Published in the spring of 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America was a sweeping description of the country’s poor, combined with an appeal to the federal government and “better-off” to save them. It became one of the best-selling books ever authored by an American socialist, inspired the creation of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society regime, and has been routinely hailed as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. This year partisans of the welfare state are commemorating the golden anniversary of The Other America with a series of celebrations and renewed calls for government programs to save the poor once more.
Several of the left’s heavy hitters have penned op-ed pieces singing the book’s praises. Peter Dreier, writing in The Huffington Post, praised The Other America for causing Americans to “be ashamed to live in a rich society with so many poor people.” In The New York Times, Harrington’s biographer, Maurice Isserman, praised the book’s “moral clarity” and lamented that since Harrington’s death in 1989 “no one has assumed the role of socialist tribune” that “Harrington so eloquently filled.” In March there was a two-day conference at Harrington’s alma mater, Holy Cross, to honor his “seminal analysis of poverty” and present an array of new proposals for government policies on behalf of “the ‘Other America’ of today.”
What none of these celebrants has noted is The Other America’s profound and even jarring conservatism. The book is stridently paternalistic, hostile to what the left calls “multiculturalism” (and to African-American culture particularly), and it spawned an ideology that enabled the agents of the country’s elite to control the most intimate aspects of the lives of the poor.
Raised in an Irish-American family in St. Louis and educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten through college, Michael Harrington was shaped by what was then the institutional soul of conservatism. According to Isserman’s The Other American: The Untold Life of Michael Harrington (2000), “Apart from family, the presence that loomed largest” in the young Harrington’s life “was that of the Catholic Church.” Although he later left the Church and differed with its doctrines, Harrington, “as he would be the first to acknowledge, never shed their influence.” Paramount among these teachings was the injunction to seek out, raise up, and redeem the poor—an exhortation that merged seamlessly with the socialism he embraced as a young adult. As a pastor is to his flock, Harrington conceived of himself a father to the underclass.
Though rarely acknowledged, the paternalism of The Other America is naked and unabashed. Its central argument is that the poor are powerless to affect their own lives. They “generally are those who cannot help themselves” because they are “so submerged in their poverty that one cannot begin to talk about free choice.” Since the poor “are unable to speak for themselves” and “cannot help themselves,” their fate “hangs upon the decision of the better-off.” Unable to speak or even think for themselves, the poor need someone like the author himself, “a novelist as well as a sociologist.…They need an American Dickens to record the smell and texture and quality of their lives.”
Though it contains not a single word spoken by a poor person—perhaps a deliberate omission to demonstrate its argument—The Other America is nonetheless filled with descriptions of the innermost workings of the minds of the poor. They are “maimed in body and spirit,” “pessimistic and defeated,” and “victimized by mental suffering.” Unlike ghettos that had once been filled with striving immigrants, the other America “is populated by the failures,” “the less imaginative,” and “the defeated.” Poverty, in Harrington’s mind, defines the entire person. “Everything about [the poor], from the condition of their teeth to the way in which they love,” he wrote, “is suffused and permeated by the fact of their poverty.” Because the poor have “markedly different attitudes toward sex,” most of their children “never know stability and ‘normal’ affection.” There is “a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a world view of the poor.” They are “hopeless and passive, yet prone to bursts of violence; they are lonely and isolated, often rigid and hostile.” They all possess “a twisted spirit.” And yet they all managed to reveal themselves fully to the apparently omniscient sociologist.
Harrington, like most on the left, thought of himself as a countercultural bohemian, but his book betrays an elitist antagonism toward nonbourgeois behavior. In language no different from that used by Victorian moralists, Harrington asserts that the poor “do not postpone satisfactions.…When pleasure is available, they tend to take it immediately.” Related to their addiction to immediate gratification “is a tendency on the part of the poor to ‘act out,’ to be less inhibited, and sometimes violent.” Never having trained as a psychologist or placed any of his subjects on an analyst’s couch, Harrington nonetheless blithely concludes that every poor person in America “suffers from a psychological depression.”
Anyone who invokes The Other America in the course of justifying the welfare state should be forced to answer for its chapter on African Americans. In it, Harrington narrates his tours of Harlem from the detached and superior perspective of a zoologist. The neighborhood is marked by its “poverty and backwardness.” The clothing, food, and music, “like so many of the simple things in Harlem, have the smell of poverty about them.” Harrington takes special note of the food in Harlem, dismissing what would soon become celebrated as “soul food” as only “the things the white man did not want.”
It is also astonishing that no leftist, to my knowledge, has taken Harrington to task for his claim that the psychology of many blacks “at bottom is made of the same stuff as Amos ’n’ Andy: the laughing, childlike, pleasure-loving Negro who must be patronized and taken care of like a child.” Harrington could say this, of course, because he knew black people better than they knew themselves. In Harlem, he wrote, “You will find faces that are often happy but always, even at the moment of bursting joy, haunted.” Their minds contain nothing more than “the fear, the lack of self-confidence, the haunting.” To Harrington, there is no African-American culture apart from a “culture of poverty” and behaviors mimicked from whites. Unlike immigrants in other New York City neighborhoods, “There are no traditions of the ‘old country’ that bind Harlem as a Ghetto.…The people participate in the consumption cult of the white world.…They do not huddle together around a language and a common memory from overseas, saving, planning, waiting for the breakthrough, isolated from the lures of easy life in the magazines and on television.” One may wonder just how many residents of Harlem at the time—who included Malcolm X, congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, actor Billy Dee Williams, jazz greats Nina Simone and Sonny Rollins, the young Thomas Sowell, Lew Alcindor, and hip-hop pioneers Kurtis Blow, Keith Sweat, and DJ Red Alert—thought of their own lives as so simple, shallow, and pitiful.
Harrington saw nothing of value in black culture, but he was not a racist—he saw nothing of value in anything produced by poor people of any color. What he found in Appalachian towns populated by white hillbillies, for example, was “a sort of loose, defeated gaiety about the place, the casualness of a people who expected little.…In some ways, they resembled the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky Negro, and the truth in the description is about the same for both.” And as with blacks, Harrington could see not only into their souls but also into their futures: “It was relatively easy to guess which boys might end in a penitentiary, which girls would become pregnant before they were out of grade school.”
His argument that the poor suffer from a comprehensive degradation leads Harrington to prescribe a totalizing project: the elimination of “the cultures of the poor,” the “abolition of the neighborhoods” in which they live, and “the establishment of new communities” for them. Of course, according to Harrington, there is “only one institution in the society capable” of carrying out such a project: “That is the Federal Government.”
Though cultural conservatives have protested both the content and the legacy of The Other America, the book inspired a mission to remake the poor in their image. One of the few conservatives to recognize the continuity between the welfare state and his own ideology was Edward C. Banfield, a Harvard political scientist and future adviser to President Ronald Reagan, who in 1970 agreed with Harrington that “the lower-class individual lives from moment to moment.…His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for ‘action’ take precedence over everything else.…Impulse governs his behavior.… He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless.…[He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.” Banfield’s prescription, like Harrington’s, was for state paternalism. The poor should be cared for in “semi-institutions,” allowed “to have no more than two or three children,” and be subject to “surveillance and supervision from a semi-social-worker-semi-policeman.”
In fact, Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” deployed legions of social workers, armed not only with the power to extort proper behavior from the poor with welfare payments but also with the prevailing idea that their subjects should be treated as children, with restrictions imposed on their sex lives, leisure time, diet, spending habits, clothing, and grooming styles. In 1996 the welfare regime tightened its grip with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), signed into law by another Democrat, Bill Clinton. This “welfare reform,” as it was known, enforced the twin pillars of bourgeois culture: sexual repression and the Protestant work ethic. The act instituted “workfare,” making welfare payments available only to those who have jobs or participate in government make-work such as picking up leaves in public parks or removing trash from subway stations. Many who supported the bill argued not only that the poor needed to be weaned from their dependency on the state but also that they needed to learn what the Puritans brought with them to New England: the idea that work in itself, no matter how ill-paying or demeaning, is virtuous. The bill also appropriated $250 million for “mentoring, counseling, and adult supervision to promote abstinence from sexual activity.” Welfare recipients were to be taught “the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity,” that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity,” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”
Welfare recipients are now instructed in how to improve their attitudes and demeanor so as to be more employable. In Michigan, Florida, Georgia, and Utah, they are subject to drug testing as a condition of their benefits. Bills are now before 23 state legislatures that would require testing for people who apply not just for welfare but also in some cases for food stamps, public housing, job training, and even home heating assistance.
Although few of its left-wing supporters or right-wing detractors know it, our welfare state represents the unity of their cultural values. It is the dream of Republicans, justified by the ideas of a socialist and enacted by armies of progressive do-gooders, of eliminating not just “the other America” but any other America.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).
Find this and hundreds of other interesting books at the Reason Shop, powered by Amazon.