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Re-examining poverty in America

Published: March 30, 2012
Section: Opinions


The Holy Cross-sponsored “The Other America Then and Now” poverty conference in Worcester brought together more than 100 participants, including nearly two dozen Brandeis students and staff last weekend. The conference demonstrated how much has been achieved and remains unfinished in efforts to eradicate unfair income inequality in America.

“The Other America,” published in 1962, was written by Holy Cross alumnus Michael Harrington. The book chronicled American poverty at a time of unprecedented prosperity for Americans of all social classes. Many citizens were shocked to learn from the relatively short work how economic growth was not helping millions of their fellow citizens. Key figures in the Kennedy administration read “The Other America,” pushing the president and his successor Lyndon Johnson to launch the War on Poverty.

The event, supported by the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice through the support of Jules Bernstein ’57, focused on a question raised by Dr. Alan Wolfe of Boston College: if a book today could have the same impact as “The Other America.” Wolfe noted the proliferation of books and blogs flooding the average reader. During Harrington’s time, magazines and publishing were more exclusive and prestigious. Voters and political figures highly regarded such publications and were used them more in policy implementation. Today the book tour is dead and we witness the demise of daily newspapers. While Americans remain politically engaged, more often they read online and watch biased documentaries.

There was also discussion of action in addition to education. A conference topic was how Harrington might view today’s Occupy movement. Harrington, an early supporter of civil rights for African Americans as a young man, likely would be very supportive of Occupy activists’ goals of addressing income inequality. Like the sit-ins of the ’60s, Occupy uses direct action to tackle larger political and structural barriers to social justice.

The clear message at the event was what is left to be done. In “The Other America,” Harrington addressed the idea of an “invisible poor.” The existence of mass poverty went unnoticed by well-to-do Americans. This book brought images of the struggling Appalachians to upper middle class suburbanites. The popular support for the expansion of social programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, generated by the book have greatly alleviated suffering and have lowered poverty rates.

A continually large segment of the unseen poor are the hard-working migrant farmers. Hundreds of thousands of these working poor are children. The vast majority of them have parents with undocumented legal status, so fear of deportation increases the exploitation of the young in agriculture. Norma Flores Lopez, of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity and a former child farmhand, spoke against current legislation aimed at reducing labor-law protections for children in the fields.

The new “invisible poor” are also the millions trapped in the penal system. Harvard Professor Bruce Western said that America has incarceration rates nearly five times as high as our counterparts in Europe. We lock people up to keep them away from “better society.” Our justice system has created a new “culture of poverty”: a vicious cycle that makes it difficult for ex-prisoners to re-integrate into the labor market and mainstream society. As Medicaid addressed a basic disadvantage for the working poor, we need new programs and visionary thinking to build a social safety net for those who have paid their debt to society.

The conference concluded with keynote speaker William Julius Wilson, one of America’s most prominent sociologists, arguing that analyzing both social structure and cultural behavior is necessary to understand poverty. Therefore, inner-city poverty is shaped by changes in the economy, like loss of unionized manufacturing jobs, and cultural issues of both racism and collective experiences of ghetto living. Wilson felt social critic Barbara Ehrenreich was mistaken in her recent criticism that Harrington’s work facilitated right-wing arguments focused solely on cultural explanations of poverty existence. Harrington cited unfair structural barriers as causes of inequality, while conservatives do not. Wilson pushed the audience to embrace anti-poverty programs such as Harlem Children Zone alongside traditional methods such as universal social assistance.

Wilson’s remarks exemplified that while poverty remains an unnecessary ill in the world’s richest nation, American creativity and commitment to its citizens can still reduce poverty in our lifetime.

This conference made me realize that there is still so much work to be done, but because of Harrington we were really able to get started on the issues of poverty much sooner than if he had not written “The Other America.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article at one point incorrectly referred to Harrington as the speaker who pushed the audience to embrace anti-poverty programs. The speaker was William Julius Wilson. We regret the error.