Skeletons In The Affluent Closet

Skeletons In The Affluent Closet

THE OTHER AMERICA, by Michael Harrington. Macmillan, 1962. 191 pages.

WEALTH AND POWER IN AMERICA, by Gabriel Kolko. Frederick A. Praeger, 1962. 178 pages.

Those who have been preoccupied by the marvels of American affluence often forget that beneath it all is a heavy layer of extraordinary poverty. The poor in this country suffer from no temporary aberration of the economic system, but are subjected rather to a persistent and degrading suppression of their living standards and whatever humanity they had once possessed. There are perhaps fifty million of them, more than a fourth of the population in the richest, most powerful nation in the world.

This is the well-sustained thesis of Michael Harrington’s passionate and angry book. America’s poor, says Harrington, are the strangest in history— they are invisible. The average traveler on speedy turnpikes does not see the rundown company town where permanently unemployed loiter on street corners and in bars. Suburbanites at shopping centers no longer glimpse the poverty of downtown. And the poor have no one to speak for them. They seldom vote; they have no political voice. They are out of sight and out of mind.

Harrington has done well to remind us that affluence is not total. More important, he has revealed a hidden subculture of American society—one in which there is a set of values that statistics cannot possibly describe. It is a culture that perpetuates itself in endless desperation. With the welfare state beyond reach, these people are lonely, insecure, fatalistic, without pleasure.

Not content with a mere reading of government reports, Harrington sought out the poor. He wanted to know them as people. He visited the flea-bitten agencies that supply dishwashers to restaurants; he talked with workers cast adrift by automated industry; he assisted the Catholic Workers group in their remarkable mission on the Bowery; he served as a social worker in St. Louis. He came to know poverty as few “outsiders” know it today.

The poor, says Harrington, comprise the unseen work force of the city. They are the restaurant workers, the hospital employees, clerks in small shops, janitors, menial jobholders. Unprotected by most social legislation, they are unskilled and untrained, and more often than not are brutalized by unscrupulous employers and racketeer unions. They are displaced mine workers made idle forever by John L. Lewis’ desperate and secret deals with the coal operators. They are migrant farm workers, “hill-billies” hidden by the pleasant foliage of the Appalachians and the summer resorts of the Catskills. They are small farmers, the last of the yeomanry. They are Negroes, long-time habitants of our culture of poverty, usually at work, if at all in the lowest and poorest paying jobs. And they are the aged, of whom there are now more than ever before. (Harrington also includes the intellectual poor—the bea...