The Man who Discovered Poverty

Michael Harrington

Interviewed by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien last month, Mitt Romney tried to make a point about the struggling middle class, first, by saying he’s not worried about the very rich (so far, so good), and then with this blooper: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” It took the Democratic National Committee all but a day to field an attack ad featuring the CNN spot. Few mentioned that Romney’s fumbled message has been more or less the Democratic Party’s mantra—We’re all about the middle class. You’d have to flip back quite a few pages of American political history to find a president who crisscrossed the country saying, We need to do something for the poor. That president was Lyndon Johnson, though he and many others at the time had a galvanizer—a man and a book.

In March 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States hit the bookstores with slim expectations of sales and influence. Almost instantly it became a publishing phenomenon, and less than two years later Business Week and other outlets were calling it a classic, as the historian Maurice Isserman recounts in the current issue of Dissent magazine. President Kennedy either read the book itself or a lengthy review of it published in the New Yorker in February 1963, and he was inspired to begin shaping a national response. This became, under Johnson, the War on Poverty.

Harrington’s book was a revelation to early-1960s America. It was an exposé of abject poverty in what many fancied as “the affluent society,” the title words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 book. Harrington introduced middle-class Americans to the “invisible land” of the poor, and the operative theme was their invisibility. “They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen,” he wrote.

The 50th anniversary of The Other America is attracting some attention this month, at a time of preoccupation with the economy but not with the poor. With the noteworthy exception of an upcoming conference at Holy Cross College (Harrington’s alma mater in Worcester, Massachusetts), probably less attention will be paid to Harrington’s moral and religious bearings. But these were the sensibilities that informed him, the sensibilities of a self-described Catholic atheist.

“Forever Backsliding”

Those words—“Catholic atheist”—reveal a taste for paradox that he absorbed from one of his favorite writers, the happy Catholic warrior G.K. Chesterton. Harrington was arguably the last influential American socialist; he died of cancer at age 61 in 1989. In his highly readable and probing biography The Other American (published in 2000), Isserman noted that Harrington could “never shed the influence” of Catholic teachings and habits of thought. It was Catholicism that gave the Marxist “a sense of moral gravity,” Isserman wrote.

Harrington was an only child of devout Irish Catholic parents who prospered in St. Louis (his father was a patent lawyer). As early as kindergarten, he would go hungry by slipping his lunch money into the missionary-donation box at St. Rose’s Parish, according to his biographer. But Catholics are “forever backsliding, de-converting,” Harrington observed in his 1988 autobiography The Long-Distance Runner. And so was he, though not forever.

In the late 1940s he lost his faith while studying literature in graduate school at the University of Chicago. He found it in New York during the early 1950s when he joined the Catholic Worker movement and became a favorite of its saintly founder, Dorothy Day. Harrington practiced voluntary poverty and ladled out soup to the Lower East Side’s homeless for a couple of years, before he concluded once and for all that he could not believe. He became a Marxist of the anticommunist variety, and remained one for the rest of his life.

Good-natured and uncommonly civil in ideological exchanges, Harrington had a lively intellect and a gift for the written and spoken words. He was able to “convey moral seriousness without lapsing into moralism,” Isserman notes in the Dissent piece. But his passions and talents were poorly spent on years of infighting in the terminally fractious socialist movement.

In 1972 he suffered a humiliating setback: a curious, pro-Vietnam War labor faction took over the Socialist Party, which Harrington headed. As Isserman points out, it might have been a good time for him to rethink his socialist commitments and strike out on his own as an independent social critic. Instead he chose to start all over again with a new democratic socialist organization. His explanation was oddly religious: “Protestants can, if need be, worship and serve God on their own; a Catholic needs infrastructure,” said Harrington, who raised two boys with his Jewish wife, Stephanie.

The Mumbling God

In The Long-Distance Runner, Harrington wrote that during his months of radiation treatment in 1985, he would hear an inner voice reciting Mary’s Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord….” He said the voice even spoke in Latin: Magnificat anima me…. He reexamined his unbelief, but realized again that while he never stopped loving Catholicism and its rituals, he could not believe in God.

Incongruously perhaps, the atheist added that he was not afraid of meeting his Maker. “In case I did encounter God face-to-face,” Harrington recalled telling his cousin, a nun, “I was going to accuse Him (Her?) of mumbling to humankind.”

Revisiting Harrington’s legacy in his engaging Dissent essay, Isserman points out that 50 years after The Other America, “the poor are still among us—and in a testament to the lasting significance of Harrington’s work, not at all invisible.” I could quibble with “not at all,” but Isserman puts a finer point on the matter near the end of his article. “The poor never returned to the invisibility that had been their fate in the 1950s, before the publication of The Other America; but concern over their condition never returned to the list of national priorities, not even”—Isserman rightly specifies—“in years of Democratic political ascendancy.” …read more

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