Essay by Harold Meyerson. M
Michael Harrington’s The Other America, the book that first documented the existence of pervasive poverty within the postwar United States—then congratulating itself for being the world’s first majority-middle-class nation—struck American liberals like a thunderbolt after its publication 50 years ago. It became required reading among college students, particularly for that exceptional group of young people who went south, at considerable risk, to register black voters in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. It was required reading for journalists, labor activists, and Democratic reformers. It was read in the White House, where it provided at least some of the impetus for the War on Poverty. Martin Luther King Jr. joked with Harrington that “we didn’t know we were poor until we read your book.”
Returning from Europe at the start of 1964, a somewhat startled Harrington found himself acclaimed as “the man who discovered poverty” and was asked to come to Washington to help formulate Johnson’s war. For 12 days, he was immersed in round-the-clock meetings with cabinet members and administration economists. In a string of memos, Harrington recommended upgrading the quality and availability of education and health care and instituting massive public-works programs on a Rooseveltian scale. What ultimately emerged from the White House and Congress were programs boosting aid to education and setting up community organizations through which the poor could better themselves—good ideas as far as they went, Harrington believed, but not sufficient to the problem at hand.
Most of the memos Harrington wrote were co-authored with his friend Paul Jacobs, a onetime Trotskyite who two years later was to become one of the founders of the radical magazine Ramparts. Aware that they were improbable presidential policy advisers, they puckishly concluded many of their papers with the same punch line: “Of course, there is no real solution to the problem of poverty until we abolish the capitalist system.” Harrington, who was famous for counseling radicals to work for “the left wing of the possible,” was kidding. He also meant it.Read the entire essay by Harold Meyerson.
Harrington’s mission, like that of a number of writers and activists who emerged in the early 1960s, was to create a movement for justice. To the extent that he sought to create a specifically socialist movement—perhaps an impossibility on American soil—he failed, as in fact he expected to. To the extent that he sought to swell, deepen, and partially socialize American liberalism, he succeeded, at least for a time. But he had no illusions as to the depth and permanence of the challenges confronting the poor and working people. “In times of slow change or stalemate, it is always the poor who are expendable in the halls of Congress,” he wrote at the conclusion of The Other America. “There is no realistic hope for the abolition of poverty in the United States until there is a vast social movement, a new period of political creativity.” True then. Truer now.