Re-reading Michael Harrington’s The Other America

Re-reading Michael Harrington’s The Other America

When Michael Harrington’s The Other America was published in 1962, Larry Moore was in elementary school on the north side of Milwaukee. His parents had moved from the rural south a few years earlier to find work in an African-American neighborhood in the industrial Midwest—the kind of densely populated slum where, Harrington feared, “the poor [were] increasingly slipping out of the very experience and consciousness of the nation.”

Today Moore is executive director of the Metcalfe Park Residents Association—Metcalfe Park is one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. He’s a compact, muscular man with the sort of efficient, world-weary air carried by high school principals of a certain age. From a small office on top of a North Avenue storefront, Moore helps connect neighborhood residents with social services or sympathetic lawyers, and he oversees development projects funded through Community Development Block Grants.

By some important measures, Metcalfe Park’s citizens are in less desperate shape than they were a decade ago. But it is still true that in the year 2000, after seven years of economic boom and five years of aggressive welfare reform, a third of the neighborhood’s tax filers with dependents—people getting out of bed and going to work to provide for their children—were living below the official poverty line, even after factoring in their earned income tax credits (EITC). Bear in mind that the official poverty line is $11,940 for a household of two and $18,100 for a household of four. A saner definition of poverty would include a much larger fraction of Metcalfe Park residents.

You might imagine—and some people did imagine, back when Wisconsin’s welfare reform was enacted in the mid-1990s—that the scarcity of decent jobs would by now have people at the barricades. There are precedents: Milwaukee’s early socialist movement fought for the eight-hour work day (at the cost of seven workers fatally shot by the state militia in 1886) and campaigned for public works jobs long before the New Deal. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, civil rights organizations picketed the city’s informally segregated factories, challenging racist employers and unions to behave decently. For a few years, the local labor movement as a whole was on fire: teamsters and dockworkers launched wildcat strikes in 1972.

So far, no such militancy has re-emerged in the era of welfare reform. Metcalfe Park’s civic leaders are devoting most of their energy this year not to fighting for jobs but to coping with street crime. Although violent crime has declined in the neighborhood by 40 percent since 1993, it’s still felt on a visceral level as a crisis, something that wrecks everyday life even more seriously than unemployment. In the summer of 2001, a Metcalfe Park youth gang called the Murda Mobb committed a highly publicized series of killings; one of their victims was the son of a well-known l...