now the difficult structural and racial barriers are reinforced by psychological defeatism.

Finally, there are the newest dimensions to poverty, the precise boundaries of which are not yet known. Sweatshops utilizing immigrants from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America have re-emerged in almost every major American city during the last decade. Added to this we have, for the first time in the postwar period, the poverty of industrial workers who have lost their jobs and farmers who are losing their farms.

Poverty is also more difficult to deal with today than it was in the sixties. In the 1960s, blue-collar jobs were expanding. Auto employment didn't peak until 1978. Twenty thousand women got jobs producing steel in the 1970s. But, today, the combination of internationalization, corporate flight, corporate merger and corporate rationalization has decimated the manufacturing sector. So, not only is the once-employed steelworker losing his job, but the poor black youth who faces less racial than in the past now has no blue-collar job to aspire to. The downward spiral of regional poverty that I saw in Appalachia when I first wrote The Other America could now be applied to a region extending from Pennsylvania and New York to Indiana and Illinois.

Misconceptions about the Underclass
One needs to be very careful about using the term "underclass." I believe it was first used by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in his mid-sixties study, Beyond the Welfare State. The underclass he referred to was the increasing population of marginalized Americans not covered by welfare sure policies. Recently Charles Murray, the author of Losing Ground, has used the term to characterize a permanent group, mainly blacks, who are mired in immobility precisely because they are dependent on the welfare state. Ken Auletta, the writer, estimates that 20% of the poor, or 8 million people, are in the underclass. And he refers to them as petty crooks, junkies, people just floating around.

However, the use of the term "underclass'' in any way that is synonymous with "the poor" is Very misleading. It not only tends to exaggerate the criminality of the poor, but misses a lot of people, from single women and their children to sweatshop workers.

Now, in The Other America, I talked about a culture of poverty where there was a higher incidence of mental illness and antisocial behavior.

But I never have understood such conditions to be an autonomous subculture. Rather, I see the pathological behavior of such a subculture, or "underclass,'' as rooted primarily in social and economic structures. That is the big dividing line between people like Charles Murray and myself

There are other misconceptions:

Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancy. One widespread notion about the poverty subculture, reinforced by Bill Moyer's TV documentary on the subject, is that the poor, and particularly young black girls, are dropping babies all over the lot. But, as even Charles Murray points out, the rate of teenage pregnancy among poor black girls is much less than it was in 1960. What has confused most people is that the out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate, which went down from 1960 to about 1975, has started to rise again although it is still much lower than in 1960. And that is as much a consequence of the declining wedlock rates not only in the black community, but in the society as a whole. In fact, the out-of-wedlock rate among white women has gone up, even as it has declined among black women. Moreover, out-of-wedlock pregnancies are highly related, not to poor blacks in general, but to broken families among poor blacks. Recent studies by William Julius Wolfson at the University of Wisconsin demonstrate that if one member of the family has already had an out-of-wedlock baby, there is a 50% chance their own children will follow suit. But, if that is not the family history, the chances are closer to 9%.

Episodic Poverty and Welfare Dependence. Another misconception is that welfare dependence is the permanent condition of a single mother with a bunch of kids. The facts suggest otherwise.

First of all, 50% of the women on Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) are on it for two years or less. The average AFDC family has two kids, not eight. About 15% on the AFDC rolls are "chronic repeaters," staying on AFDC for eight years or more.

Secondly, new data based on longitudinal studies by the University of Michigan's Income Dynamics Panel suggest that the amount of permanent poverty is less than we think, but that episodic poverty is more than we think. Over a ten year period (roughly the 1970s), 25% of Americans were poor one year out of those ten. However, if you looked at the people who were poor in nine out of ten years, it is only about 9%.

If this data is correct, it is extremely significant. It suggests that poverty in America today is a "turnover poverty." We may thus be facing a radically different definition of poverty that would mean two-thirds of the people who are poor during any ten year period get out of poverty. The remaining "permanent culture of poverty" - the underclass - would then be only 9% of all the poor instead of the 15-20% we currently estimate. But, equally significant, this definition raises the number of people for whom poverty is a problem at one time or another. It is clear that American poverty today is a much more fluid phenomenon than ever before.

Crime. Now there is the problem of urban crime. It has certainly increased dramatically since The Other America was written. But here, again, looking closely at the crime statistics tells us that crime in the ghetto is committed by a fairly small group of repeat offenders. That's not to say crime isn't an urgent problem. When someone is being mugged, it is hardly any protection to call for the implementation of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act.

I am saying, though, that one of the great political problems that emerges in this debate on the "underclass," which wasn't present when I wrote The Other America, is the image of black youth. In 1962, that image was of a black college student in North Carolina wearing a tie, carrying a copy of Albert Camus' Rebel and turning the other cheek to some redneck at the Woolworth lunch counter. By the end of the decade the image of a black youth - an image which had more to do with ending that decade politically than Vietnam - was that of a looter or a mugger.

Education. Another situation, like crime, that is worse today than 25 years ago is education and the dropout rate.

Lyndon Johnson, as we all know, believed in education. He also thought that education was the alternative to any serious institutional or structural economic changes. For him, it was the great transmission belt to the mainstream of the Great Society.

He simply thought that if high-school graduates have a higher income than non-high school graduates, and college graduates have a higher income than high-school graduates, then get the poor person a high-school or college diploma and they'll have more income. What he didn't realize is that when the supply of college graduates increases from 5% to 25% of the population, the credential attracts less income and even further devalues the high-school diploma. What also was not realized was the impact of flooding the high schools with students that had mixed expectations and motivations. In the 1950s and 1960s, the high school population was primarily those kids getting a high school diploma in order to find a secure, working-class job. But when, by the later 1960s, high school became a normal experience for about 80% of the youth, there were students with problems the schools had never confronted before. The schools were overwhelmed with violence and behavior problems that never before existed. By the 1980s, teachers in major cities from New York to Los Angeles began demanding ''combat pay" to compensate for risk of personal injury in the line of duty.

Added to these illusions about what mass education would do in and of itself to eliminate poverty are other factors. The so-called "reservation wage," or the wage that is considered sufficient to get a kid off his tail and looking for a job, is identical among black and white youths. But the unemployment rate among black youths is much, much higher because their access to work is so severely limited. So, the attitude that arises which we see reflected in high minority school dropout rates - is, "What difference does it make if I stay in school or not?" This is particularly true if the black kid lives in an area where other kids might be making $2000 a week selling dope instead of studying math. While I think people like Charles Murray wildly exaggerate this phenomenon, there seems to be no question that jobs in the underground economy of crime are the best available to a black youth from the inner city. Also, this is not unique to blacks. Every minority group, from Italians to the Irish, have gone through a criminal phase during their integration into mainstream society.

When one really examines the data, using the notion of an ''underclass" to indicate a criminal stratum of society, or a culture with less paternal instincts than the society as a whole, is just wrong. I just can't buy the idea of this vast underclass for which none of the Great Society programs has worked, or the idea that the dangerous poor are at the gates.

The Policy Agenda
If we changed the economic structures to allow for more equitable income distribution, would it end the urban ghetto? Absolutely not. Would it make a major dent in it? I am absolutely convinced that it would.

Social aspirations in the United States are independent of social class. Everybody aspires to a living standard of the type described in "Dallas" or "The Cosby Show" But, while aspirations are non-class, the ability to fulfill those aspirations are clam determined. Therefore, aspirations for those with middle-class opportunities become incentives to work harder. Among the poor, they become frustrating, pathological invitations to crime and other antisocial conduct.

Having said this, and given the inherent limits of structural economic change in a middle-class society where most people are not poor or on the verge of poverty, what should be the policy agenda today?

To begin with, a lot of the new agenda is the old agenda. I would immediately restore the Reagan cuts in Medicaid and food stamps. 1 would federalize welfare to eliminate the discrepancies of public assistance among the various states.

The more important, but also vastly tougher agenda, is that of full employment. But, right now, even most trade unionists and American liberals have given up on the idea. If we accept 7% unemployment - and that means 14% for black males - as existing in the 47th month of a recovery and define it as good times, then I don't see how we are realistically going to deal with the problem of the poor. Particularly at a time when most of the new jobs are low-level, non-unionized and poor-paying, I don't see a solution.

We have to remember that there was a receptive mood to initiating a War on Poverty. Nineteen sixty-two, when I wrote The Other America, was the beginning of the decade of greatest affluence in American history. The real income of the majority of Americans was going up every year. The optimism was symbolized by auto-workers buying snowmobiles, moving out of Detroit and buying homes in the suburbs. Under those circumstances, Lyndon Johnson could say, "Look, I'm not proposing that we slow down your rate of increase. Indeed, if we do what I'm saying, it will actually increase GNP. We're going to take tax-eaters and turn them into taxpayers. We're going to give these poor people a job.'' I recall that when Paul Jacobs, Frank Mankewicz and I were working on the original War on Poverty Task Force the day after Sargent Shriver was appointed to run it, we rejected the notion of the 1930s "make work" approach to resolving poverty. We determined that the Great Society effort would be real participation in the economy.

Without sufficient growth, that kind of talk is not possible now. The problem today is that a majority of Americans are unsure of what is going to happen next. They suspect the American economy of being boobytrapped in a hundred different ways, with all the consumer debts and budget and trade deficits. They know that their real income is lower today than it was in 1978.

When I recently visited some steelworkers in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, I found them psychologically devastated. The idea that they would lose their medical coverage and would be unable to send their kids to a doctor, to say nothing of college, never entered their imagination.

So, it is clear that trying to motivate an antipoverty program today in the name of opposition to poverty is not going to get very far. What has to be argued is that the poor today are suffering in an extreme and particularly cruel way from the very same trends that are scaring all of us. We can only deal with poverty after we've addressed the very real insecurities of the working class and the middle-class.

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