Still Waging a War on Poverty

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It’s been 50 years since Michael Harrington’s The Other America shook the public with its depiction of poverty in America, inspiring the 1960s “War on Poverty.” To mark this anniversary, Kit Rachlis, editor-in-chief of The American Prospect, devoted his July/August issue to investigating just how far we’ve come.

Lauren Feeney: For those of us perhaps too young to remember, can you tell us about Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, and the impact that it had?

Kit Rachlis: The Other America came out in 1962, to almost deafening silence. It got a handful of modest and praising reviews, but sank without a trace, and Harrington himself went off to Paris to take a kind of leave. Before that, Harrington had been a socialist activist living a bohemian life in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he was a regular at the White Horse Tavern, and, I believe, was present the night Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there. He was asked to do one article, which morphed into two, for a magazine called Commentary (which at the time was a liberal left magazine; it would later become a symbol of neo-conservatism), on poverty.

When Harrington’s book came out, liberal Americans thought that the problem facing the country in 1962 was affluence, not poverty. People were talking about conformity in corporate life; the country’s need for a defining purpose. It was felt that the great issues of poverty that had plagued the country — and the world — for the entirety of mankind, had to a large degree been solved by industrialized might and democracy in the United States. And it’s indeed true that the in the ’50s the US became the first country in the history of the world to have a middle-class majority — a remarkable achievement. An achievement however, that blinded Americans — not just ordinary Americans, but also academics and policy folks and politicians — who thought that the problem of the “one third of a nation” who had been “ill-clad, ill-housed and ill-nourished,” as Roosevelt said during the Depression, had to a large degree been solved. In fact, at the time of Harrington’s book, about 25 percent of Americans were considered poor, a great improvement over the height of the Depression, but still a quarter of the country.

Harrington went out and documented the poor in the United States, and in the great vernacular became the man who “discovered” poverty. He wrote this remarkable book which probably would have disappeared, except that something quite special happened. The great critic Dwight MacDonald wrote a piece in the New Yorker nine months after the book came out declaring it the most important social book on American society written in the twentieth century. So all of this played a huge role in American’s perception that there were, in fact, poor people.

It is said that John Kennedy turned to his chief economic advisor a few days before he was assassinated and said, “We need to tackle poverty.” His economic advisor told Lyndon Johnson this, and it was one of the things that triggered Lyndon Johnson to launch the War on Poverty.

Feeney: Ronald Reagan famously said, “We waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” Is there truth to that?

Rachlis: No, I don’t think there is. We did wage a war on poverty, starting with the Johnson administration, and the figures are quite remarkable. At the start of the War on Poverty, about 25 percent of Americans were defined as poor. It dropped from 25 percent in 1962 to 11.1 percent in 1973. That’s an extraordinary achievement. It rose again up to about 15 percent, then dropped during the Clinton years. It is an achievement of a booming economy, and that should not be underestimated. But it’s also an achievement of two extraordinary things that the government did — the first was the poverty program, which improved the safety net and provided programs to the poor to get out of poverty. And then, perhaps the greatest achievement of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Bill, which gave African Americans, for the first time in 400 years of history, a chance to enter mainstream society and achieve middle class status and beyond. I don’t think you would have had nearly the achievement of the War on Poverty without the passage of those two bills.

Feeney: Your recounting of the statistics brought us up to the Clinton era. Where are we now?

Rachlis: We are back up about 15 percent, so the gains of the Clinton era have all been wiped out. The great recession has had a terrible, terrible effect. It has wiped out huge amounts of wealth in every class, ethnicity and race of Americans, with the exception of the top 1 percent. Our society is facing is twin frightening prospects: on one hand, this huge attack on the government by the right that could all but wipe out programs to help the poor, and at the same time, a global economy that is undercutting the ability of workers to get decent-paying jobs.

A street vendor sells fruit on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010, in Los Angeles. Amid the poverty and chronic joblessness, some residents say, officers mistreated them and were overly harsh in their enforcement of city ordinances. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Feeney: Your upcoming poverty issue has two fantastic long-form profiles of poverty. One is about a woman’s struggles to support her family in Owsley County, Kentucky — the poorest majority-white county in the country, where more families rely on food stamps than make the national median income . The other is about Latino immigrants in Los Angeles trying to get by as street vendors, with no legal right to peddle their wares or, in many cases, be in this country in the first place. For the family in Kentucky there’s at least a safety net. But what about the undocumented immigrants in LA?

Rachlis: The only safety net is provided by private organizations, but obviously none by the state, local or federal government. There are church organizations, immigrant organizations, community groups and so forth. But inadequate to the task. In L.A. County alone there are an estimated 750,000 immigrants that are there illegally.

Feeney: The story of the L.A. vendors brought tears to my eyes, having grown up with stories of my own great-grandparents peddling their way from the Lower East Side to a house with yard in New Jersey. This type of long-form reporting is said to be a dying art form, and yet it’s so powerful. How do we keep it alive?

Rachlis: I’m not convinced it’s a dying art form. I think you might have said that three or four years ago, but I think something has changed. Long form requires giving writers real time, not just to parachute in, but to truly understand the depths, levels, subtleties and complexities of what they’re writing about. And time of course means money, whether they’re on staff or freelance, to be able to do this. Among print publications, the number of places that are doing this is getting smaller. But the tablet I think is beginning to trigger a renaissance in long-form journalism. There’s an extraordinary site called the Atavist which is investing in long-form journalism, using the interactive tools that the iPad and other tablets offer. There are a few sites on the Web —, Longform, Longreads — that are celebrations of long form. I think among a new generation of journalists, precisely because they are living in a Twitter world and working for click factories where they’re judged by how much they produce and are not given time to think, report, or truly understand, but in fact are being encouraged to be glib, snarky and fast — they’re rebelling against that. So I think it’s really important not to assume that it’s a dying form. I actually think that we may be able to get into a renaissance.

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