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ONE OF THREE GREAT BOOKS THAT CHANGED AMERICA IN THE EARLY SIXTIES

August 8, 2013

ONE OF THREE GREAT BOOKS THAT CHANGED AMERICA IN THE EARLY SIXTIES

Three great books that changed America were published within a year of one another during 1962 and 1963. They were (1) Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which exposed the threat that industry posed to nature and helped start the environmentalist movement; (2) Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which confronted the second class role of women, made it a public issue and helped move gender to the front burner; and (3) Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” the first book that documented America’s pervasive poverty. Since my primary purpose in blogging is to discuss problems created at the intersection of politics and government, this essay will discuss the history and impact of Harrington’s effort. (Harold Meyerson, a sometime associate of Harrington as a political organizer in the 70s and 80s, wrote a commentary on this book in the July-August (2012) edition of The American Prospect which provides background for my further commentary in this essay.)

In 1962 this country was sharing the wealth from the top to the bottom, the economy was booming, the interstate highway system was still being built, millions of returning veterans were going to college on the G.I. Bill, millions of new homes were being built in the suburbs via G.I. Bill and FHA mortgages etc. Wall Street had not yet decided to hog all new wealth the economy was providing (that came circa 1974), and the nation was enjoying widespread and unprecedented prosperity. Everyone, it seemed, was busy and prosperous.

The birth rate was up, auto factories were running two and sometimes three shifts to meet demand, and people and businesses were leaving town for their new homes in suburbia, a movement greatly facilitated by access to interstate highways, decent wages and government-subsidized mortgages. Unlike now, foreclosures were rare. America was working for all of us, from the top to the bottom. Few questioned continuation of this New Deal philosophy that had been interrupted by war. Many Republicans were hard to tell from Democrats. We were Americans first – and it was working.

One of my favorite all time economists, John Kenneth Galbraith, published his “The Affluent Society” earlier (which I immediately read at the time) in which he acknowledged the existence of poverty in our affluent age, but he did not tally the numbers of those in need. He rather classified poverty as “case,” i.e., the poverty of the mentally afflicted, alcoholics, and the like, and “insular poverty,” which he defined as the generational poverty of places that modern America had left behind (he specified one such place – Appalachia). He failed in his book to consider the millions of Americans who did not fit into his twin categories, those left in the cities and rural America, unseen though in plain view.

A few intellectuals, most socialists, believed that the national preoccupation with affluence obscured the country’s actual condition. Harrington, a socialist, both counted and identified those in poverty in his book. He was not an expert in the field because there were no experts; indeed there was no field.

Harrington had worked closely with fellow socialist Bayard Rustin on matters of poverty. (Bayard Rustin was a key Martin Luther King, Jr. adviser who would later organize the 1963 March on Washington.) Harrington toured the country in attempts to better the lives of those working for slave wages; he learned and documented how many poorly-paid workers in stores and hospitals were excluded from minimum-wage protection. He demanded an end to poverty for blacks; he was also (unlike Galbraith) specific in identifying the elderly, for whom he demanded an expansion of Social Security and affordable medical care. He correctly wrote that the eradication of poverty would require a massive investment of federal resources in public works, health care, education and decent housing.

Harrington invented the term “neoconservative” and the phrase “culture of poverty.” He used the culture of poverty to describe a situation in which the poor were prey; concentrated into ghettos and slums; unable to find work in thriving, unionized industries, uneducated with little hope for advancement. He wrote that the new poor frequently led lives of disconnection, disorganization and despair and that in poor communities families disintegrated and out-of-wedlock births increased. (He wrote that 51 years ago, and was prescient! Look around!) Even in a sea of prosperity, there was no “suburbia” for these people. Given such glaring and unfair treatment of those in poverty, it was inevitable that a Martin Luther King, Jr. or someone like him would show up to point out such inequities.

The right wing disagreed. Charles Murray and his right-wing friends said the poor were poor because of their own individual or collective flaws; that the poor’s culture was that of disorder, devoid of self-discipline, and no government policy that targeted resources to them was likely to succeed. Harrington’s response – “The real reason 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 economy, in the wrong industry, in the wrong racial or ethnic group.” Those were the choices both then and now. Take your pick. I’ve taken mine.

Martin Luther King, Jr. joked with Harrington that “we didn’t know we were poor until we read your book.” The book was read by Kennedy shortly before he was assassinated and there is reason to believe that it was read by LBJ since his Great Society encapsulated so many of Harrington’s ideas. It is also noteworthy that LBJ personally visited people at their homes in Appalachia (as recently documented on PBS) after (presumably) reading Galbraith’s book which specifically named that area as poor by place).

Harrington probably had more influence on LBJ than is known. After publication of his book, he took off a year to live in France. Upon his return, he was surprised to hear that he was “the man who discovered poverty.” His book was a big seller, read in college classrooms and Washington alike.

He was asked to come to Washington to help formulate LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” He spent 12 days there in day-and-night meetings with cabinet members and administration economists, writing memos recommending further expansion of a number of big programs FDR had instituted. The Great Society – War on Poverty outcomes under LBJ which were finally adopted came far short of his recommendations but were better than the laissez faire ideas of Republicans, who finally broke with Democrats at the time on issues of voting rights and other progressive ideas during the Johnson years. Professors’ theories are one thing – political realities are another – and legislation is not theory. LBJ did the best he could.

It was not long after the schism of the 60s between Republicans and Democrats ruined the postwar euphoria of prosperity for the many (if not all) that Wall Street, opportunistically sensing a big hole in a now divided political front, started hogging all of the new wealth created in the economy, captured the Republican party, and has since shamelessly put millions of Americans back into the ghettos of poverty with its bailouts, ownership of the tax and bankruptcy codes, criminal activities and opposition to programs designed to alleviate poverty, racism, decent wages, health care etc. (or is the concept of “shame” within its lexicon?).

I have personally lived and experienced the some fifty years given broad brush treatment in this essay, and I think I have figured out what ultimately happened. It partakes of the Goldilocks experience, i.e., the Socialists go too far in treating the nation’s woes and setting a course for our future, the Republicans do not go far enough, but the nostrums promoted by us liberals are “just right.” Harrington, a socialist, wanted to end capitalism altogether. Liberals don’t, but they do want to control its excesses lest the whole superstructure of social cohesion should collapse a la Rome and other such ancient political entities in different times and places in orgies of greed and corruption in their day.

We are all witness to such orgies again today. Is it time to publicly control such activities or shall we just sit in the corner in favor of laissez faire (non) policies, smugly assured that the exodus today from the middle class back to the ghettos is someone else’s problem? The latter is an attitude that rank and file Romans apparently had up to 476 A.D., when Rome ceased to exist.

The bigger question today is not about power and money; it is about our continuing existence as a viable nation state. It was greed and power-seeking that brought down Rome. It was not the barbarians; it was an inside job, so to speak. We should learn from that example in history, among others, because anyone who is awake can see the parallel, and as for barbarians then and now, just who are they? Are they “at the gate,” or are they already comfortably ensconced on Wall Street doing an “inside job,” oblivious to our collective fate in their myopic quest for profit? You be the judge. I have made my judgment.  GERALD  E

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