The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives
By Sasha Abramsky
Nation Books, $25, 368 pages
In 1962, Michael Harrington, a freelance journalist, published a book that hit the American public like a slap in the face. In a prosperous time, “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” described the tens of millions of poor Americans “maimed in body and spirit” — the desperate agricultural workers, malnourished seniors, struggling blacks and squalid alcoholics. “The Other America” punctured the mood of postwar triumphalism, alerting the most affluent society in the world to the hidden, or, as Harrington put it, “segregated” poverty in its midst.
It’s unclear whether President Kennedy actually read the book or read about it. Either way, it is fair to say that “The Other America” prompted Kennedy to turn his attention to the issue of poverty. After the assassination, Lyndon Johnson initiated the “War on Poverty,” which created Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps and expanded Social Security — programs that Harrington, broadly speaking, had put forward.
In Harrington’s day, the official poverty rate was nineteen percent — about 37 million Americans. (Harrington believed that it was more like 40 to 50 million.) The War on Poverty, however flawed, helped reduce the rate to around 11% by 1973. Thus it is not too much of a stretch to describe “The Other America” as a book that changed the nation.
But the change didn’t stick. Due to the Great Recession, falling wages and a growing disdain for the welfare state, the poverty rate is creeping up again — according to the Census Bureau, it was 15% in September of this year. And when you consider the ludicrous income threshold — $23,492 per year for a family of 4 or $11,720 for an individual — the percentage of Americans living in deprivation has to be much higher.
This troubling situation was the impetus for Sasha Abramsky, another journalist, to revisit Harrington’s territory fifty years later.