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International Socialist Review, Fall 1962


Maria di Savio

The Invisible Third


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, pp.121-122.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Other America: Poverty in the United States
by Michael Harrington
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962; 191 pages; $4.00.

Besides including up-to-date facts and statistics, this book by a young man originally from the Catholic Worker movement, now a reformist socialist, contributes some new ideas to the numerous studies of poverty in the US. Among these new facts are first, that the poor are, paradoxically, extremely numerous yet “invisible,” and second, that there is a psychology of poverty.

Harrington gives the figure of 50,000,000 people or 25% of the total population, as the number of American poor, using an annual income of $3,500 for an urban family of four as the cut-off figure. He expands the number of poor, however, when discussing what he calls the American “welfare state.” He contends that the “lower third,” economically speaking, is not benefitted by our “welfare state” that, instead, caters to the “middle third.” Anyway, whether it is one-third or one-fourth of the nation that is poor, it is the author’s thesis that the poor are “invisible.” How could such a large section of the population be invisible to the rest? Primarily because slums (both rural and urban) and ghettoes are far from the eyes of suburbia and the urban middle class. In addition, cheap mass produced clothes can give anyone a respectable appearance. Harrington notes, “it is much easier in the United States to be decently dressed than it is to be decently housed, fed, or doctored.”

The second “new” fact of The Other America is hardly new to socialists, but to the person brainwashed by the bourgeois philosophy that only the lazy and/or wicked are poor, the emphasis Harrington gives to the psychology of poverty can be surprising – and instructive. The title of the chapter in which he specifically describes the emotions of poverty is called The Twisted Spirit. As throughout his book, Harrington here backs up his conclusions with facts from reputable studies, and infuses an element of immediacy with his own experiences while doing voluntary work in Catholic Worker houses. In this chapter, he cites a study by Hollingshead & Redlich, which discovered that the bottom fifth of the 100,000 people in New Haven, Conn., had 40% more treated mental illnesses than the top fifth. The study does not, of course, refer to those illnesses of the poor that remain untreated. In addition, the illnesses of the New Haven impoverished were qualitatively different: they were of a far more serious nature than those of the other groups in the community. As for the “vitality” of slum violence, glamorized by middle-class pseudo-Rousseaus such as the producers of West Side Story, Harrington points out that “this violence is the creature of that most artificial environment the slum. It is a product of human density and misery. And far from being an aspect of personality that is symptomatic of health, it is one more way in which the poor are driven to hurt themselves.”

Mr. Harrington’s wide range of experience leads him to include every aspect of poverty in his book, from the rural poor to the urban minority poor, including the newly unemployed who never knew poverty until automation bounced them from their jobs. Even the Bowery alcoholics and the voluntary “intellectual poor” – the Bohemians – are described and analyzed. Understandably, the writer’s sympathy becomes caustic in an undercurrent of irony, as shown in the title The Golden Years for the chapter detailing the physical and psychological degradation imposed on older people. This irony sometimes breaks out into angry denunciation of the callousness of the American “prosperous” majority. Here, of course, is where Harrington commits his gravest error: the majority of Americans are not prosperous, and we do not have a welfare state that is fattening up the “middle third.” Harrington himself cites the recent budget figure of about $6,140 annual income necessary for an urban family of four, as figured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the average weekly earnings of production workers in manufacturing is $95.91 (for March, 1962, as quoted in Monthly Labor Review, June, 1962), or less than $5,200 a year, obviously factory workers (those in this book’s “middle third”) are making less than the minimum necessary for anything but a substandard existence. (Harrington, if I remember correctly – and since there is no index, re-checking is difficult – does not give wages of production workers.)

The book’s solution to America’s poverty is utopian, based on gross misunderstandings of the nature of capitalism. While the author sees that “poverty in the United States is supported by forces with great political and economic power,” and that union leaders and liberals are in the same party as southern conservatives, he nevertheless suggests that the “friends of the poor ... the American labor movement and ... the middle-class liberals” should somehow pressure Washington to extend present welfare measures to the “lower third.” Harrington does not see that the essence of capitalism is the existence of two basic classes, and only one of these classes, the ruling class, can have social and economic security. The starving poor and the underpaid proletariat will suffer so long as capitalism exists.

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