The Great Society III: Two Books-Two Eras

In 1962 Michael Harrington wrote a book called The Other America which was published by Macmillan Publishing Company and was read by millions. Harrington wrote that the middle class and the poor once lived in the same neighborhoods, or in neighborhoods that were right next to each other. When those who were more successful financially began collecting together in suburban neighborhoods they left behind a group of poor people who had not prospered and who lacked the education or the skills to prosper. These people lived in what Harrington called “pockets of poverty” that stubbornly persisted and that became more and more invisible to everyone else. He said,
“Now the American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. Middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip may catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theater, but their children are segregated in suburban schools. The business or professional man may drive along the fringes of slums in a car or bus, but it is not an important experience to him. The failures, the unskilled, the disabled, the aged, and the minorities are right there, across the tracks where they have always been. But hardly anyone else is.
In short, the very development of the American city has removed poverty, from the living, emotional experience of millions upon millions of middle-class Americans. Living out in the suburbs it is easy to assume that ours is, indeed, an affluent society.
Michael Harrington continues by arguing that the move of the more affluent to the suburbs is not the only factor that makes poverty invisible. He says, “Clothes make the poor invisible too: America has the best-dressed poverty the world has ever know…It is easier in the United States to be decently dressed than it is to be decently housed, fed, or doctored. Even people with terribly depressed incomes can look prosperous.” He continues by saying, “Then many of the poor are the wrong age to be seen. A good number of them (over 8,000,000) are sixty-five years of age or better; an even larger number are under eighteen.” “And finally,” he says, “the poor are politically invisible. It is one of the cruelest ironies of social life in advanced countries that the dispossessed at the bottom of society are unable to speak for themselves. The people of the other America do not, by far and large, belong to unions, to fraternal organizations, or to political parties. They are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized. They have no face; they have no voice…
The first step toward the new poverty was taken when millions of people proved immune to progress. When that happened, the failure was not individual and personal, but a social product. But once the historic accident takes place, it begins to become a personal fate.
The new poor of the other America saw the rest of society move ahead. They went on living in depressed areas, and often they tended to be depressed human beings…
Indeed, one of the most important things about the new poverty is that it cannot be defined in simple, statistical terms. Throughout this book a crucial term is used: aspiration. If a group has internal vitality, a will – if it has aspiration – it may live in dilapidated housing, it may eat an inadequate diet, and it may suffer poverty, but it is not impoverished. So it was in those ethnic slums of the immigrants that played such a dramatic role in the unfolding of the American dream. The people found themselves in slums but they were not slum dwellers.
 But the new poverty is constructed so as to destroy aspiration; it is a system designed to be impervious to hope. The other America does not contain the adventurous seeking a new life and land. It is populated by the failures, by those driven from the land and bewildered by the city, by old people suddenly confronted with the torments of loneliness and poverty and by minorities facing a wall of prejudice.
Obviously I cannot quote the entire book, but you can catch Michael Harrington’s drift even from these few quotations. Whether it was the power of his descriptions or the fact that LBJ wanted to complete the Kennedy agenda, or, as some contend, because of LBJ’s  own agenda, resulting from his time in Texas near the Mexican border and his own observations about poverty, within two years of the publication of Harrington’s book LBJ had declared “War on Poverty” and started the huge legislative roll- out of “The Great Society”.
Now we have a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray published by Crown Forum (Random House) in 2012. If Harrington’s The Other America was the “on” switch for the “Great Society, people are suggesting that Coming Apart may be the “off” switch because, if true, it wipes out any progress made as a result of the initiatives of “The Great Society” and provides ammunition for those who would wish to abandon the “War on Poverty”.
Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post reviewed Coming Apart on February 24, 2012. He says, “Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute…argues that today’s class separations threaten America’s very nature. On the one hand is a growing lower class characterized by insecure work, unstable families and more crime. On the other is a highly educated elite that dominates our commercial, political and nonprofit institutions but is increasingly isolated from the rest of America, particularly the lower class. Samuelson goes on to say, “Murray finds America’s evolving class structure threatening in two ways. First, it’s bad for the people involved. The lower class is less capable of caring for itself. The powerful elite is disconnected. Second, the new classes subvert social cohesion by weakening shared values that Murray calls America’s ‘founding virtues’—industriousness, commitment to marriage, honesty and religion.
Samuelson notes; “Murray is describing white America. In his main analysis, he omitted Latinos and African-Americans to debunk the notion that the country’s serious social problems are just the result of immigration or the stubborn legacy of slavery and racism.”
David Frum of The Daily Beast has written a comprehensive series of articles about the book Coming Apart. Frum finds the book flawed in a number of important ways. One section of his review is called “Social Science Minus the Science” First Mr. Frum says, “Despite all its perverse omissions and careless generalizations, Coming Apart deserves credit at least for this: It takes seriously the challenge of the reconstitution of America as a middle-class republic. At a time when many conservatives refuse to acknowledge the simple statistical fact of intensifying inequality, Murray has at least joined the discussion. Congratulations for that.”
But  Frum finds many problems with the book. First the author offers no solutions except a “civic Great Awakening” among the new upper class and a drastic reduction in the American welfare state. He quotes from Murray.
A man holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. If the same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then the status goes away. I am not describing a theoretical outcome, but American neighborhoods where once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t. Taking the trouble out of life strips people of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, ‘I made a difference”.
People are using this reasoning to justify their belief that the social programs of the 60’s and 70’s and even those from the 1930’s have not been effective, in fact they have undermined the American middle-class. Correlation does not, however prove causation. We could say that eating ice cream causes drowning because the incidence of both ice cream eating and drowning goes up in the summer, but this one is a no-brainer. We easily see the flaw. Since we are currently at the receiving end of a downturn in the economy and of a transition in the marketplace, we, the declining middle class, are feeling inexplicably that we may be to blame, that our joblessness is our fault, that our lack of optimism and, perhaps, our depressed state is something we did to ourselves. Mr. Murray also seems to suggest that this is true so he feeds right in to our vague feelings of guilt and not so vague feelings of personal failure. But there are so many factors that have played a part in this middle-class slide, such as globalization, technology in factories, technology in offices (almost no one has a secretary anymore), and even environmental concerns, catastrophes, and war. As Mr. Frum asks and as I would ask too, where is the proof that “government activity has caused…class disparities.” “Yet,” Frum continues, “at the end of the book, without ever suggesting any reason to believe that government is the problem, he insists that the reduction of government is the solution.”
This book is so popular and has raised so much fuss, not because of its rigorous scholarly approach to modern issues, but simply because it backs up the Republican agenda and suggests that it is time to turn the switch of government involvement in social issues to the “off” position. David Frum continues, “I found myself flipping from beginning to end of the book, punching searches into my Kindle, questioning whether I’d perhaps carelessly missed some crucial piece of evidence. But no. There is no evidence, not even an argument, just an after-the-fact assertion, pulled out of the hat. If we are going to use a scientific study to back up the kinds of damaging statements conservatives are making about so many Americans then we need a better source than this book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.