An Op-Ed by Maurice Isserman, a professor of history in today’s NYT frames the competing views of poverty in the US quite well. The conclusion is sobering and distressing: lack of continued popular economic analysis of poverty since the passing of Michael Harrington “We are left instead with the insistent, culturally determined arguments of Mr. Murray and others of like mind, dominating the discourse in a harsher America.” – JH
THE libertarian writer Charles Murray has probably done more than any other contemporary thinker to keep alive the idea of a “culture of poverty,” the theory that poor people are trapped by distorted norms and aspirations and not merely material deprivation. His latest book, “Coming Apart,” has gotten a flood of attention for its depiction of a white underclass increasingly disconnected from marriage, work, religion and the rule of law.
Overlooked in the debate, however, is the role that an earlier book — by Michael Harrington, a young Socialist intellectual whose views differed radically from Mr. Murray’s — played in framing, and bringing to the forefront, the analysis of poverty as a social problem.
Published 50 years ago this month, when Harrington was 34, “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” was a surprise best seller that influenced the direction of social welfare policy, particularly Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, as well as the backlash that followed it. Just 186 pages in the original edition, the book had a simple thesis: poverty was more extensive and tenacious than an affluent America had assumed. “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them,” he wrote.
But his explanation for the stubbornness of poverty would ultimately lend ammunition both to Great Society liberals and to those, like Mr. Murray, who opposed such spending. Harrington had picked up the idea of a “culture of poverty” from the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, whose 1959 study of Mexican slum dwellers identified a “subculture” of lowered aspirations and short-term gratification. Echoing Lewis, Harrington argued that American poverty constituted “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” It would not be solved merely by economic expansion or moral exhortation, he contended, but by a “comprehensive assault on poverty.”
Deeply sympathetic as he was to the poor, his argument, pitched to more affluent readers, was couched in a tone of calm reason. He did not hesitate to present the seedier sides of the Other America: domestic violence, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse. In his view, these problems were not a judgment on the poor as individuals, but on a society indifferent to their plight. His popularization of the phrase “culture of poverty” has unintended consequences. There was nothing in the “vicious circle” of pathology he sketched that was culturally determined, but in the hands of others, the idea came to signify an ingrained system of norms passed from generation to generation.
Harrington’s prescription was a broad federal jobs program, in essence a return to the New Deal’s strategy for coping with the Great Depression. But the 1960s War on Poverty was not fought according to that strategy. Underfinanced and often poorly targeted, it was nevertheless not an abject failure; “community action” was a controversial and short-lived experiment, but successes from Medicaid to Head Start have endured. In politics, however, perception frequently trumps reality. We like our wars, actual and metaphorical, to deliver swift and unconditional victories, and that kind of victory was beyond the capacity of the war on poverty to deliver.
Harrington had initially been drawn to the concept of the culture of poverty because he thought it would serve as a prod to federal action on housing, medical care, education and jobs. What he did not anticipate was that the theory could cut in other ways, antithetical to his values and policy preferences. Conservatives took the attitudes and behaviors Harrington saw as symptoms of poverty and portrayed them as its direct causes.
In his 1984 book, “Losing Ground,” Mr. Murray argued that welfare programs abet rather than ameliorate poverty. The book dismissed Harrington’s prescription for ending poverty, and Harrington returned the favor. In “The New American Poverty,” published the same year, he called Mr. Murray the right-wing equivalent of a “vulgar Marxist,” a social theorist who believed in a “one-to-one relationship between the economic and the political or the psychological.”
Harrington’s culture-of-poverty thesis was at best an ambiguous impediment to understanding — in later books, he made no use of the term. But in its moral clarity, “The Other America” was ultimately optimistic; it was less an indictment and more an appeal to Americans to live up to their better instincts.
Since Harrington’s death from cancer in 1989, at 61, no obvious successor has assumed the role of socialist tribune that Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas and then Harrington so eloquently filled. We are left instead with the insistent, culturally determined arguments of Mr. Murray and others of like mind, dominating the discourse in a harsher America. And we have no Michael Harrington to answer the challenge.
Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College, is the author of “The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington.”