How the Other Half of America Still Lives

Sasha Abramsky Follows in Michael Harrington's Footsteps

The Way Things Were (and Are): In Michael Harrington’s day, the official poverty rate was 19%. In September of this year, it was 15%.
William Lovelace/Getty Images
The Way Things Were (and Are): In Michael Harrington’s day, the official poverty rate was 19%. In September of this year, it was 15%.

By Gordon Haber

Published December 18, 2013, issue of December 20, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.