(Re)Discovering Harrington’s Other America
By Phillip Logan, Remarks by David Duhalde
This year is the 50th Anniversary of Michael Harrington’s groundbreaking, if not controversial, The Other America. While some have accused Harrington of providing the seeds of right-wing reaction with his assertion of ‘the culture of poverty’ amongst the American working poor, Harrington’s monumental text was the catalyst to Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Great Society’. In this current time of economic crisis, the seats of power in our nation are addressing our perilous economic crisis by declaring a war on poor people vs. the war on poverty waged by the Johnson administration several decades ago. Long-time DSA member David Duhalde, a graduate student enrolled at Brandeis University, seeking both a Masters of Public Policy and a Masters of Business Administration, kicked off the (Re)Discovering Harrington’s Other America’, a commemorative symposium that celebrates Harrington’s legacy, while examining the state of poverty in America 50 years later. Here are his opening remarks:
“I want to welcome everyone to “(re)Discovering Harrington’s Other America: A Symposium on Poverty Since the Great Society.” We’ve gathered here today partly to celebrate the publication of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America: Poverty in the United States.” Released in 1962, the short book helped inspire the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to launch a “War on Poverty.” We are also convening because a half a century later poverty is still with us. Then and now, there is another America living in poverty away from the view of the affluent society.
In fact, there are more marginalized Americans today than fifty years ago. As a Masters in Public Policy student concentrating in Poverty Alleviation, commemorating such an anniversary may seem natural. My inspiration to be part of this symposium came from the Democratic Socialists of America’s “The Other America is our America” campaign. Harrington played large role in founding DSA, and pushed the organization to fight poverty. I discovered DSA through another socialist and Harrington fan, my father Alejandro.
Growing up, my father occasionally told me a story from the Other America. Harrington volunteered with the Catholic Worker in New York City. The Catholic Worker was an Catholic-Anarchist run shelter led by Dorothy Day. Before Americorps, this was an excellent venue for a young idealist to take a vow of poverty and work with the poor people’s organizations. My father told me that an unhoused man saw Harrington in the street after his tenure at the Catholic Worker had ended. Harrington was in new clothes, not the uniform of hand me downs the Catholic Worker mandated. The poor man was proud that Harrington had “wised up,” and he seemed to be doing well. The irony, for those that knew him, was Harrington was a notoriously shabby dresser. What my father didn’t tell me was that the poor man also told Harrington: “Mike. Hanging around here, helping us, that’s nothing. Only nuts would do it.”
Reflecting on this, Michael Harrington wrote: “They were happy that I left [the Catholic Worker]. They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to care for them.” At Brandeis, we might see their self-disgust and feeling undeserving is partly born out of classic American liberalism and fully embodied by their alienation from society. Their behavior is symbolic of many attitudes towards and of the American poor, then and now. In the current American landscape, we have some traditional “other Americas:” urban slums, rural poverty, the unhoused, and the working poor. But unlike the 1960s, we have a vastly larger undocumented population, millions behind bars away from the labor market, and growing inequality between people of color and whites even after the passage of civil rights. While the nature of poverty has changed, as we certainly have seen a reduction of elderly poverty since the Great Society, Harrington would remind us today that the continuance of poverty is structural, not behavioral. And good policy and organized people were the only way to combat it. In that spirit, the symposium organizers have designed this event to be a balance of academic critiques of poverty with advocates fighting to eradicate conditions of inequality on the front lines. “
From then on, a wonderful array panels ranging from seminars on home foreclosures to workshops on undocumented youth; the major themes of poverty in American society were addressed with great academic rigor and scholarly acumen. While Michael Harrington is no longer with us, we should look back on his legacy as an inspiration to push us to the next level in our struggle for democratic socialism.