This self-portrait by Egon Schiele serves us as an indicator that this article is about poverty.
We are printing this extract from The Other America, Michael Harrington’s classic exposition of poverty in the United States, published in 1962 during the Kennedy administration, in recognition of Donna Cooper of our editorial board, who pointed out that, say what the economists may say about the reduced inequality of the post-war years, some Americans were still poor and starving during those years.
The Invisible Land
There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known.
In the 1950s this America worried abut itself, yet even its anxieties were products of abundance. The title of a brilliant book was widely misinterpreted, and the familiar America began to call itself “the affluent society.” There was introspection about Madison Avenue and tail fins; there was discussion of the emotional suffering taking place in the suburbs. In all this there was an implicit assumption that the basic grinding economic problems had been solved in the United States. In this theory the nation’s problems were no longer a matter of basic human needs, of food, shelter and clothing. Now they were seen as qualitative, questions of learning to live decently amid luxury.
Norman Rockwell’s depiction of Affluent America in the Fifties
While this discussion was carried on, there existed another America. In it dwelt somewhere between 40,000,000 and 50,000,000 citizens of this land. They were poor. They still are.
To be sure, the other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country has escaped such extremes. That does not change the fact that tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency. If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do. They are without adequate housing and education and medical care.
The government has documented what this means to the bodies of the poor, and the figure will be cited throughout this book. But even more basic, this poverty twists and deforms the spirit. The American poor are pessimistic and defeated, and they are victimized by mental suffering to a degree unknown in suburbia.
This book is a description of the world in which these people live; it is about the other America. Here are the unskilled workers, the migrant farmworkers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life. In all this there will be statistics, and that offers the opportunity for dis agreement among honest and sincere men. I would ask the reader to respond critically to every assertion, but not to allow statistical quibbling to obscure the huge, enormous and intolerable fact of poverty in America. For, when is all said and done, that fact is unmistakable, whatever is its exact dimensions, and the truly human reaction can only be outrage.
Poverty in Appalachia in the Fifties
The millions who are poor in the United States tend to become increasingly invisible. Here is a great mass of people, yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.
I discovered this personally in a curious way. After I wrote my first article on poverty in America, I had all the statistics down on paper. I had proved to my satisfaction that there were around 50,000,000 poor in this country. Yet I realized I did not believe my own figures. The poor existed in the government reports; they were percentages and numbers in long, close columns, but they were not part of my experience. I could prove that the other America existed, but I had never been there.
My response was not accidental. It was typical of what is happening to an entire society, and it reflects profound social changes in this nation. The other America, the America of poverty, is hidden today in a way that it never was before. Its millions are socially invisible to the rest of us. No that wonder so many misinterpreted Galbraith’s title and assumed that “the affluent society” meant that everyone had a decent standard of life. The misinterpretation was true as far as the actual day-to-day lives of two-thirds of the nation was concerned. Thus one must begin a description of the other America by understanding why we do not see it.
There are perennial reasons that make the other America an invisible land.
Poverty is often off the beaten track. It always has been. The ordinary tourist never left the main highway, and today he rides interstate turnpikes. He does not go into the valleys of Pennsylvania where the town looks like the movie sets of Wales in the thirties. He does not see the company houses in rows, the rutted roads (the poor always have bad roads whether they live in the city, in towns or on farms), and everything is black and dirty. And even if he were to pass through such a place by accident, the tourist would not meet the unemployed men in the bar or the women coming home from a runaway sweatshop.
Then, too, beauty and myths are perennial masks of poverty. The traveler comes to the Appalachians in the lovely season. He sees the hills, the streams, the foliage—but not the poor. Or perhaps he looks at a rundown mountain house and remembering Rousseau rather than seeing with his eyes, decides that “those people” are truly fortunate to be living the way they are and that they are exempt from the strains and tension of the middle class. The only problem is that “those people,” the quaint inhabitants of those hills, are uneducated, underprivileged, lack medical care, and are in the process of being forced from the land into a life in the cities where they arte misfits.
These are normal and obvious causes of the invisibility of the poor. They operated generation ago; they will be functioning a generation hence. It is more important to understand that the very development of American society is creating a new kind of blindness about poverty. The poor are increasingly slipping out of the nation.
Michael Harrington somewhere says what America needs is its own Charles Dickens to dramatize the very real poverty that exists here just as it did in Victorian England.
If the middle class never did like ugliness and poverty, it was at least aware of them. “Across the tracks” was not a very long way to go. There were forays into the slums at Christmastime; there were charitable organizations that brought contact with the poor. Occasionally, almost everyone passed through the Negro ghetto or the bl0cks of tenements, if only to get downtown to work or entertainment. Now the city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. Middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip may catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theatre, but their children are segregated in suburban schools. The business or professional man may drive along the fringes of slums in a car or bus, but it is not an important experience to him. The failures, the unskilled, the disabled, the aged, and the minorities are right there, across the tracks, were they have always been. But hardly anyone else is.
In short, the very development of the American city has removed poverty from the living, emotional experience of millions upon millions of middle-class Americans. Living out in the suburbs it is easy to assume that ours is an affluent society.