How the War on Poverty Stalled

THE NEW REPUBLIC, Kim Phillips-Fein, September 7, 2023

The study of poverty has flourished in recent decades. Why haven’t the lives of the poor improved?

In 1962, a 33-year-old freelance writer who had little institutional or academic standing published a book widely credited with helping inspire the creation of Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and food stamps—representing the commitment of the federal government to a war on poverty. No one expected The Other America to have such an effect, including its author, Michael Harrington, who insisted he’d be pleased if it managed to sell a couple of thousand copies. Instead, boosted by a glowing review in The New Yorker, it sold 70,000 in its first year.

Harrington came slowly to write about poverty. By the time he did, he was himself on the social margins, albeit by choice. He had grown up the only child of a middle-class family in St. Louis, gone to college, and flitted in and out of law school and a Ph.D. program in English. In the early 1950s, he joined the Catholic Worker movement, the radical lay Roman Catholic organization led by Dorothy Day, which asked believers to take a vow of poverty. He lived in the communal Catholic Worker house on Chrystie Street in New York’s Lower East Side, ministering to the impoverished denizens of the Bowery. As his spiritual faith waned, he left Day’s orbit and joined another band of outsiders: the Young People’s Socialist League, a groupof Trotskyists and former Socialist Party members who denounced the Communist Party and capitalism with nearly equal ferocity. That’s where he was when the editor of Commentary asked him to write an article looking into the problem of poverty in the “affluent society” (to quote John Kenneth Galbraith) of 1950s America.

The opening pages of The Other America set out the problem: There was a “familiar America” of postwar prosperity, of televisions and radios and automobiles and suburban homes, and then there was a shadowland—“another America”—of between 40 and 50 million people who lived in poverty. The poor might not be literally starving, as they were in other countries, but they were “maimed in body and spirit,” their lives twisted and deformed by material lack, and their existence “invisible” to the broader society.

Matthew Desmond’s latest book, Poverty, by America, sets out from a very different starting point. In the early 1960s, when Harrington published his book, poor people were hardly part of political discourse at all; today, there are few who would be so naïve as to claim to simply not know poverty exists in American society. As a result, Desmond presents his book not as an exposé but as an effort to answer the question: Why? Why is there still so much poverty in the United States? Poverty for Desmond is not the result of invisibility, of being left behind. Rather, the root cause of poverty is exploitation. People are poor because other people benefit from the presence of poverty: “To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor. Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves.”

Desmond is in many ways better placed than Harrington ever was to launch an appeal to the moral conscience of the nation. From precarious, just-about-middle-class origins, Desmond has risen to become the equivalent of academic royalty: He teaches sociology at Princeton University, has won the MacArthur “genius” grant, and received the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his 2016 book, Evicted, which made the striking argument that losing one’s home affected future economic chances and position at least as much as incarceration. Yet The Other America has a moral hopefulness that Poverty, by America cannot quite summon, and today’s political circumstances make it almost unimaginable that Desmond’s book will have a similar effect. The institutionalization of the study of poverty has changed what it means to chronicle it.

The Other America emphasized the tremendous variety of ways to be poor. Harrington wrote that American poverty deserved a novelist to chronicle its textures and sensibilities, and in the spirit of George Orwell going to Wigan Pier, he observed communities of impoverished people: migrant farmworkers; the aged poor; the alcoholic poor; the Black residents of poor, urban neighborhoods; bohemians who were “voluntarily” poor. But in all these cases, his analysis of poverty treated it as a problem, in large part, of exclusion. Poor people were those shut out of middle-class affluence. They lived in geographically remote regions, in segregated inner cities or in rural Appalachia. They lacked the skills and education to participate in the great postwar economic boom. Leaving some people out and including others, technology and progress generated poverty just as they generated wealth.

Perhaps the most famous idea in The Other America is that of a “culture of poverty,” Harrington’s borrowing of a concept developed by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, whose scholarship focused on poverty in Mexico. Being poor in the United States meant more than not having money; it was “a culture, an institution, a way of life.” On one level, Harrington was describing the escalating series of crises that might define life in poverty and prevent an individual from rising out of it. A child might develop asthma, an allergic response to a dusty, run-down building; her mother might have to miss work for a day to take her to the doctor. For a middle-class employee, this would be covered by a sick day; for a poor worker, it could mean getting fired. Lost wages might mean lost rent and then eviction. The older sister of the asthmatic child might then shoplift to get food or medicine or a trinket, leading to a stint in jail—and so forth. The complex web of forces that shaped the life of an impoverished person gave the lie to glib ideas about individualism whereby hard work equals upward mobility.