The Other America (Michael Harrington) – Still Profoundly Important 52 years After First Published

TheOtherAmericaCover200In the latest edition of The Other America:  Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington, the 1962 classic study of poverty, Irving Howe wrote this in his introduction:

John Kennedy, who had been deeply moved by the suffering he had seen in West Virginia during the 1960 primary, asked Walter Heller, the Chairman of his Council of Economic Advisors, if there were anything to these new theories about poverty.  Heller told him that there was and gave him a copy of Mike’s book…

Shortly thereafter Kennedy decided to make the abolition of poverty a major domestic goal.” So books can sometimes (not very often) change the course of things.

How do I say this – what a book!  And reading it is such a reminder of the lingering challenge of poverty in America.  I could include so many key excerpts in this blog post (my handout has 78 excerpts/quotes from the book).  Here are just a few:

“The fate of the poor hangs upon the decision of the better-off. If this anger and shame are not forthcoming, someone can write a book about the other America a generation from now and it will be the same or worse.”
By the 1960s, poverty had become “invisible”…  The poor are increasingly slipping out of the very experience and consciousness of the nation.
How can you allow such a scandal to fester in this country?
The American poor are pessimistic and defeated.
But the real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group.
It is an ethical proposition, and it can be simply stated: in a nation with a technology that could provide every citizen with a decent life, it is an outrage and a scandal that there should be such social misery.

There are so many more; but you get the point…

At the end of my handout (and for my presentation), I share my six takeaways:

1.  There is great poverty in America.  It was terrible in its scope.  It got better.  Now, we have “regressed.”
2.  There are cycles of poverty.  (Poverty is truly multi-generational).
3.  There are clusters of poverty
• geographical clusters; “educational attainment” clusters; racial/ethnic clusters…
4.  We accomplish what we pay attention to… what we meet about, what we work on.  Issues that are “invisible,” that we “ignore” — we really do not accomplish much on such issues.
5.  And, the fact that there is such ongoing poverty in America…   well, we should be ashamed.  This is a big, bad deal.
6.  The solution to this ongoing problem will require:
• paying attention, over the long-haul (not “losing attention,” but “maintaining attention”)
• the creation of genuine solutions that, by their successes, instill hope.

I read almost a comparable number of business books as I do books on social justice and poverty.  I’m not quite sure what this does to me.  On the one hand, I am constantly thinking about what companies and organizations need to do to be successful and profitable.  On the other hand, I am constantly learning about ways so many people are “left behind” in our country.

But one thing I know is this – I think about what I read about.  And, if I think about it, and communicate it, maybe someone will be moved to action.  In both arenas…

Other AmericaBack to this book:  let me encourage you to read The Other America by Michael Harrington.  It is a “social justice classic,” which means it has stood the test of time, and is still worth reading.

And, don’t miss this lesson for those of us who cherish books.  When President Kennedy asked a question of a key advisor, that advisor gave him a book.  He read it, and then went to work on an agenda to tackle the issues raised by that book.


I will present my synopsis of The Other America today at noon at the Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare (in downtown Dallas — March 20, 2014).  I will repeat this same presentation at the April 3 gathering of the Urban Engagement Book Club.  We meet twice a month, in two different locations, generally to two completely different audiences.  The club is open to all.  Come join us.  Get times and locations here.


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